Do presidents really reward the states that voted them into office?

August 29, 2013

One of the most interesting papers I've seen at this year's American Political Science Association convention comes from Douglas Kriner and Andrew Reeves, who took a close look at the federal grantmaking process and concluded that presidents tend to reward states and counties that vote for them, states and counties that they're hoping will vote for them, and crucial congressional allies.

This might not seem like a surprising result to you. But it cuts against the grain of at least some political science, which portrays the president as being above petty, parochial concerns.

The paper is great, and the effort to prove the favoritism is painstaking. But it mostly convinced me that the president is, to a surprising degree, above petty and parochial concerns.

In the first case, the size of the rewards are small. Kriner and Reeves find that key swing states get a boost in the low tens of millions of dollars during election years. That's real money, of course. But it's an infinitesimal portion of the multi-trillion dollar federal budget. It's less, in fact, then these states are getting in direct election spending during election years.

Of course, the grantmaking process isn't the whole of the federal government. But zoom out and federal grants look like the exception that proves the rule. Instead of seeing more political favoritism on big-ticket legislation, you find examples of major, high-value policies that are absolutely punishing to the president's coalition.

Obamacare is perhaps the best recent example. The law is a huge transfer from rich states to poor states, and from states with expansive social safety nets to states with weak social safety nets, and that means that it's a huge transfer from blue states to red states.

Take the Medicaid expansion. The way it works is that the federal government foots almost the entire bill for states to expand their Medicaid program from wherever it is now to covering everyone making less than 133 percent of the poverty. That means a state like Massachusetts, which has already expanded its Medicaid program to 133 percent of poverty, doesn't get much help. But a state like Texas, which has one of the stingiest Medicaid programs in the country, gets billions of dollars in free money. Here's a graph:


The top beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid program are mostly red states. (Data: Kaiser Family Foundation; Graph: Todd Lindeman)

Bizarrely, a number of conservative states -- including Texas -- are rejecting this free money. But in many other states (Florida, Arizona, Michigan) Republican governors have been fighting with Republican legislators to accept the funds. They're not doing this because they love Obamacare. They're doing it because Obamacare is an obscenely good deal for them -- in part because it's not a great deal for generous blue states.

And it's not just Obamacare. If you look at the states with the most millionaires, it's a parade of blue states: New York, Connecticut, Maryland, California, etc. That means quite a lot of Bush's tax cuts went to states that voted Democratic in 2000 and 2004. It also means that Obama's tax increases are falling heavily on states that voted for him in 2008 and 2012.

Obviously you could recast some of this as simply rewarding a different kind of coalition: To a first approximation, rich people lean Republican, while poorer folks vote Democratic. But now you're in a land where ideology is a better explanation than favoritism: Rich people vote Republican because the GOP's agenda is more congenial to them, and poor people vote for Democrats because the Democratic agenda is better for them.

Then there are the kind of policies that presidents never pursue. Dozens of people have e-mailed me suggesting that sequestration would end if President Obama simply accepted the GOP's offers to give him discretion over the cuts and then used that discretion to punish Republican states. My guess is politically that would backfire, but at any rate, it's hard to know because modern presidents basically never do this kind of thing.

Or, on an even milder level, Democrats could've stripped Obamacare and Dodd-Frank of the hundreds of amendments and tweaks added by Republican legislators who ultimately declined to vote for the law. But they didn't. A lot of Republicans got a lot of what they wanted in those laws even as they did everything they could to defeat the administration on them.

All of which is to say, on the big-ticket items, presidents often govern in ways that a cynic wouldn't expect. Given the amount of favoritism they could show, and the plausible punishments they could mete out, the norms holding presidents to a higher standard seem to work remarkably well.

Update: It looks like I was confused about one of the graphs -- and thus the magnitude of the swing-state advantage. Kriner e-mails:

I did want to just send a quick clarification of one part of our argument. I think poor labeling of our figures today miscommunicated the true size of the swing state effect. In our figures we had a bar labeled "swing state" show an increase of about $30 million in an election year. It's important to note however that this is the advantage that the average county in a swing state would receive, now how much the entire state would receive.

The paper was a part of a larger book project, and in the preceding chapter we analyze data at the state level. The models in that chapter allow us to estimate that the average swing state today receives over a $500 million increase in grant spending versus non-competitive (and non-core) states.

$500 million is, of course, a lot more than $50 million, so this increases the power of the argument considerably. It doesn't wipe out the larger argument I make in the post about big-ticket legislation often betraying a president's geographic coalition, but all things equal, it's nice to be a swing state.

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