Why the Republican Party’s Narrative on Income and Voting Failed

Being richer and getting less government aid makes you Republican, right? Wrong. Alex Klein reports.

From the fiscal cliff to immigration, the Republican Party remains sorely divided over its post-loss platform. The “blame Romney first” camp is making a lot of noise about a kindler, gentler GOP and slamming their former frontman for an epic “47 percent” fumble.

But that’s a tough sell. How do you dispatch a party’s favorite worldview—that of right-leaning “makers” and left-leaning “takers”—when the guy who popularized it got the VP nod and is now the de facto leader of your congressional caucus? Tearing a whole party away from the calming logic of bought-off voters is tough, and many on the right are still stuck on the idea. After Obama’s victory, Bill O’Reilly explained, “There are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff, and who is going to give them things? President Obama.” Rush Limbaugh—without whose booming, car-journey-defining voice no GOP realignment will be possible—doubled down, giving the “gifts” line a literal, Christmas-season spin: “It’s just very difficult to beat Santa Claus,” he said. “People are not going to vote against Santa Claus ... [Obama voters] got more stuff than other people.” Ann Coulter said Obama’s America was “interested in handouts.” And as Bill Whittle put it, “Republicans should commit to their own story.”

So while Bobby Jindal and a handful of others may want to sweet-talk single women and Hispanics, in the base-stoking (and primary-deciding) conservative media, the Paul Ryanist argument is proving resilient. Together, it makes for an appealing economic determinism: find out how people will vote by measuring their income and federal entitlements.

But the Republican Party must ditch this line of thinking. Sure, it’s divisive. But more important, it’s empirically false. We’ve already shown how the makers-takers narrative breaks down on the state level: the amount a state’s average citizen gets in federal dollars has no bearing on how that citizen votes. But of course, states are lumpy, with pockets of wealth and poverty. So now we’ve drilled down a level. With the help of the National Priorities Project, I’ve compiled per capita–spending and median-income data for almost every county in the United States. (Those figures come from the 2010 Consolidated Federal Funds Report.) And for the first time, we’ve compared how America’s counties voted with how much their average resident makes a year and gets from the federal government. The data set covers 2,707, or more than 90 percent, of America’s 3,033 counties.

Here are all of those counties in one big chart: how they voted versus how much their average citizen gets in federal dollars. Each dot represents a single county. The further to the right, the more federal government aid its average citizen gets, and the higher up, the higher Obama’s vote share. There’s no correlation.

Indeed, the data have a tiny negative slant, implying that counties that receive more are slightly more likely to give more votes to Romney. But the correlation is negligible. To test it, we look at an R2 regression, which indicates how much variation in one variable—i.e., Obama’s fortunes in the voting booth—is explained by the other, federal spending per capita. These two data sets have an R2 of 0.0058, implying a tiny 0.6 percent correlation. Narrowing down to specific federal programs, we see a 1 percent correlation for Social Security spending, 5 percent for Medicare spending, and 0.7 percent for Pell Grant spending. The program associated with the highest—though still tiny—pro-Obama correlation was the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food-stamp spending, with a 6.4 percent correlation. In short, if you’re looking to buy a vote, federal spending isn’t the way to do it.

But the GOP’s 2012 narrative wasn’t just that takers vote Democrat. Republicans also bet on the wealthy, arguing that the nation’s higher-income makers would be naturally drawn to their platform. Of course, it’s true that at the national level, the average Republican voter has a higher average income. But when you get granular and local, using our county-centric approach, the correlation breaks down. If the Republicans were right to bet on the wealthy, America’s richer counties should have given more of their votes to Romney, and its poorer regions, to Obama. But this didn’t happen. Here are the results.

Again, the data trend slightly counter to the GOP narrative. The richer the county, the slightly more likely it is to give a larger vote share to Obama. But again, the correlation is weak. Our R2 regression shows that about 1.8 percent of the variation in voting is explained by county median income.

With regards to America’s 3,000-some counties, these graphs hurt both sides of the Republican’s Ryanist narrative. How much a county’s average person gets from the federal government—and how much they make—cannot predict how they vote.

Of course, every single county, from sea to shining sea, is a large data set, replete with a lot of noise. But when we looked at a handful key battleground states—Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—we found the same results. There was barely any correlation between federal spending per person and the Obama-Romney vote spread. Did richer, higher-tax-paying counties in battleground states swing Republican? Nope. The deterministic narrative just doesn't work; each state is different, and the picture is muddled.

It’s not yet clear if the GOP’s misadventure in economic determinism is over. But the data, which you can explore in full in the National Priorities Project’s immersive and intuitive database, make it hard to sustain. Taken together, these results show the narrative for what it is and always was: a nice, but ultimately factless, story.