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It's election season in the United States and something that you tend to hear from domestic and international pundits is that:

Lower income workers tend to vote Republican...

which also tends to be restated using the stereotype:

... while Republicans are mostly low and middle-income folk, for example, ...

The book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" was also written on this topic and uses the concept of "backlash-conservatism" as an explanation of as to why worker vote against their economic self interests.

However, is this claim of lower income workers actually accurate and if so, does it apply on a regional basis or can it realistically be extrapolated out to make generalizations about the entire country?

  • 4
    There is a fascinating commentary from Andrew Gelman's blog on a similar related topic where he challenges the claim that "those who live in red [ie republican] states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies." See his blog here – matt_black Sep 20 '12 at 17:27
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    My guess would be that when they talk about poor people they really mean poor white people. Non-whites tend to vote predominantly Democratic, and they also make up a larger share of poor people. Gustavo's answer shows that a majority of white people without a college degree vote republican, except in the very lowest income range. – Kip Sep 26 '12 at 19:05
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In short, no. It is a journalistic misunderstanding based on naive interpretations of statistics.

The idea that the working poor tend to vote republican seems to be based on a misinterpretation of the sort of statistics presented in the chart below (which shows state-level comparison of the republican share in 2004 with state-level average income).

Gelman's presentation of republican vote by state vs income in 2004

There is a clear pattern of richer states having a lower republican share of the vote; to express this differently: richer states tend to vote democrat. It is all too easy to leap from this to assuming poor people vote republican.

The charts here are from a presentation by Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. The presentation summarises some analysis from his book on the subject, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. He also regularly blogs on related topics, frequently debuunking statistical errors that have appeared in the press and media.

Two different ways of visualizing the data show the nature of the error. The first analyses presidential share by voter income:

presidential share of vote by voter income

This makes it clear that the poor tend to be more democrat voting. This view is reinforced by analysis of the pattern of voting for congress shown below:

house vote and voter income

This chart also hints at one of the complexities of american voting patterns: the general trend for the poor to be more democrat is universal, but the extent to which the rich and poor differ in their preferences changes greatly by region.

Gelman summarises the key pattern in one of his papers on the subject (my emphasis):

Census and opinion poll data since 1952 reveal that higher-income voters continue to support the Republicans in presidential elections. However, higher-income states have in recent years favored the Democrats. The Republicans have the support of the richer voters within any given state but have more overall support in the poorer states. Thus, the identification of rich states with rich voters, or more generally, the “personification” of so-called red and blue states, is misleading.

In short the original claim is based on a common statistical error (often called the "ecological fallacy") where the aggregate pattern for states is mistaken for the pattern for individuals.

  • Sorry to pull the up check but having been doing some recent reading on this topic I'm not sure if I agree with your conclusions any more. Plus after re-reading your summary conclusion a couple times it seems like you are contradicting yourself, specifically "...but have more overall support in the poorer states." which seems to imply that at least on a region basis (as implied by the 2012 election results) that there might at least be a regional bias. – rjzii Apr 22 '13 at 1:47
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    @RobZ There are regional differences but they don't adequately describe the relationship between wealth and voting pattern. In poor states the rich voters are the ones more likely to vote republican, but the republicans are, on average, more popular. There are more republican voters in poor states because the rich are much more likely to vote republican there (and the poor are moderately more likely to vote republican. But the rich are still much more likely to vote republican compared to their poor neighbours. – matt_black Apr 22 '13 at 22:20
  • Well, the thesis of a couple books and studies I've read is that the regional differences do explain the differences and the relationship because the "Red States" are more likely to vote on cultural issues with the Republican party, i.e. backlash conservatism. There are studies that show that the wealthy are more likely to vote Republican regardless of what state they are in; however, the studies apparently how that the poor are more likely to vote Republican on a regional basis. Also, the wealthy (roughly 1 to 5% of the population) aren't enough to hold a voting block. – rjzii Apr 23 '13 at 0:52
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No, at least not as much as medium- and higher- income white voters, at least according to these graphics:

http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/03/23/voting-patterns-of-americas-whites-from-the-masses-to-the-elites/

Republican vote share by income

In the HS degree or some college graphics, lower income is about 50/50.

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The link provided in the question also includes an answer in the final paragraph:

In poor states, poor people vote Democrat and wealthy people vote Republican. The same is true in a medium-income state, though less so than in the poor state. In the wealthy state, however, income has very little effect on voting: both the rich and the poor vote Democrat and Republican.

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    You might have the start to something there, but that article actually leaves me with a lot to be desired as it contradicts known correlations between low income states and politics so there is likely more at play. – rjzii Sep 21 '12 at 12:37
  • @Rob: It is not a contradiction, just a curiosity. Mark's comment, which might be better stated as the difference between high and low income voters' tendency to vot Republican, is shown in more detail here – Henry Sep 22 '12 at 11:34

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