November 09, 2004

It's the Wealth, Stupid

Rick Perlstein has written a really nice Village Voice article making a counter-intuitive argument: George W. Bush won the election not through his appeal to "moral values," but by winning a greater share of the vote among the rich. Here's more:

Pundits blow hot air. Political scientists crunch numbers. On his blog Polysigh, my favorite political scientist, Phil Klinkner, ran a simple exercise. Multiplying the turnout among a certain group by the percent who went for Bush yields a number electoral statisticians call "performance." Among heavy churchgoers, Bush's performance last time was 25 percent (turnout, 42 percent; percentage of vote, 59 percent). This time out it was also 25 percent—no change. Slightly lower turnout (41 percent), slightly higher rate of vote (61 percent).

Where did the lion's share of the extra votes come from that gave George Bush his mighty, mighty mandate of 51 percent? "Two of those points," Klinkner said when reached by phone, "came solely from people making over a 100 grand." The people who won the election for him—his only significant improvement over his performance four years ago—were rich people, voting for more right-wing class warfare.

Their portion of the electorate went from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent this year. Support for Bush among them went from 54 percent to 58 percent. "It made me think about that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11," says Klinkner, the one where Bush joked at a white-tie gala about the "haves" and the "have-mores": "Some people call you the elite," Bush said. "I call you my base."

I think it's fair to say that the argument made by many pundits in the immediate aftermath of the election--that gay marriage and other hot-button social issues swung the election to Bush--is seriously flawed. (For more, see Kevin Drum's analysis at Political Animal, as well as this Paul Freedman article in Slate and the analysis by Ruy Teixera and Alan Abramowitz at Donkey Rising.) My hunch, though, is that there's more to the "moral values" argument than a lot of pundits now believe. Democrats need to avoid fetishizing the issue and making it the center of their analysis, but a revamped approach to abortion and gay rights will have to be part of the party's vision in the years ahead.

Update: There's some good stuff on Polysigh, the blog Perlstein mentions above. This entry suggests that gay marriage initiatives in non-swing states helped pad Bush's popular vote win this year. ("This probably helps explain why Bush increased his pluralities in Georgia by 243,000, Oklahoma by 186,000, in Kentucky by 121,000, and in Utah by 66,000.") If I'm not mistaken, after all, turnout in non-swing blue states increased by less this year than turnout in non-turnout red states--I believe that turnout actually fell in California. Gay marriage referenda may (or may not) be part of the reason for that.

Update 2: Klinkner himself has now written a New Republic Online article discussing his argument that Bush's margin came from increased support among the rich.

I originally thought that I wouldn't be able to read Klinkner's piece, since I'm not a TNR subscriber. But then I made a fortuitous discovery: you can access subscriber-only TNR articles by using the username and password "guest." I didn't expect that strategy to work, but I'll be sure to use it again in the future.

Update: I've touched on why I have some doubts about this sort of analysis in the comments to this post.

Posted by Ed at November 9, 2004 02:49 PM

Why counter-intuitive?

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 11, 2004 10:17 AM

"Counter-intuitive" probably wasn't the ideal word, since you can make an intuitive case that if your policies favor rich people then more rich people will vote for you. The analysis does run against the conventional wisdom that terrorism and/or "values" played a larger role in deciding the campaign, though, which is all I meant to suggest.

But I'm still a little wary of Klinkner's argument. In 2000, for example, 13% of voters thought that abortion should always be illegal, and 74% of those voters supported Bush. In 2004, 16% of the voting public said that abortion should always be illegal--and 77% of these voters supported Bush. By my math, that means that Bush's performance with anti-abortion voters was 9.62 in 2000 and 12.32 in 2004--a difference of 2.7. Compare that to the change in Bush's performance from the rich, which went from 8.1 to 10.44--or 2.34.

My point isn't that Bush's position on abortion was more important than his support for the rich. I just wonder a little about this sort of analysis, and I suspect that no single factor can explain Bush's victory. Maybe a bigger percentage of well-off Americans supported Bush because of the war on terror, for example, or because more anti-abortion rich people voted this year.

The most striking figure in the exit polls, I think, is actually the increased percentage of conservatives in the electorate. If you break down the electorate into liberals, moderates, and conservatives, the only group which Bush won was conservatives--Kerry got 54% of the vote among moderates and 85% of the vote among liberals, while Bush won 84% among conservatives. The problem is that the percentage of conservatives jumped from 29% to 34%, swinging the election to Bush.

That jump in the number of conservatives worried me a lot when I first saw it--could Bush have convinced a decent chunk of moderate voters that their true allegiance was on the right? Was this a bad sign for coming elections? Then I checked the 1996 exit poll results, and found that 33% of voters identified themselves as conservatives in 1996--and Clinton still won. This figure doesn't seem to make a huge difference in the final results of elections.

In short, I don't really know what to make of the exit poll results and what to think about why Kerry lost. My inclination is to say that the key demographic in the election was white married women. (White women went for Bush 49-48 in 2000, and 55-44 in 2004. I couldn't find good data for married women on a quick look.) Why did they support Bush more strongly? Maybe it was well-off white women who came out more strongly for Bush, in which case Klinkner's analysis may hold. Maybe terrorism or social issues pushed them away from Kerry, which would fit in either with the pre-election analysis or with the "moral values" argument.

At this point, I just don't know what to think--one reason my past posts on this subject have been a bit ambiguous.

Posted by: Ed at November 11, 2004 12:42 PM

Ed, the numbers can be argued about. The most interesting thing, I think, is that this issue was NEVER mentioned in any of the commentary on TV.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 13, 2004 11:28 PM
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