Skip to content
 

Reconciling different claims about working-class voters

After our discussions of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s opinions about working-class voters (see here and here), a question arose on how to reconcile the analyses of Alan Abramowitz and Tom Edsall (showing an increase in Republican voting among low-education working white southerners), with Larry Bartels’s finding that “there has been no discernible trend in presidential voting behavior among the ‘working white working class.'”

Here is my resolution:

All the statistics that have been posted seem reasonable to me. Also relevant to the discussion, I believe, are Figures 3.1, 4.2b, 10.1, and 10.2 of Red State Blue State. In short: Republicans continue to do about 20 percentage points better among upper-income voters compared to lower-income, but the compositions of these coalitions have changed over time. As has been noted, low-education white workers have moved toward the Republican party over the past few decades, and at the same time there have been compositional changes so that this group represents a much smaller share of the electorate.

I think it’s reasonable to study this group and to understand their psychological motivations, just at it also makes sense to consider the psychological motivations of higher-income whites who tend to have more conservative economic attitudes and are more likely to vote Republican.

In particular, one thing we’ve found is that higher-income and higher-education voters tend to be more constrained in their political attitudes. For example, compare pro- and anti-abortion voters. Pro-abortion whites were over twenty percentage points more likely than anti-abortion whites to vote for Obama, and this difference was largest among high-income, high-education whites. In contrast, pro-abortion Hispanics and anti-abortion Hispanics voted nearly identically for president. Rich conservative whites are often showing a lot of consistency, or constraint, with highly conservative attitudes on economic and social issues.

The big picture, here, I think, is that we need to look at the entire electorate rather than picking out individual pieces. I find a lot to like in Thomas Frank’s book, but Kansas is only one state—actually, a state that’s been strongly Republican for nearly a century—and I think people were misled by taking it as a stand-in for the whole country. That’s one of the themes of Red State Blue State: political commentators focus on the parts of the country they know well, then they jump to generalizations about the rest of the country. This is what we discuss in chapters 2 and 3 of the book.

Also, the term “blue collar,” which is sometimes used, ratchets the Republican-ness up another notch, as it is typically men, not women, whose jobs are categorized as blue collar.

Finally, I think there is something to the conservative talking point about public employees, the idea that some people (in particular, ethnic minorities and public sector employees) are beneficiaries of taxes whereas other people (often in the private sector) are payers of taxes. And this sort of personal experience does inform one’s political ideology, even though the correlation is not 100%, for example military officers tend to be conservative and Republican.

In most groups of the population—especially the more conservative and Republican groups—richer people are more conservative. For example, military officers are much more conservative than military enlisted personnel. This is one reason why I think that people such as Haidt who study psychology of voting should look at upper-class as well as lower-class voters. As I noted earlier, lower-class whites (especially in the south) may well be trending Republican, but upper-class whites are even more strongly in the Republican camp, and it’s worth understanding their motivations as well.

14 Comments

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    The absolute core of the New Deal coalition was white married men with wage rather than salary jobs. There has been a striking shift in voting among them over the generations.

    • Andrew says:

      Definitely. The pattern of rich/poor voting hasn’t changed but the composition of the upper-income Republicans and the lower-income Democrats has changed a lot. Also, as political scientist Thomas Ferguson has noted, there have been correspondingly large shifts in the industries that have supported the two parties.

  2. numeric says:

    The popular literature is all awash with claims that white working class voters tendency (greater than the purported “class” interests) is due to racism (recent article in the New Republic discussed the prevelance of racial resentment in lower-middle class voters in the upper Midwest). Does this ever make it’s way into the academic political science literature (references, please)?

    • Andrew says:

      Numeric:

      Yes, there have been some survey experiments using the “list experiment” method that have attributed some anti-Obama voting to racism. But I don’t think this is restricted to working-class voters in particular, but rather to whites in general. There’s also been work on racial voting among ethnic minorities.

      • numeric says:

        From http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/the-hatred-that-dare-not-speak/

        That’s why I was recently intrigued to see a map that showed the county by county results of the 2008 election. It showed, in brown, the counties in which Obama ran behind Kerry’s totals in 2004 by 7% of more. These counties form a clear pattern, a rough crescent that begins in southwest Virginia, runs through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and peters out in Oklahoma.

        This pattern raises a number of questions, and let’s begin with this one: What do we call the people who live in these counties? Terms like “redneck” and “hillbilly” come to mind, but they bring their own emotional baggage. It’s much better — because less offensive — to say that they’re “crackers,” in the spirit of Gerald McWhiney’s Cracker Culture (1989).

        So what can we say about crackers, the people who refused to vote for Obama in such significant numbers? The easy, obvious, and not untrue, thing to say is that they’re racists; these are after all white people who refused to vote for a black man. But to leave it at that is to give in to the common practice of using “racist” and “racism” as verbal stones to throw at people.

        This is the sort of thing I’m referring to. It would seem to be easy enough for some enterprising graduate student to run these counties against ANES data and see what is different about these whites (“feeling thermometers”, etc).
        My guess is that your statement “But I don’t think this is restricted to working-class voters in particular, but rather to whites in general” is wrong–I think it is lower-class, evangelical whites. The reason we don’t see it in other counties is that minorities/educated whites went up for Obama over 2004 Kerry. These counties in the “crescent of hillbillism” are more homogenously lower-class evangelical white. I maintain an open mind on this and am willing to consider evidence, but it seems to me the “crescent” is something any science would immediately pounce on and at least attempt to explain.

        • E says:

          Wondering what motivates people to want to believe that poor white people are flocking to Republicans. Maybe this has something to do with it? (I think Steve Sailor actually referenced this one time…)

          From Bonfire of the Vanities

          When it was over, the three of them looked at one another, and Glenda, the English baby nurse, spoke up, with considerable agitation.
          “Well, I think that’s perfectly disgusting. The colored don’t know how good they’ve got it in this country. … Why, there was an article just the other day. There’s more than two hundred coloreds who are mayors in this country. And they want to bash the Mayor of New York about. Some people don’t know how well off they are, if you ask me.”
          She shook her head angrily.
          Kramer and his wife looked at each other. He could tell she was thinking the same thing he was.
          Thank God in heaven! What a relief! They could let their breaths out now. Miss Efficiency was a bigot. These days the thing about bigotry was, it was undignified. It was a sign of Low Rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor taste. So they were the superiors of their English baby nurse, after all.

          I will put aside for the moment some nagging questions: if racism was the reason why the “crackers” didn’t vote as much for Obama as Kerry, wouldn’t you expect that deficit to exist (even more so) for the “deep south”? (It didn’t.) And, is it just possible that these guys were positively motivated to vote for John McCain (who shares the same ethnic background, not to mention military service and orn’ry personality) as they do? Are we permitted to consider the hostile attitude towards coal mining shown by the Obama campaign as perhaps a contributing factor?

          More importantly, I think one reason why some left-leaning people were attracted to the Thomas Frank thesis is that it allowed indebted college graduates earning relatively low “social worker/teacher/non-profit” type salaries to engage in revenge fantasies about their non-college educated (but oftentimes wealthier and not indebted) rivals.

          And yes, I do think upper income (and upper class, in general) people are capable of having racist attitudes. I also think its entirely possible that lower-income whites who have racist attitudes would still vote for Democrats for classically economic reasons.

          • Andrew says:

            E

            One of the conceptual challenges to people on both sides is that each party gets about 50% of the vote, and those 50% have a mix of reasons for voting the way they do. One of my problems with common interpretations of Thomas Frank’s book is that Kansas has been voting Republican for close to 100 years, and rich Kansans are much more Republican than poor Kansans, so (1) no need to search for recent explanations for conservative Kansas voting, and (2) if you want to look at Republicans in Kansas, no need to focus on the working class.

            P.S. I know a lot of social workers and none of them seem to have “revenge fantasies.” Really I think social workers are the last sort of people to think that way!

          • numeric says:

            I will put aside for the moment some nagging questions: if racism was the reason why the “crackers” didn’t vote as much for Obama as Kerry, wouldn’t you expect that deficit to exist (even more so) for the “deep south”? (It didn’t.) And, is it just possible that these guys were positively motivated to vote for John McCain (who shares the same ethnic background, not to mention military service and orn’ry personality) as they do? Are we permitted to consider the hostile attitude towards coal mining shown by the Obama campaign as perhaps a contributing factor?

            Whites in the Old Confederacy are already at such a low level of support for Democrats that they can’t go any lower. So there is no expectation of the deficit being greater in the deep south. Also, I do not expect the participation in the military to be any lower in the deep south than in the cracker crescent. Most of these states do not mine coal in any appreciable amount.

            I have a simple story. Lower class evangelical whites (crackers) voted much more against Obama than they did against Kerry. It can be picked up on country returns in the crescent because these voters constitute a majority in the crescent. It cannot be picked up on county returns elsewhere because they are more intermingled with highly-educated whites who supported Obama at a higher rate than they did Kerry, so the percentage of the white vote for Obama was not much different. It was just different whites. This is somewhat consistent with both the work of Kinder and Ansolabehere and Kinder’s work on the 2008 election, which came to seemingly disparate conclusions (Ansolabehere’s was that racism was about 1% of the difference, Kinder was about 5%–the numbers as stated don’t agree but the gist of my reconciliation should be clear).

  3. MB says:

    “And this sort of personal experience does inform one’s political ideology, even though the correlation is not 100%, for example military officers tend to be conservative and Republican.”

    While it is fair to generalize about public services expanding moreso under Democratic governments than under Republican ones, the military might be an exception. Are Republicans more apt to expand the military budget? If so, military officers may not be an exception to your observation that public employees shape their political ideologies in part based on monetary incentives.

  4. zbicyclist says:

    “the correlation is not 100%, for example military officers tend to be conservative and Republican.”

    Republicans tend to be more vocal supporters of the military. I don’t see this as any different from teachers supporting Democrats, and Democrats tending to be more vocal supporters of teachers unions.

  5. numeric says:

    From http://www.tnr.com/book/review/end-race-obama-2008

    Donald R. Kinder and Allison Dale-Riddle have set out to investigate how exactly the foregrounding of race affected the last presidential election. It is certainly a question that political scientists have attended to in the years since the vote. Stephen Ansolabahere and Charles Stewart III, writing a couple of months after the election, claimed bluntly that “Obama won because of race,” crediting energized minorities for propelling him to the presidency. John Sides, in a back-of-the-envelope analysis in early 2009, found that Obama would have gained only a single percentage point among white voters if everyone who had a less favorable view of blacks was somehow made free of prejudice. But since then several academic studies have come out finding, to varying degrees, that race did in fact cost Obama in 2008.

    • Andrew says:

      Here’s my reaction to Ansolabehere and Stewart’s claim:

      Ansolabehere and Stewart also write, “had Blacks and Hispanics voted Democratic in 2008 at the rates they had in 2004 while whites cast 43 percent of their vote for Obama, McCain would have won.” I don’t think that’s really a reasonable model, though, because that would be assuming that Obama would’ve outperformed Kerry more among whites than among nonwhites, which hardly seems plausible. To put it another way, Obama’s baseline swing among any group is his national swing, not zero. Given the state of the economy in November 2008, zero just doesn’t make sense as a baseline.

      Similarly, Ansolabehere and Stewart write, “Had Obama relied only on a surge among young voters, holding other groups at the 2004 voting behaviors, he would have fallen short of victory.” Again, I think this is slightly misleading: Obama’s strategy was not to do better only young voters but rather to improve upon Kerry’s performance in general, but piling up a particular margin among the young. Which is what he did.

  6. Jonathan says:

    This is also an article that you might want to take a hatchet to (just saying)…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/opinion/sunday/conservatives-are-happier-and-extremists-are-happiest-of-all.html?_r=2

  7. […] the same dispensation exists across much of the old Confederacy, where white voters in lower income brackets  will faithfully vote for Romney despite his sneers at them. Across the red states generally – from Mississipppi, Arkansas, and […]