Wednesday, November 05, 2008

How Obama won

Noam Scheiber has an interesting note up about how income and education levels intersected to determining voting patterns among whites yesterday. Money:
The publicly available exit polls now break down data on income and education by racial group. Among all whites without college degrees (40 percent of the electorate), Obama lost by a whopping 18 points. But among whites making $50,000 per year or less (a quarter of the electorate), he lost by a mere 4 points.

Which is to say, the big divide last night wasn’t between working-class whites (i.e., whites without college degrees) and educated whites. It was between working-class whites who are relatively well off, and working-class whites who aren’t. The aforementioned numbers imply that Obama struggled hugely among working-class whites making more than $50,000 per year, but did well among those making less than that. The upshot was that, despite losing the white working-class by wide margins nationally, Obama came reasonably close in the economically depressed states of the industrial Midwest (down only 8 in Ohio and Indiana, actually up 6 in Michigan). Hence the electoral college landslide.
The chart I want to see would compare voting patterns among those earning more or less than $50K (or perhaps more income brackets) across various education levels. My hypothesis about what the data would say goes something like this:
  1. Relatively uneducated but above-median income white folks are hard-core for the GOP. These people not only vote their pocketbook, but also have nothing but disdain for pointy-headed intellectuals who use learning to put on airs. Sarah Palin is the apotheosis of this segment.
  2. The highly educated white vote (college+) is likely to lean Democratic across all income levels, except in the highest income brackets (where, again, the pocketbook comes into play).
  3. The third segment -- namely less educated (high school or less), low income voters -- is the most interesting. With this group, I'd guess that normally they vote their cultural prejudices, except during times of severe economic hardship, when, at the end of the day, they'd rather have a Democrat. This group is the key swing constituency.
I really think the dramatic and undeniable collapse of the deregulated financial system in September and October is what saved Obama's campaign. Remember that before Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 14, McCain had essentially caught up with Obama campaign by using Sarah Palin to rev up enthusiasm in that third segment.

What Lehman Brother's collapse (and the subsequent implosion of the stock market, the partial nationalization of the banking system, and the obvious oncoming trainwreck in the real economy) did, as Mark Danner so vividly described it was to "strike like a bolt of lightning, illuminating for all to see the ruins of the economic landscape." And with those ruins apparent -- and so evidently the result of a generation of failed GOP macroeconomic and deregulatory jihad -- all the Palin claptrap about bulldogs, moose, and pigs became just cheap talk, allowing Obama to coast to a broad victory.


Brad said...

Lost among the wingnuts are the Republican voters who feel like Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek who posted the below on Monday. It is a legitimate sentiment, and Democrats need to realize that before we blow this opportunity to do some real good.

I suffer from no romantic delusions about politics or about voting. So I winced when I read in the lead editorial in today's Washington Post that CBS newsman Bob Schieffer recently told his viewers "Go vote. It will make you feel big and strong."

Mr Schieffer's attitude -- and the Post's fawning approval of it -- is not unusual. Indeed, it's the norm. But this attitude toward voting is irritatingly thoughtless.

This attitude reflects the myth that political action is as noble, or even nobler, than private actions. Much more so than if I vote, I feel big and strong when I act consistently to be a loving father, husband, son, and brother - when I help my friends and neighbors - when I perform my job well - when I pay my bills - when I save for my retirement -- in short, when I take responsibility for matters that are within my control.

Ironically, though, this voting that allegedly makes us "feel big and strong" often results in government relieving us of responsibility for those things that each of us can and should control, while giving each of us an officious and inherently irresponsible say in matters that should be the exclusive private responsibility of each of our fellow citizens.

If Mr. Schieffer, newspaper editorialists, or anyone else really wants to give me the opportunity to feel big and strong, they ought to speak out first and foremost against government policies that treat adults as irresponsible children. I am perfectly capable of saving for my own retirement, of choosing whether or not to patronize a restaurant that permits smoking, of choosing which elements to ingest into my own body, of providing for the education of my son, of deciding what degree of driver and passenger safety I want in my automobile -- indeed, of doing a great number of things that government today presumes me to be too gullible or too irresponsible or too childish to do. And what is true of me, an ordinary adult, is true of nearly every other adult.

Government treats me as if I'm small and weak. This fact disgusts me.

Nils said...

I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I do disagree with the factual analysis. It is unfortunately a fact that many, perhaps most, American adults are in fact NOT capable of taking care of themselves fully -- particularly when it comes to planning for old age. There are rafters of data that support this contention -- the median 401K of an over-55 American (before the financial meltdown) was $150K. That's enough to finance one major operation. Behavioral psychologists have good explanations for this, and many experiments have shown that humans have a universal tendency to apply a far too high discount rate against the future. Making choices on the basis of being likely only to live till you were 40 or 50 may make sense in a hunter-gatherer society, but in our postindustrial one, it's just not.

So-called conservatives typically respond to data of this sort with two overlapping arguments. On the one hand, they contend that this irresponsibility is a product of government nannying, which has infantalized the population. On the other hand, they say that them's that are so irresponsible should bear the consequences.

In my view, the first contention is both unprovable at best (evolutionary psychology suggests that such misperceptions of the future are hardwired) and anyway beside the point -- if in fact the American population is now infantalized, then they need to be handled as such, regardless of the etiology of that condition.

The second argument is cruel, at best. Simply throwing a generation of Americans onto the streets in old age, because they failed to properly plan for themselves, is not responsible policy. Much more responsible policy is to create structures that make the default behavior one that creates good individual and collective outcomes. That is, if you work, you automatically save.