As CNBC and others have reported, eight of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties voted for Barack Obama in Tuesday’s election. In Fairfield County, Connecticut, where I live, the president squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote. But in New York’s Westchester County and Virginia’s Fairfax County, the president won decisively, with 60 percent to Mitt Romney’s 40 percent. In Colorado’s Pitkin County, the president won by a whopping margin of 40 percent.
So what gives? Why didn’t the rich support their economic interests by voting for the rich guy? Isn’t the GOP supposed to be the plutocrat party? Wasn’t Romney the candidate of the 1 percent?
Over the last 20 years, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has taken its place alongside “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” as the paramount explanation of how we vote and why. But the presumption that economic interests trump all others in the minds of the average voter is dubious.
The recession of the early 2000s did not lead to a John Kerry administration in 2004. An MSNBC exit poll showed that most voters in that election cared more about “moral values” than the state of the economy. According to the Pew Research Center, most voters thought the economy was the dominant issue in 2008, but a host of other factors—from war fatigue to the Sarah Palin effect to the novelty of electing an African American president—contributed to Obama’s victory.
You may recall Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank’s claim that socially conservative middle- and working-class Americans had been hoodwinked by Republicans into voting against their economic interests became wildly popular among disaffected liberals seeking to understand the GOP’s electoral success.
To Frank and his readers, it was (and is) self-evident that Democrats were (and are) the party of the middle and lower class, what has come to be called “the 99 percent.” They just couldn’t wrap their head around the idea that anyone not living on dividends generated by off-shore investments would vote for a monocled child of privilege such as George W. Bush. Frank’s book spent 18 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and was turned into a film that Roger Ebert called “one of the ten best documentaries of 2009.”
It also generated considerable criticism. As Steven Malanga pointed out in City Journal at the time, the economics of Frank’s argument didn’t add up. “Kansas’s economy has actually outpaced the nation’s for years now. Throughout the 1990s and the first part of [the200s], Kansas had a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. economy as a whole,” Malanga observed.
And that pattern has persisted. The unemployment rate in Kansas has been consistently lower than the national average over the last four years, although it has risen by 1.2 percent since Obama took office. In September 2008 it was 4.7 percent. In September 2012 it was 5.9 percent.
So working class Kansans have served their economic interests by voting Republicans and fiscal conservatives into office. It only looks as if they haven’t if you accept the premise that the Democratic economic policies are, by definition, beneficial to the working class. If you don’t accept that, then the voting patterns of socially and fiscally conservative Kansans make perfect sense.
The same is true in America’s wealthiest counties. If you accept the notion that the GOP is the party of the rich, then the results from Westchester, Fairfax, Fairfield, and Pitkin counties constitute a great mystery. But wealthy Americans voting for a redistributionist president is not mysterious at all. These are wealthy liberals, after all. Their vote for Obama is merely evidence that cultural and social concerns carry greater weight in these leafy suburbs than does the rate of marginal taxation.
Obama won Westchester and Fairfax counties because these places are filled with liberals, just as Romney won all but two of Kansas’s 105 counties because the Jayhawk State is filled with conservatives. The only mystery is why we continue to accept the notion that our presidential elections are always and everywhere about “the economy, stupid.”
Sometimes—most of the time—they are about values. Rich liberals vote liberal and poor conservatives vote conservative no matter where they happen to live.
Why is that so hard to understand?