Fueled by the simplicity of red state-blue state election maps, some pundits have leaped to the conclusion that America is experiencing a landmark shift in traditional political allegiances, with poor, working-class voters leaving the Democratic Party to become "NASCAR Republicans," while wealthier voters join the ranks of an increasingly elite bunch of liberal, limousine-driving "Latte Democrats."
Not so, suggests David K. Park, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of a new study of how income influences state-by-state voting patterns.
"The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once proclaimed that the rich 'are very different than you or me,' and our study suggests that he was right, at least when it comes to voting patterns in some of our poorer Southern and Midwestern states," says Park.
Titled "Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State, What's the Matter With Connecticut?" and funded by the National Science Foundation, the study has sparked lively debate in political blogs since presented at the Midwest Political Science Association conference.
Park, a political scientist, collaborated on the research with Andrew Gelman, Ph.D., professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, New York; Boris Shor, Ph.D., assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago; and Joseph Bafumi, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.
For decades, Democrats have been viewed as the party of the poor, with Republicans representing the rich. Recent presidential elections suggested a reversal in this pattern, with Democrats performing well in richer "blue" states of the Northeast and West Coast, and Republicans dominating a central swath of poorer "red" states in the South and Midwest.
To reconcile this paradox, Park and his colleagues examined more than four decades of data on income and voting patterns and compared trends at the individual, county, state and national levels. Results shed light on what's really behind the seeming shift in rich-poor voter affiliations and debunk a number of common misconceptions about current political realities.
"Our results suggest that the popular journalistic image of rich latte-drinking Democrats and poor NASCAR Republicans is a gross oversimplification," Park says. "Income varies far more within states than average income does between states, and it is these with-in-state variances that explain national voting patterns."
The bottom line, the study suggests, is that little has changed in terms of income's general influence on individual voting patterns: in every presidential election since 1952, the richer a voter is, the more likely that voter is to vote Republican, regardless of ethnicity, sex, education or age.
What's changing, the researchers argue, is how differences in income are playing out at the county and state levels. A key finding is that relative income is a much stronger predictor of voting preferences in poor states than it is in rich states.
"We find that income matters more in 'red' America than in 'blue' America," the researchers explain. "In poor states, rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has a very low correlation with vote preference."
In Connecticut, one of the nation's richer states, researchers found little difference between the voting patterns of the state's richest and poorest residents. In Mississippi, the nation's poorest state, they found dramatic income-related differences, with rich voters twice as likely as poor to vote Republican.
The study also documents changing income-related voting patterns in counties across the nation. Rich counties, a longtime bastion of Republican support, are generally shifting toward the Democrats. And while Republicans maintain an edge among rich counties in poor southern states, they're doing so with slimmer margins.
These regional differences may be especially important, the researchers suggest, in understanding why the national news media is especially vulnerable to the misperception of the typical Democrat as a rich liberal living in a wealthy urban metro area.
After all, many of the nation's elite news media just happen to live in affluent coastal states, such as New York, Maryland, Virginia and California, where their neighbors and co-workers are likely to be both rich and Democratic. Most have little or no contact with voters in deep-red southern states, such as Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi, where rich counties still support Republicans and poorer counties still support Democrats.
"They thought about typical individuals, and since they mainly live in metro New York, or Washington, the typical Democrat they conjured up was a wealthy one, a 'limousine liberal.' At the same time, they conjured up a typical conservative as poorer, more religious, a 'NASCAR' Republican," says study co-author Boris Shor.
If income has less influence on voting patterns in rich "blue" states, as this study suggests, then what factors are motivating voters in these states?
"Maybe social or moral issues matter more in 'blue' states," Park speculates. "In other words, maybe 'values' matters more in 'blue' states than 'red' states. We're currently extending our research to include these additional factors."