Economic Inequality and Voting Patterns

A while ago, I posted on Andrew Gelman and his colleagues’ findings challenging the apparent red-state blue paradox, which claims that higher-income states vote Democrat and lower-income states vote Republican. They showed that, while that is true, higher-income individuals vote Republican and lower-income individuals vote Democrat. In this working paper, James Galbraith and Travis Hale suggest that something other than wealth may be at play, state level inequality.

In this paper we use a previously neglected, high-quality data source to generate consistent annual measures of income inequality by state, for the fifty United States and the District of Columbia from 1969 to 2004. We use the estimates in a model of presidential election turnout and outcomes at the state level from 1992 to 2004. In recent elections, we find that high state inequality is negatively correlated with turnout and a positively correlated with the Democratic vote share, after controlling for race and other factors…

A one standard deviation increase in the state inequality variable is associated with a 2% decrease in voter participation…A 2% increase in inequality is associated with a 1.5% increase in the Democratic percentage of the two-party vote over the 1992–2004 period. The significance of the inequality variable does not necessarily mean that individuals think about income inequality when they cast a vote for Democratic Presidential candidates. Platforms, personalities, policies, Election Day weather, the presence of enough voting machines and many other factors certainly contribute to the outcome of a presidential contest in a given state. We can, however, infer that the Democratic Party has engaged in campaigns that have resonated with both the elite rich and the comparatively poor. Meanwhile, it is the Republicans who are winning the hearts and minds of Middle America – both geographically and economically.