The upper class is more Republican

By Razib Khan | March 25, 2012 3:31 pm

A few months ago I listened to Frank Newport of Gallup tell Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace that upper class Americans tend to be Democrats. Ryssdal was skeptical, but Newport reiterated himself, and explained that’s just how the numbers shook out. This is important because Newport shows up every now and then to offer up numbers from Gallup to get a pulse of the American nation.

Frankly, Newport was just full of crap. I understand that Thomas Frank wrote an impressionistic book which is highly influential, What’s the Matter with Kansas, while more recently Charles Murray has come out with the argument in Coming Apart that the elites tend toward social liberalism. I’m of the opinion that Frank is just wrong on the face of it, but that’s OK because he’s an impressionistic journalist, and I don’t expect much from that set beyond what I might expect from a sports columnist for ESPN. Murray presents a somewhat different case, as outlined by Andrew Gelman, in that his “upper class” is modulated in a particular manner so as to fall within the purview of his framework. Neither of these qualifications apply to Frank Newport, who is purportedly presenting straightforward unadorned data.

When the “average person on the street” thinks upper class they think first and foremost money. This is not all they think about, but in the rank order of criteria this is certainly first on the list. We can argue till the cows come home as to whether a wealthy small business owner in Iowa who is a college drop out is more or less elite than a college professor in New York City who is bringing home a modest upper middle class income (very modest adjusting for cost of living). But to a first approximation when we look at aggregates we had better look at the bottom line of money. After that we can talk details. And the first approximation is incredibly easy to ascertain. Below is a table and chart which illustrate the proportion of non-Hispanic whites after 2000 who align with a particular party as a function of family income, with family income being indexed to a 1986 value (so presumably $80,000 hear means what $80,000 would buy in 1986, not the aughts).


Family Income Strong Dem Dem Lean Dem Ind Lean Rep Rep Strong Rep
Less than $20,000 12 15 12 24 9 15 12
$20-$40,000 12 15 10 18 11 19 15
$40-$80,000 11 14 10 13 11 24 18
More than $80,000 12 12 10 11 11 23 21

The results are straightforward: the more income a family has, the more likely they are to be Republican. There is a lot of nuance and geographical detail to be fleshed out in these results. But these facts are where we need to start.

Andrew Gelman has much more as usual. For example, this chart:



Why do I keep posting this stuff? Because facts matter. That’s my hope, my faith. Tell people facts, and they will open their eyes. Tell your friends, tell your family. Have whatever opinion you want to have, but start with the facts we know. Look up facts, calculate facts, analyze facts. They are there for us, we just need to go look. Google is your friend, Wikipedia is your friend. The General Social Survey is your friend.

MORE ABOUT: Data, Demographics
  • Cathy

    So, the more money a person has, the more likely they are to vote Republican. But the more education a person has, the less likely they are to vote Republican – with the exception of those who never finished high school yet have a very high income (which, I’d guess, has a lot of IT folks.)

  • Razib Khan

    with the exception of those who never finished high school yet have a very high income

    the error bars there are huge. don’t trust that. as i imply above aggregating all these groups into one pot can mislead. but yes, to a first approximation what you say is correct (though dems have traditionally had a bimodal distribution, the last and most educated vote for them, repubs tend to be in the middle).

  • Anthony

    Part of the issue is defining “elite”. If you looked at the politics of America’s approximately 300 billionaires, it might look very different than the politics of people who have an income over $1 million, or over an income of $80,000.

    My impression is that Charles Murray is trying to define “elite” as “opinion leaders” or something similar, which means people with non-STEM college degrees in fields like the media or teaching, which generally means poorly paid relative to their education, which would tend to skew very Democrat.

    Incidentally, Thomas Frank’s thesis is at least partially normative, that people with lower incomes *should* vote for Deomcrats, without ever considering the idea that some “poor” people might believe that Republican economic policies would actually benefit them more. Having not read his book, I don’t know if he notices that in states like Kansas, people do generally vote more Democrat as they have less money, just skewed more Republican than in more liberal states.

  • rob

    I believe that Frank Newport was correct the upper CLASS are democrats however the 1% financially are predominantely Republican.

  • Razib Khan

    I believe that Frank Newport was correct the upper CLASS are democrats however the 1% financially are predominantely Republican.

    what? what the hell are you saying? it’s awesomely informative that you bolded it?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I read a bunch of left-liberal blogs off and on, and Thomas Frank’s thesis is pretty widely derided now. E.G., look at this post which airs an unfortunately little-commented upon 2006 study, which found that:

    1. Whites without college degrees are not turning towards Republicans.
    2. Lower-income whites, if anything, are turning towards the Democrats, as poor white voters with college degrees have become progressively less inclined to support Republicans.
    3. From 1952 to 2004, the working-class white vote in the South shifted to be 20% more Republican. In the rest of the country – only 1% more Republican!

  • Josh

    When you get to define what is wealthy, you can make the facts suit your needs. I’m sorry, but 80k is not what republicans mean when they talk about “the wealthy”. Here is an article from left of center source that shows that a large majority of the wealthiest Americans as well as most of those earning above 200k (as of 2008) vote Democrat. The guys arguing that the wealthiest Americans are on the left aren’t wrong, they just picked a different set of data to work with.

  • Razib Khan

    Here is an article from left of center source that shows that a large majority of the wealthiest Americans as well as most of those earning above 200k (as of 2008) vote Democrat.

    look, i kind of think it’s moronic to look at the top 20 wealthiest and infer from that. people who are worth billions are kind of beyond standard models. second, i know the 2008 data. it’s suggestive, but

    1) 52% is technically most, but it’s kind of misleading in the context of the comment. don’t be a douche

    2) the sample size in that epoll may be part of the issue (which might explain the huge fluctuation between 2004 and 2008). i would be nice to dig deeper into this, though to my knowledge no one has.

    as you say if you look hard enough you can find countervailing data. the point is not to look hard, but see where the preponderance of the data points. that’s called good faith, and trying to see how reality shakes out, rather than verifying your hypothesis. don’t be so patronizing. you comment was weak.

  • Dave

    “so presumably $80,000 hear means what $80,000 would buy in 1986″

    Where’s Waldo…

  • DK

    $80K elite? Is this some sort of a joke? Elites are the ones that buy everyone else and you can’t do that for 80K. Try maybe 80,000K.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I think 2008 was a fluke year which shouldn’t really be used as a guide for how the very wealthy vote. The financial crisis, John McCain’s useless stunt during the depths of it, and probably the selection of Sarah Palin pushed a great many generally conservative wealthy people to support Obama, because he seemed the most likely to return the country to stability.

    In general, people should check out this blog. It has a lot of data on occupations by profession. Most of the data is culled from FEC donations, however, which means it’s not the best determination of the truly wealthy, as the upper-middle class donates a fair amount to political campaigns as well.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    These graphs probably suggest one common-sense observation:

    - People whether we’re rich or poor, educated or not tend to support their own cause.

    It is no secret that most people believe that left-wing policies tend to benefit the poor and right-wing policies tend to benefit the rich. People tend to vote what they think will help them.

    There really isn’t too much of a surprise there.

    As far as education- whereas increasing education tends to trend less republican- once you get to post-grad, that is where republican’s really lose out. I’m sure a factor in that is- a large number of post-grads are dependant on government funding for their research (or their oft-state funded university). Ones that arn’t are more likely to have peers dependant on it.

    I’m actually very curious on how religion with income maps out. From personal-experience it seems to me that the richest and poorest of society tend to be the most religious- with the middle groups less so. I’m curious if my personal observations match the nation as a whole.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    #10 DK.

    $80K from 1986 would be over $100k in today’s dollars. Sure, that’s not “elite” rich- but that’s definately a lot more than those in the lowest brackets.

    “Elite” may not be the right word- “comfortable” might be a better word. As #3 Anthony commented- it would be interesting to see the “true” elite- how things change then- how they vote.

    I’m sure from a voting perspective the true “elite” (the mega-millionaires/billionaires) are too small a percentage for campaigners to worry about as a group seperate from the “comfortable”.

  • Ria

    It seems to me that a realistic analysis of income distribution and voting would have to be done regionally in the US. This is because there is too much variation due to regionality that can confound the results unless you do a more sophisticated analysis than what is being done in these discussions. After all, the exact same position with the exact same experience can command a drastically different salary in New York City versus Tennessee or Montana. As much as $20k. That would easily be a standard deviation.

    I’ve not seen a thorough discussion of the data in terms of median income versus standard deviations as a means of describing the data even in a nation-wide sense (for each census year)…everything in the discussion is focusing on simplistic definitions of salaries that we all have a social recognition as being significant salaries. Let’s just stick to the data, and that will remove the confusion…and allow us to describe the sources of variance most clearly (as in the case of regional variance in salary, for example…since I do not know if all data sets being discussed have been adjusted for cost of living, and even if they have, if such an adjustment truly normalizes across the nation…after all, you can still probably purchase more with an equivalent cost-of-living-adjusted salary in Montana than you can in New York City just because incidentals also cost more in NYC).

  • Karl Zimmerman

    14 -

    Such a study has already been done. “Blue” states show little correlation between income and voting patterns, while “red” states show a high correlation. Even though rich people in all states are more likely to support Republicans than poor people, a larger minority in states like Connecticut support Democrats than in states like Mississippi, which explains why higher-income states overall now tilt to the Democrats.

  • Curious

    Karl Zimmerman is right (and this was previously discussed at some length here on GNXP.) My personal experience leads me to hazard a guess that the “working rich” ie. those in high effective tax brackets such as those of highly paid professionals, tend to be more Republican than the extremely wealthy who shield their income from taxation of earnings on capital rather than labor via capital gains taxes, municipal bonds, etc…

    BTW, even college professors at Columbia should hardly be considered “upper class” by NYC standards. You will not find many of them living in Larchmont or Rye and will definitely find them thin on the ground (water?) at venues like the American Yacht Club.

  • Razib Khan

    BTW, even college professors at Columbia should hardly be considered “upper class” by NYC standards.

    i alluded to that in the post. is there a reason you’re repeating that?

  • Curious

    No, I should have read your post more carefully. At any rate after controlling for red state – blue state effects I believe the proclivity towards Republican politics is probably explained more by one’s effective tax rate than by net worth.

  • Razib Khan

    blue state effects I believe the proclivity towards Republican politics is probably explained more by effective tax rate than most anything else.

    if you are talking about a model with dependent an independent variables, religious liberalism/conservatism is massively powerful. most poor fundamentalists and rich atheists are not republican, but they are to a far greater extent than people would care. this does not negate that fiscal concerns are extremely important.

  • John Emerson

    Gellman’s Rich State Poor State Red State Blue State should have decided this question. It can be summarized. I think that this gets it:

    1. In general, in any area, the poor are more Democratic than the rich.

    2. In poor states, the rich-poor gap is greater than in rich states. But in poor states, both rich and poor are more conservative than their counterparts in rich states. The differenceis that in rich states rich people are much less Republican. (Poor states generally mostly means the South, Border, Great Plains, and Mountain states.)

    3. The culture war is between two different groups of well-off people. This squares with other findings showing that the opinions of the poorest third, who vote least and contribute the least money, are scarcely taken into account at all by elected officials.

    4. Both rich Republicans and rich Democrats are more socially liberal than they are economically liberal, and poor Democrats are less culturally liberal than economically liberal. So the cultural issues work as a wedge issue.

    There’s another definition of class (Ruy Texeira’s) in terms of education. From that point of view, the top tenth is strongly Democratic, but the bottom tenth (all races) is even more strongly Democratic. It’s just less-educated whites that the Democrats have problems with.

    80% of the population isn’t really rich or poor, and neither has an advanced degree nor is a HS dropout. That’s where the electoral battle is.

    Talk about working class Republicans and elite Democrats is usually just pop journalism, but sometimes its Republican disinformation. It can be argued though, per #3 above, that neither party represents the poor, and that the Democrats just represent a different group of well-off people than Republicans.

    In this kind of demographic argument it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the top .01% or the top .1%, or even the top 1%. The top 10% should be called rich, wherever that line is.

  • Razib Khan

    just a minor note re: party vs. ideology. in the survey data there seems to be a consistent trend of economic status being a better predictor of voting than of ideological self-assessment. basically, it seems rich people are more likely to call themselves republican than conservative. something to keep in mind when we’re swapping between party id and ideology, which overlap to a great extent.

  • Steve

    It always worries me when someone posts “the truth” but does not say where the data comes from or how the data has been massaged. I don’t know what is true in this case, but I have taught my kids that if a blogger fails to post pretty explicitly where they got their data (with specific links to get to the source), then they are probably either hiding something or just aren’t very good at discovering and exposing facts/truth.

  • S.J. Esposito

    I have nothing of note to add to the economic/political discussion, however because of the closing paragraph, I do think this is a good opportunity for me to state explicitly how much this weblog has helped me in cultivating a fact-based view of the world. I find myself taking ‘hub-bub’ on face value much less and, instead, doing my own research much more often (often using the tools so aptly presented here). This could be a function of my age and maturity, but I’d be ignorant to not acknowledge how sitting down to read this blog everyday has helped become a better student, researcher (non-professional–yet) and thinker.

  • Razib Khan

    #22, it’s from the gss

    vars partyid and realinc, constrained as year(2000-*), race(1) and hispanic(1)

    i used to be really detailed about this, but most readers are either too lazy or uninterested or stupid to ever follow up, so i stopped doing it. i assume now you’ll go to town since you’re so industrious ;-)

  • Daniel Murphy

    Is there 2008 data for favorable/unfavorable rate of McCain and (separately) Palin for household income $80k, > $200k? Or 2012 for Obama vs. Romney and Obama vs. Santorum?

  • Razib Khan

    Is there 2008 data for favorable/unfavorable rate of McCain and (separately) Palin for household income $80k, > $200k? Or 2012 for Obama vs. Romney and Obama vs. Santorum?

    i think it was epoll for who you voted for.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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