Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The verdict on class and voting

By Michael Hout

Class issues stood out more in the 2012 presidential election than in previous ones, even more than in 2008. The campaigns invoked, as always, issues of all sorts, but seldom in American politics are the issues of class so prominent as they were this year.

Governor Romney’s personal wealth and how he accumulated it were issues that fellow Republicans raised during the primaries. Once Romney was the nominee, President Obama’s campaign defined Romney as a member of the “one-percent” — among the handful of Americans so rich they prosper while others struggle. A clandestine video surfaced in which Governor Romney identified 47 percent of Americans who “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Seconds later on the same video he said, “My job is not to worry about them.” The challenger’s remarks allowed the President to add “uncaring” to the charge of unfair privileges.

voting booth

Romney’s remarks were important for the Obama campaign because a key part of their economic plan involves raising the taxes that rich people pay. Throughout the campaign, President Obama said the wealthy should pay their “fair share” of taxes. Ads echoed the speeches, often contrasting Governor Romney’s 15 percent federal income tax rate to the higher rates most Americans pay.

The upshot was a continuation of — and likely an increase in — the income gap in how people voted, revealed by exit polls (supplemented by a phone poll of early voters). Data published by The New York Times shows that 62 percent of voters whose incomes fell below $30,000 voted for President Obama compared to 44 percent of voters whose incomes exceeded $100,000 — an 18 point gap. That spread is significantly larger than the ten-point gender gap and comparable to the difference between the states that are safely “blue” or safely “red.” For example, Obama tallied 59 percent of the vote in California but only 41 percent in Texas

Back in the 1960s, researchers found almost no class division in presidential voting. Americans considered pocketbook issues like tax bills and overall economic performance in casting their votes. But low- and high-income Americans agreed more than they disagreed about the candidate who had the better economic plan. Ronald Reagan changed that, as he changed so many things in American politics. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson showed in Winner Take All Politics that Reagan’s emphasis on growth through tax cuts and economic deregulation appealed to high earners more than to low earners. Since then voters’ personal incomes have been a greater factor in how Americans cast their ballots in nearly every presidential election.

As I noted in my contribution to the blog Made in America, in January, race and education complicate the class voting story. Among whites, Democrats get the votes of Americans at both ends of the educational spectrum; Republicans get the votes from the educational middle. High school dropouts and people with advanced degrees vote Democrat; those with some college or a college degree vote Republican.

In 2008, white working class defections from the Republicans contributed to Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain: 30 percent of self-identified working class whites who had voted for President Bush in 2004 switched parties to vote for then-Senator Obama. The exit poll data published to date lack information on how race and class intersected in 2012. Researchers like me await release of the detailed data files some time next year.

To fill the void until then, consider the data on party identification from 2008 and 2010. (Party identification is less volatile than votes so it will give insight on the political foundation under the vote.) The figure below shows the percentage of General Social Survey respondents – whites only — who said they were Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. Rates of Republican identification rise 30 percentage points from 20 to 50 percent from the lowest family income group to the highest, while Democratic identification falls off from 43 to 23 percent. Thirty percent of voters identified with neither party. These Independent voters often decide elections. In 2008, Barack Obama got 56 percent of the independent vote, including that of voters with incomes of $100,000 or more. This tendency mutes the effect of class on voting. Now in 2012, a slight majority of white independents voted for Romney. Perhaps America’s class divisions have spread to the independents. We’ll know more when the exit data are fully crunched.

graph: party ID by family income

** Whites only. Incomes adjusted for inflation and shown on ratio scale. Source: General Social Surveys, 2008-2010

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.