Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Condescension" or normal marketing?

Amanda Marcotte in her TPM Cafe post Overcoming The Spite Vote 05/27/08 provides this intriguing chart of party vote by income in 2006 (also found at her Amanda Marcotte's photostream). Presumably the chart is hers, though she doesn't cite the source of the underlying data. So here, I'm accepting the chart based on her own good reputation. (This, by the way, is one reason I often cite my sources in more detail than is common in the blogosphere. That, and it makes it easier for me to find the article if my link goes dead later.)
The reason it particularly caught my eye is that I'm getting frustrated reading about the "working-class" vote without knowing what the writer is considering "working-class". The most recent example in which I experienced this is in Barack Obama and the Unmaking of the Democratic Party by Sean Wilentz Huffington Post 05/23/08, which Gene Lyons cites in Infighting threatens Democratic Party Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 05/28/08. Now, I really hate to criticize a column which insists on the relevance of Andrew Jackson to the 2008 election. I really hate to. But when he is writing about the "white working class", I can't tell just who he means.

It's a general deficiency in the numbers we have available to make these kinds of analyses. A structural definition of class would basically define working class as people who were in a job position that was eligible to be represented by a union. Which would be a clear majority of the public. But public opinion polls and election exit polls don't typically break out the results that way.

If we were to rely on the class self-identification of Americans, the only people who wouldn't identify themselves as "middle class" would be something like the homeless on the poor end and those making over $1 million per year in income on the rich end. When the "middle class" is defined to include about 98% of population, it hardly seems like the "middle" of anything any more. And when it comes to trying to analyze anything by class, it's pretty much totally useless.

So what people wind up doing is finding some surrogate figure, like income levels or years of education, i.e., just assuming that those without college educations are "working class" unless they fall below some other level and that people with college educations are "middle class" until they reach a certain income level. Comparing that to what a structural class breakdown would look like, that's at least something on the good side of entirely useless. And let's not get started on regional income normalizations...

So, I'll just take it for granted here that there's no common definition of "working class". But what Marcotte's chart shows us that of those who voted in the 2006 election, the 78% in the under-$100,000 income ranges, more than half voted for Democrats. I'm assuming here that her chart uses household income. (And if you want to get picking, one of the segments in that range has only a plurality of Democratic voters.)

The three segments making up the lower 40% of the voters went overwhelmingly Democratic. In all other segments, the split is fairly close to even, including in the highest segment of $200,000+.

Actually, I thought working through these numbers might tell me more than it has. Here's how she analyzes the figures:

In that cluster in the middle, you really see a divide, and while other factors no doubt feed into it, I think Rick [Perlstein] really nailed something important when he described the Franklin/Orthogonian divide [some weird concept of Nixon's] that Nixon and then Reagan and every conservative after has exploited to win over that mercurial middle class.

As a member of the class in question who lives in a blue city in a red state, I can tell you that what makes someone a liberal or a conservative is a constant source of discussion and mystery to people. One overheard conversation: A woman from an MBA program, joking about how the finance people and the marketing people were at odds during an election. And that most of you can probably guess which side went for which team tells me that we aren't completely unaware as a nation how this game goes. I can safely assume that pretty much anyone I meet of my age and income level in Austin is a Democrat, but that assumption is not a safe one should I venture into other parts of the state. A lot of people I know---including myself---come from "mixed" families, which goes to show that demographic predictions fall apart in this class. My oldest male cousin and I are big liberals, and my stepbrother and uncle close to my age are firebreathing conservatives, and a scattershot of female relatives mostly vote Republican but almost shamefacedly admit to having liberal social values. Why so much difference in a group that's demographically the same?
Well, maybe I should add her post to the list of frustrating ones. Because even with a chart, she doesn't tell us what segments constitute the "cluster in the middle" that she's supposedly analyzing. Yikes!

So I guess my point is, it's worth asking just who pundits and columnists are talking about when they use class terms. Because what they are saying and what we may be reading or hearing may not be exactly the same thing.

But I will say, even though I know good Republicans would say it's "condescending" of me, in terms of strictly economic benefits, the fact that third or more of those lower three income levels in her chart vote for Republicans at all is pretty astonishing. Which brings us back to the "elitism" debate. Sure, I believe that most of those voting Republican in those segments are voting against their own best economic interests. But that's what political campaigns are about. The Dems try to "sell" their positions to voters and so do the Republicans. The fact that the "sellers" of one product think those who "buy" the inferior product are making poor choices doesn't mean that they're rejecting the "customers". It's basic retail politics. And figuring out what the best selling points for various voter groups would be is just basic marketing research and analysis.

Since large majorities in the lower-income groups choose overwhelmingly to vote Democratic, wouldn't it make more sense to say that the Republicans are "elitist" to try to get them to vote Republican? I mean, besides being the Party that is devoted to comforting the billionaires above all else. Which looks pretty darn "elitist" to me.

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