A few important factors support his theory of stable, happy Republican homes, Wilcox argues. First, he and Wolfinger looked at sociological data on the county level and individual household level, rather than just the state level.* Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that the bluest and reddest states have the highest percentages of residents with stable family lives, meaning the relationship between voting tendencies and family stability isn’t conclusive, Wilcox says. While it may be true that the Republican South tends to be home to a lot of divorcées, Wilcox said in an interview, “There are conservatives in the North. If you look at a state like Pennsylvania, you have two blue islands. Conservative families in the North have more stability than Southern conservative counties.”
This kind of local analysis matters, because it reveals one of the underlying causes that might be at work here: People’s lives are affected a lot by the communities they live in. Kids who are raised in two-parent households, for example, and whose friends are mostly raised in two-parent households, tend to fare better. Plus, the civic life and institutions of a place really matter; this is the Robert Putnam theory of stability and happiness. It’s possible that the happily married couples Wilcox and Wolfinger have identified are just living in places that are more conducive to happiness.
Second, the researchers recognize that Republicans might have statistically happier marriages because of who Republicans tend to be: white folks. “One reason Republicans have happier marriages is that, as a party with a larger share of white couples, they are less likely to face the discrimination, segregation, and poverty that minority couples often experience in America, all of which can compromise the quality of married life,” they write. While it’s useful to organize this kind research using one variable, like party affiliation, perhaps another way of writing this analysis might carry a different headline: White, Privileged People More Likely to Be Happy in Marriage.
Republicans also tend to be more religious, which matters. In their analysis, Wilcox and Wolfinger found that religious practice is almost certainly part of the so-called “Republican advantage” in marital bliss. Past research has shown that regular worship attendance is correlated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
There are a few major caveats to all of this, though. Wilcox and Wolfinger point out that, in their sample of roughly 2000 Americans, Republicans were six percentage points more likely than Democrats to say they are “very happy” in marriage. But if you add in a second category—people who say they’re “pretty happy”—that difference nearly disappears: 95.7 percent of Democrats are “very” or “pretty” happy, while 97.5 percent of Republicans say the same. (Yet another possible headline: In Polling About Marital Happiness, Nearly All Americans Are Liars.)