“For decades, Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting,” Thomas Frank writes in What’s the Matter With Kansas? “The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawoof toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes.’”
So why do poor people vote Republican? The first thing to note is that most of them do not.
In 2008, 73 percent of those who earned less than US$15,000, 60 percent of those who earned between US$15,000 and US$30,000, and 55 percent of those who earned between US$30,000 and US$50,000 voted for Obama. This year, 57 percent of those earning less than US$36,000 plan to vote Democrat as do 50 percent of those with a high-school diploma or less. Even in deeply conservative Mississippi the overwhelming majority of the poor voted for Obama.
Most of the clients I met in Sarasota’s Gulf Coast legal center struggling with the threat of repossession or foreclosure voted for Obama and will do so again.
“I’m for Obama all the way,” said Betty-Jean Haines, whose home’s fate currently rests in the courts. “He really wants to do something good, but he’s running into so many road blocks.”
The question of why poor people vote Republican is not simply an issue of income, but primarily race and partly religion and gender.
Poor people may be more likely to vote Democrat; poor white people are not. In 2008, McCain won a slim majority (51 percent) of white Americans who earn less than US$50,000 (this is just below the US’ national median income which is not poor, but the only figure available from exit polls that breaks down votes down by race and income), while Obama won a resounding majority of non-whites in the same category (86 percent). Asked in May which candidate would do more to advance their family’s economic interests, middle-class white voters who say they are struggling to maintain their financial positions gave Romney a 26-point lead over Obama.
However, that support is less pronounced among white women than white men and is not uniform across the country. In Mississippi, 84 percent of whites who earn below US$50,000 backed McCain: in Vermont 70 percent in the same category voted for Obama. Of the nine states that backed Obama in 2008, less-affluent whites went for McCain in three, in five they backed Obama and one was a tie. In all of them non-whites voted Democrat.
“In Republican states, rich and poor have similar views on social issues,” Andrew Gelman, Lake Kenworthy and Yu-Sung Su wrote in a paper titled “Income inequality and partisan voting in the United States,” published in the Social Science Quarterly. “But in Democratic states, the rich are quite a bit more socially liberal than the poor. Factors such as religion and education result in a less clear pattern of class-based voting than we might expect based on income in- equality alone.”