Was Thomas Frank Wrong? Is Obama Empirically Wrong?

Let's go back to first principles: what if Thomas Frank, the author of "What's The Matter With Kansas," the bedrock on which Obama chiseled his "bitter/cling" remarks last week, had it wrong? That's the thesis of political scientist Larry Bartels of Princeton, writing in Quarterly Journal of Political Science.

Aggregating data, he finds that:

(a) White working class voters identify more with Democrats on cultural issues and more with Republicans on economic issues?

(b) the salience of social issues has increased over the past two decades but more so among whites with college degrees

(c) Frank's trend finds statistical support only in the South, where it has an obvious explanantion: Democratic "strength" was "artifically inflated" by segregation and Jim Crow, according to Bartels.

The fundamental question that Frank and Obama both try to answer is why John Q. Pennsylvanian seems to vote against his economic interest? The embedded assumption is that it clearly is in his interest to support Democratic policies on fiscal policies (income redistribution) labor (a shift in the union/corporate balance), regulation (more, not less) but for some reason, he refuses to. Maybe he is bamboozled into supporting Republicans who convince him that they share his values more on cultural issues (which by their nature come from the gut) and convince him that cultural issues are more important.

The data to support this trend is at the very least, mixed. The trend over the past 50 years is clear: those voters with incomes in the lower third of the distribution have been trending Democratic. Among working class voters overall, the trend from 1952 to now is positive for Democrats.

In the white working class, as in the electorate as a whole, net Republican gains since the 1950s have come entirely among middle- and upper-income voters, producing a substantial gap in partisanship and voting between predominantly Democratic lower income groups and predominantly Republican upper income groups.



Frank is correct on one score: voters who make decisions based on their economic conditions are choosing Republicans more and more. But most of those voters are not poor. Indeed, the trend is mitigated somewhat by the better performance of Democrats among poorer voters.