Philippe De Donder is professor at
TSE and the CNRS research director. He received his PhD degree in economics from FUNDP, Namur.
His research interests include public economics, political economy and industrial organization.
Like every four years, media worldwide are focused on the US Presidential elections. The results of these elections may actually be especially important this year, given the worldwide economic context. Unfortunately, the media tend to focus on the "horse race" aspects of the contest, the gaffes of the candidates and the color of their ties. It is a pity, since there are many interesting recent developments below this surface.
Let us start with the following apparently easy question: in the last elections, who has voted for the Democratic candidate (for President or Congress), and who for the Republican? With the Democrats being to the left of the Republicans on economic issues, it seems reasonable to posit that poor voters tend to favor Democrats and richer voters Republicans. But one then faces the following puzzle: Democrats have won the last several elections in the rich coastal states (the so-called blue states) while Republicans have won the poorer states of the center and the south of the country (the red states). How to explain this apparent paradox?
Historian Thomas Frank, in his book "What's the matter with Kansas?" alleges that non-economic, or cultural, issues have now acquired so much importance in voting decisions that poor voters (from Kansas and elsewhere) actually vote "against their economic interests" by supporting the more socially conservative Republican party. At the same time, some commentators (such as David Brooks from the New York Times) assert that rich voters now favor en masse the Democrats. If true, this would mean that poor US voters vote for the economically and culturally conservative Republicans, while rich voters support the more progressive Democratic party!
Gelman (2010) shows that the explanation is more subtle and interesting. Using exit poll data at the district level, together with other survey data, he first shows that poor voters do not differ much across states in terms of voting behavior, and support in their majority the Democrats. He also finds that the proportion of voters favoring the Republicans increases with income in all states! The observation that explains the puzzle is that the intensity of the relationship between voter's income and support for Republicans differs a lot among states: it is large in poor/red states but much smaller in rich/blue states. In other words, while poor voters are very much alike across the US in terms of voting behavior, it is the richer people who differ a lot and explain the red/blue geographical pattern of voting! Red (and poorer) states are won by the Republicans with the overwhelming support of the richer voters, while Democrats win the blue (and richer) states thanks to the votes of the poorer voters!
Gelman (2010) then looks at what could explain the different voting behavior of rich citizens across states. He obtains that they differ a lot in their cultural characteristics, with richer voters in the South being much more conservative (on issues such as attitude to race, abortion, religion, gun control or immigration) than richer voters on the coasts. Since the Republican party is more socially conservative than the Democrats, this non-economic dimension reinforces the attraction of Republicans for rich southern voters, while rich voters from the coastal states are torn between economic incentives (favoring the Republicans) and ideological considerations (favoring the Democrats). According to Gellman, this explains why income is a much better predictor of voting patterns in the south than along the coasts.
What influences do these considerations have on the positions taken by both parties? The political scientist Keith Poole (together with Howard Rosenthal) has been measuring the positions taken by US members of Congress literally since the beginning of the Republic (see his website at voteview.com)! He first confirms that two dimensions are necessary to represent the US parties positions: an economic one, and an ideological/cultural one. Second, he shows that parties have become more distant (or polarized) in recent elections. This polarization is actually due mostly to the Republican party, that has veered toward the more conservative extreme. In terms of Presidents, Obama is actually, according to Poole's measure, a very centrist candidate.1 A good example of both the centrism of Obama and the move to the right of the Republicans can be found by looking at President Obama's signature legislation on health insurance ("Obamacare"), which borrows heavily from a proposition made in 1989 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and put in practice in Massachusetts by its former governor ... Mitt Romney!
Interestingly, Gelman (2010) also shows that representatives are most of the time more extreme than their constituents, so that the distribution of policy positions in Congress is more polarized than among the voting population, and that the population is not more polarized on economic issues than it used to be twenty years ago. Political scientist Larry Bartels completes this analysis in his 2008 book "Unequal democracy". Using micro data at the district level, he shows that elected officials from both political parties are overwhelmingly responsive to the positions of the richer among their constituents, but ignore the views of poor people.
There are several potential reasons for this focus on richer citizens. To start with, they vote more often than poorer citizens. Bartels also shows that they have more knowledge of the issues at stake and that they contact much more often their representative in Congress. They also give much higher financial contributions to political parties and candidates. Hacker and Pierson (2011) stress the importance of lobbying to explain why parties have become more polarized. They brilliantly describe the fall, since the 1970ies, of the labor lobbies (and so-called Political Action Committees, or PACs) and the concurrent rise of the more conservative lobbies funded by firms in finance and elsewhere. Finally, Hacker and Pierson make the link between the rise of money in US politics, the move to the right of parties on the economic dimension, and the staggering increase in economic inequalities (especially at the very top of the income distribution) in the US. This latter topic would deserve its own column, but I can't resist recommending the superb book by Robert Frank and Philip Cook on the subject (see references).
To conclude, if the "race horse" aspect of the Presidential contest is what is of interest to you, you can access the prediction market intrade website (http://www.intrade. com/v4/markets/contract/?contractId=743474) to see the latest odds. At the time of this writing, President Obama is assumed to have a 57.1% chance of reelection...
Bartels, Larry, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2008), Princeton University Press. Frank, Robert and Cook, Philip, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (2010), Virgin books.
Frank, Thomas, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), Metropolitan Books.
Gelmann, Andrew, Red state, blue state, rich state, poor state. Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (2010), Princeton University Press.
Hacker, Jacob and Pierson, Paul, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2011), Simon & Schuster.