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Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Who's Bitter Now?"

Larry Bartels on small town demographics and political persuasions:

Who’s Bitter Now?, by Larry Bartels, Commentary, NY Times: During Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, Barack Obama once more tried to explain what he meant when he suggested earlier this month that small-town people of modest means “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” out of frustration with their place in a changing American economy. Mr. Obama ... reiterated his impression that “wedge issues take prominence” when voters are frustrated by “difficult times.”

Last week in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Obama explained that the people he had in mind “don’t vote on economic issues, because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them.” He added: “So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington.”

This is a remarkably detailed and vivid account of the political sociology of the American electorate. What is even more remarkable is that it is wrong on virtually every count.

Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.

For the sake of concreteness, let’s define the people Mr. Obama had in mind as people whose family incomes are less than $60,000 (an amount that divides the electorate roughly in half), who do not have college degrees and who live in small towns or rural areas. For the sake of convenience, let’s call these people the small-town working class, though that term is inevitably imprecise. In 2004, they were about 18 percent of the population and about 16 percent of voters.

For purposes of comparison, consider the people who are their demographic opposites: people whose family incomes are $60,000 or more, who are college graduates and who live in cities or suburbs. These (again, conveniently labeled) cosmopolitan voters were about 11 percent of the population in 2004 and about 13 percent of voters. While admittedly crude, these definitions provide a systematic basis for assessing the accuracy of Mr. Obama’s view of contemporary class politics.

Small-town, working-class people are more likely than their cosmopolitan counterparts, not less, to say they trust the government to do what’s right. ... Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. ... Small-town, working-class voters were also less likely to connect religion and politics. ...

It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.

Mr. Obama’s comments are supposed to be significant because of the popular perception that rural, working-class voters have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent decades and that the only way for Democrats to win them back is to cater to their cultural concerns. The reality is that John Kerry received a slender plurality of their votes in 2004, while John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, in the close elections of 1960 and 1968, lost them narrowly.

Mr. Obama should do as well or better among these voters if he is the Democratic candidate in November. If he doesn’t, it won’t be because he has offended the tender sensitivities of small-town Americans. It will be because he has embraced a misleading stereotype of who they are and what they care about.

I need to think about this more, but having grown up in a small-town in one of the poorest counties in California, a town where the inequality was stark, it seems to me that we are missing something with this type of analysis (in the town I grew up in, there were very few people in the upper middle class, there were wealthy rice farmers and others with wealth derived from other sources, there were a few doctors, dentists, insurance brokers, etc., but mostly the upper middle was absent, e.g. median household income in 2000 was $35,062). I tried to express some of what I think we are missing here in terms of perceptions of fairness, but I'm not sure that does a very good job of expressing what middle and lower class residents of small towns are frustrated about.

What does this analysis miss - what do Democrats miss - about this demographic that makes it so hard to capture (even if shares have remianed constant over the last 40 years as Bartel's contends, with rising inequality, stagnant wages, etc., shouldn't shares have risen?)? In the county I grew up in, the votes for president in 2004 were: 67.2% for the GOP, 31.6% for Democrats, and 1.2% for other (the county is 47% Hispanic or Latino). I can't say how that breaks down demographically, but the numbers show that support for Democrats has eroded over time, and purely from the standpoint of economic interests, it's difficult to understand why. Maybe Bartels is correct, Democrats will never capture this demographic beyond breaking nearly even in vote shares, but I'd like to have a better understanding of what the problem is. It's not that this group is, from my experience, socially conservative (though this is Northern California), so I agree with Bartels on that point. Identity is big part of it I think, the Republicans have done a better job of tapping into the pickups with gun racks, duck and pheasant hunting, beer drinking, go to church on Easter, type of demographic (I no longer hunt, but I took my first hunter safety course at age 11, most of us did - I should write more about guns because rural residents view the issue very differently from urban residents, at least that's my experience). The people I know don't identify well with the faces they see representing the Democratic party, and as much as I hate that it does, the DFH kind of stuff works with them - that's true across income levels to a large degree - and as silly as the costumes, forced beer drinking episodes and the like seem at times, this is a theater that seems to work in establishing identities people are comfortable associating themselves with. Democratic politicians, at least in the West, who happen to wear cowboy boots and jeans regularly do well with the rural demographic.

But I really don't know about all of this, I don't fully understand what's behind the Democrat's difficulties with this group, and am hoping to hear other thoughts...

    Posted by on Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 11:07 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (95)


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