How the Rich Are Different From You and Me

Places that went for Obama are richer and smarter than places that went for McCain.

Last month’s election was historic and may even have been transformative, as many commentators said. But in one important respect, it changed nothing. The divide between Republicans and Democrats in America continues to grow.

And it isn’t just about politics. The division is also between rich and poor, between those with college educations and those without. On average, Republican communities have lower incomes and less education than Democratic communities. And those differences are growing as people migrate.

Just more than 600 counties (of more than 3,100 nationally) voted Republican more heavily in this year’s presidential contest than in 2004. The average per capita yearly income in those counties was about $18,800, according to county income tallies issued each year by the Internal Revenue Service. (Income in this article is determined by the amount of adjusted gross taxable income listed on individual tax returns from 2004-07. Per capita income equals gross income divided by the number of personal exemptions.) By contrast, those living in the 500-plus counties that voted more heavily Democratic this year than in 2004 had average personal incomes of $28,000—nearly 50 percent higher than the communities trending Republican. The most Democratic counties (those where Barack Obama won by more than 20 percentage points) had average per capita incomes of $28,207. Those counties where John McCain won by similar margins had average personal incomes of just $21,308.

Places divided by income are also separated by education. In landslide Democratic counties, 32.7 percent of the adult population had a bachelor’s degree or better. In Republican counties where McCain won by 20 points or better, 20.4 percent of adults had finished college or graduate school.

More than 30 years ago, pollster Everett Carll Ladd Jr. wrote about the “inversion of the New Deal Order.” Ladd was one of the first to notice that white workers without a college degree were voting Republican in larger numbers and that educated white workers were turning Democratic.

The debate over whether working-class white voters have abandoned the Democratic Party rages on. (See this recent paper on the “shifting and diverging white working class in U.S. presidential elections.”) In the meantime, the results from this year’s election show that there is certainly a geographic division in America based on class and status. Democrats won in the richest and most educated communities in the country.

As people migrate, these divisions (political, educational, and economic) among American communities are increasing. Again using IRS records, we tracked the average income of people who moved between counties since the 2004 election. Those who trekked across state lines from 2003-07 and settled in counties that grew more Republican this year had average incomes of $18,300. The people who moved into counties that became more Democratic in 2008 averaged $28,100 in yearly income. So those who moved to blue counties had incomes more than 50 percent higher than those migrating to the reddest of counties.

And in the “flip” counties, the contrast is even starker. In all of the United States, there were only 44 counties that voted for John Kerry in 2004 but for John McCain in 2008. The average annual per capita income of the people who moved into these counties between the two elections was $16,500. That’s 34 percent less than those who migrated into the 331 counties that went for George Bush in ‘04 but Obama in ‘08.

People with fewer money-making skills are moving into counties that are voting increasingly Republican. Those with higher incomes (and more education) are moving into counties that are voting more Democratic. The more lopsided the local political victory, the greater the differences in income and education.

This phenomenon held true in cities and rural communities alike. In those urban centers that voted overwhelmingly for John McCain, 23.6 percent of the adult population had at least a bachelor’s degree. In urban counties that voted in a landslide for Obama, 33.3 percent had at least a college degree. In rural counties that voted in a landslide for McCain, 15.2 percent of adults had a college degree or better. In rural Obama landslide counties, it was 19.2 percent.

We don’t pretend to understand the full meaning of how this country is dividing. We can see, however, that America is becoming more polarized not only politically but also educationally and economically—and that a country Balkanized by skills and by income has more troubles than one that is simply divided by votes.