A House Divided

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do
By Andrew Gelman
Princeton University Press, 233 pages, $27.95

I realized while reading Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State that I hadn’t seen a book with so many charts and graphs since I struggled though economics and statistics—and that if the textbooks back then had been as interesting as Andrew Gelman’s analysis of the American electorate, I might have done better in college.

The aim of his book, Mr. Gelman tells us, is to debunk the media’s oversimplified account of what happened in red and blue states in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Writing in the same spirit as Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Mr. Gelman sets out to "correct" the received wisdom. Though the volume of data in Red State, Blue State can be a trifle intimidating, you have to love a statistician who gives his chapters titles like "How the Talking Heads Can Be So Confused," "Religious Reds and Secular Blues" and "Why Do We Care What the Journalists Say?"

A professor at Columbia University, Mr. Gelman gets right into it, quoting Tucker Carlson in 2007: "Here’s the fact that nobody ever, ever mentions—Democrats win rich people." Actually, Mr. Carlson is wrong: Democrats don’t win rich voters, they win the rich states. In 2004, George W. Bush won 60 percent of the votes of those who make over $200,000.

 

THE PROFESSOR EVIDENTLY pointing out why the news media is so wrong: The richest states that have trended from red to blue are "ironically, precisely those states where national journalists are likely to live"—and the consequent loss of perspective can’t be made up for simply by riding a campaign bus and conducting man-on-the street interviews.

But how do the Democrats manage to win in the rich states without winning rich voters? This is the Freakonomics-style analysis that every candidate and campaign consultant should read. Rich voters in rich states are less conservative than their counterparts in poor states, making them a bit less likely to vote for Republicans. Meanwhile, poor voters remain strong supporters of Democrats, though somewhat less so in poorer states than richer ones. Hence the blue-red divide.

Mr. Gelman believes that rather than wealth, the better indicator of which way a state will vote is culture and religiosity. "In rich states higher income is associated with being less religious and more socially liberal," Mr. Gelman writes. "This pattern goes some of the way toward explaining the relative unimportance of income in predicting voting in rich states." (He notes, however, that this is a recent development. It’s been 16 years since a presidential election—it’s the economy, stupid—truly focused on pocketbook issues.)

Richard Nixon once declared, "We are all Keynesians now." Outside of George W. Bush, that has essentially been true in the White House and likely will hold true for the next administration regardless of the winner, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

 

MR. GELMAN ZEROES IN ON the cultural differences between states. Think there’s a Starbucks on every corner of every city, a Wal-Mart in every suburb? Hardly. According to Mr. Gelman, there are many more Starbucks per million Americans in the blue states and many more Wal-Marts in the red states. He believes this is an indicator of how Americans make choices in their spending and begins to show how they have organized themselves politically.

He argues party labels have never been more meaningful: Voters see clear differences between the political parties on cultural issues. Even if most Americans are more moderate in their views than the two parties are on issues like abortion, immigration and gay rights, voters are forced to choose one side or the other. As Mr. Gelman writes, "[I]deology has become so strong that it is currently impossible to have a reasoned discussion … leading ultimately to policies that are supported by 50-percent-plus-one of the voters and considered illegitimate by the other half." This has led to strong feelings, especially in Congress. The days are over when partisan warriors like Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would clash publicly—and enjoy cocktails together later that night. In polarized Washington, the camaraderie has evaporated along with the bipartisanship.

With the political conventions now upon us, Mr. Gelman hopes journalists will use his analysis to better explain what’s happening in the presidential campaign. His goal might be too modest.

One wishes that the ideological combat might subside, allowing for real debate about the best direction for the nation. Still, Starbucks and Wal-Mart we will have always with us.

Robert Sommer is president of the Observer Media Group. He can be reached at rsommer@observer.com.

A House Divided