The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, it’s not new that some working-class and poor whites vote Republican

The symbols of the Democratic (donkey) and Republican (elephant) parties are displayed in Washington. (Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse)
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A trope of political journalism is to wonder why many lower-income voters prefer the Republican Party despite its more conservative economic policies.

For example, here’s Jelani Cobb last week in the New Yorker:

Ever since Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, progressives have pondered why working-class and poor whites vote Republican, against their own interests.

It may well be that progressives have pondered this, but I have two things to say.

First, how can you be so sure it’s “against their own interests” to vote Republican? The Republican Party supports policies such as lower taxes, higher military spending and, more recently, immigration restrictions. It’s perfectly reasonable for a lower-income person to think this is in their interests.

Second, if you want to ponder this, you should realize that lots of lower-income whites have been voting Republican for a long time. Here’s a graph showing the Republican share of the two-party vote for president in each election from 1940 through 2004, looking separately at voters in the lower and upper third of income (not quite “rich” and “poor” but an easy way to summarize survey data without running out of sample size). In the early part of this series, of course, almost all these voters were white:

In the 1940s, the Republican opponents of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were getting votes from lower- as well as upper-income voters. In the 1950s and 1960, Republican candidates Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did just about as well among lower-income voters as among those with higher incomes.

There have been changes over the years, and in the past few elections, the gap between the Republican vote share among rich and poor whites has narrowed. So it’s reasonable to ask what has changed. But don’t kid yourself. The Republican Party has had conservative economic policies for more than 100 years, and a good percentage of lower-income Americans have been voting for them.

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