Andrew Gelman’s recommendations

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Andrew Gelman on How Americans Vote

About Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. He has received the Outstanding Statistical Application award from the American Statistical Association, the award for best article published in the American Political Science Review, and the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies award for outstanding contributions by a person under the age of 40. 

As Romney vs Obama enters the final stretch, the statistician and author of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State uncovers the (often surprising) realities of how Americans of different backgrounds vote

You’re a statistician and wrote a book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, looking at why Americans vote the way they do. In an election year I think it would be a good time to revisit that question, not just for people in the US, but anyone around the world who wants to understand the realities – rather than the stereotypes – of how Americans vote.

I regret the title I gave my book. I was too greedy. I wanted it to be an airport bestseller because I figured there were millions of people who are interested in politics and some subset of them are always looking at the statistics. It’s got a very grabby title and as a result people underestimated the content. They thought it was a popularisation of my work, or, at best, an expansion of an article we’d written. But it had tons of original material. If I’d given it a more serious, political science-y title, then all sorts of people would have wanted to read it, because they would have felt they needed to know all the important secrets in it. Instead, I gave it this accessible title which meant that people felt that they didn’t necessarily have to read it. I also regret not putting more about the process of discovery in that book, how we found out what we found out.

What would you have called the book if you were given another chance?

Maybe something like Voting by the Numbers or The Hidden Patterns or Secret Life of the American Voter, something like that. Or something very dry, that conveyed it was serious, like Demography, Geography and American Voting. Almost every time there was a graph, it involved a separate little research project. I put in huge amounts of effort. As they say in poker, I went all in on it, I wanted to make it the best possible thing.

I notice from your blog as well that one of the stereotypes that you are keen on debunking is this idea that working-class people in America vote conservative. A number of people have gone to some lengths to try to explain this phenomenon, but you seem to think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Somehow people on the left and on the right find it difficult to understand. On the left, people think that 100% of working-class people should vote for the left, so anything less than 100% makes them feel that there is something that went wrong. They just cannot understand how this could be. On the right, you get the opposite. It’s considered a validation – they want to believe that these more virtuous people are voting for them. But even in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, a lot of low-income people voted Republican. There was no magic golden age in which lower-income working-class people were uniformly Democrat. It was always various subgroups of the population.

How many of the poor did vote for the Democrats, say, in the last election?

Of the lowest third of the population about 60% voted for the Democrats.

What if you narrow it down to blue-collar workers though? Don’t the majority of them vote conservative?

Then you have to ask, what does that exactly mean? Someone could make $100,000 a year and be blue collar. Conversely, if you’re a woman cleaning bedpans and making very little money, you’re not blue collar. Cleaning bedpans is not considered blue-collar work. There is the way that, firstly, blue collar conveys some sort of moral superiority, and secondly that it just happens to exclude a lot of the female workforce, who are more likely to be Democrats. If you take only blue collar – which is mostly male – and don’t even restrict for income and then you go beyond that to only include whites, you’re chipping away at various groups that support the Democrats, without noticing what’s happening. It sounds very innocuous to talk about blue-collar whites, but you’re selecting a subgroup among this social class which is particularly conservative, and then making some claims about them.

What’s the single most interesting thing you discovered writing your book?

If I had to summarise one thing from Red State, Blue State that we discovered, it’s the fact that the biggest differences between red states and blue states are occurring at the upper-income level, rather than the lower-income level. If you look at high-income voters, America is very geographically and ideologically divided. If you look at lower-income voters, there’s less division. That was really our big point.

Explain a bit more.

If you compare states like New York and California on the one hand and Texas on the other, the lower-income voters in these states don’t differ so much. Obama did better among lower-income voters in New York than in Texas, but it wasn’t as different as the differences among high-income voters. Another way of saying this is that if you compare people’s attitudes from surveys in Republican-leaning states to Democrat-leaning states, low-income people don’t differ much, on average, in their social and economic attitudes. Low-income Americans tend to be economically liberal and fairly moderate on social issues. Upper-middle-class Americans, on other hand, vary a lot by region. In Republican states they tend to be very conservative on economic issues and moderate on social issues. In Democrat-leaning states, upper-middle-class or rich people tend to be moderately conservative on economics and liberal on social issues.

If you look at the very richest Americans – we don’t know about them from surveys, but we can look at campaign contributions – they’re very important campaign contributors for the Republicans. The rich supporters of the Republicans are very conservative economically. The very richest Americans are also very important contributors for the Democrats. But the rich supporters of the Democrats are not ultra-left economically. The richest people on the left don’t like the Republicans, they’ll support moderately higher taxes and so forth, but they’re not socialists. They’re not so extreme. So there’s an asymmetry there.

As a statistician, if you were giving Obama election advice now, what would you tell him to do?

He needs to do what’s possible to make people feel more prosperous. He knows that. Both sides have a lot of experts so they understand that. I don’t know if I have any special advice. They’re going to put most of their effort on swing states, which makes sense, but I don’t think they’re going to learn much from polling these states and finding out little fluctuations. Public opinion swings tend to be national swings.

Let’s talk about this some more in the context of the books you’ve chosen. You’ve started with The Almanac of American Politics, which is published every two years by The National Journal.

This first came out in 1971 and it was written for many years by a journalist named Michael Barone. It was really an amazing book, especially when it first came out. It had 435 chapters, a little essay about each congressional district in the country, who lived there and what it was like. It’s a book that’s been very important to political professionals, but it’s almost like a bit of sociology. If you read a book about contemporary America it will focus on whatever it focuses on, whatever the interests of the author are. Even a book that’s more encyclopaedic, might talk about the 50 states. But the 50 states are different sizes, and some are much bigger than others. By being forced to write a little essay about each congressional district, this book created a geographically balanced portrait of America, which you just could not get anywhere else. And it was just fun to read.

Now – you could always tell this but over the years it became more and more of a clear pattern – there is a bit of an ideological bias in the book. Barone is now an outspoken conservative – in fact he embarrassed himself a few years ago by saying that the liberal media had attacked Sarah Palin because she did not abort her Down syndrome baby. Then he apologised and said it was a joke. Going back to The Almanac of American Politics, you realise he has a little bit of a thumb on the scale. If he’s talking about a place where people vote for Democrats, it always seems to be a declining, rust-belt, corrupt area, and when it’s an area that’s voting for Republicans, it’s always a dynamic, exciting part of the country. But it’s still amazing. Go back and read some of the early ones especially, and then skip a decade and read it again, and you get a portrait of America that, even if it’s not perfect, is unique.

Did you use it for your research?

In 1990 when I got my PhD I went to Berkeley into the statistics department. They offered me a few thousand dollars so I could buy a home computer. I said I didn’t want one – I would take the money and buy books instead. This was one of the books on the list. This was the book that, in the old days, every American political scientist would have on their shelf. There’s no substitute. Even Wikipedia is not really a substitute. If you want to look up any particular district, you can look it up, but having a book where every district takes up the same amount of space, there’s just something amazing about it.

Give an example of something I might want to look up.

You might want to look up something you’re personally interested in, like where you live or where you went to college, or where your mother grew up. Or you might open up to anywhere. What’s the 19th district in Illinois like? And it would be this thumbnail portrait of this area of 700,000 Americans, and what makes them vote one way or the other. Of course it has numbers too. It’s a bit like one of these baseball statistics books. You have the description of the player and then his statistics. You can see how the Republicans and Democrats have done in elections in these districts.

OK, I’ll look up the part of New York state I live in, because I’ve always wondered about the political attitudes of the people around me. It seems to be impolite in America to talk about politics or ask any direct questions, so this may be a way around that.

It is public information if people are registered for a party. If you’re a registered Democrat I should be able to find that out just by going and looking at the public records. I was just reading an autobiography of Ring Lardner Jr. He’s famous for writing the screenplay for M*A*S*H, and he was part of a Hollywood blacklist for many years. He had a story about how the FBI had been following him for decades because they knew how he voted. We’re supposed to have a secret ballot, but in his precinct in Los Angeles he was the only person listed who was neither Democrat nor Republican. When they posted the election results after election day, there were a certain number of people who voted for Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrat, and a certain number of people who voted for Alf Landon the Republican, and then there was one vote for the Communist.

Let’s go on to your next book, The 480, by Eugene Burdick.

This is a novel that was written in 1964, by one of the authors of The Ugly American, which is a book you might not have ever heard of but you’ve heard the phrase. It was a cultural touchstone. It came out in the late 1950s, and it took place in a hypothetical, Vietnam-like country in Asia, and it’s about the Americans losing the war of hearts and minds to the Communists.

The 480 is about evil political consultants who are manipulating the American public to vote for an empty-suit type of character for president. The number 480 referred to an actual analysis that was done by some political scientists, including a political scientist named Sam Popkin, who is now at the University of California in San Diego. They divided the population into 480 demographic and geographic subgroups, based on things like religion, age, sex, what region of the country and so on. The idea was that they knew how many people were in each group and they would pitch their messages to those groups. It’s a classic work in political science. I think they also advised the Kennedy campaign. Back then it was very impressive, but we can do much more now in terms of data analysis, we can get estimates for all 50 states now which they couldn’t do back then.

But there was something funny about this book, about these backroom political consultants manipulating the election. It’s not at all realistic, though it’s much more realistic than a book like The Manchurian Candidate, which is a big joke. This book is a satire but it reflects serious concerns about politics.

Presumably, then, the implication is that there is something sinister about having all this information?

The idea is that these people know enough about us so that they can manipulate our vote. Realistically, political consultants nowadays know a lot about us, and they do try to convince us. There are two kinds of people they follow. One is people where they know who they’re going to vote for, but they’re not sure that they’re going to vote. The other is people who are very likely to vote, but you don’t know which way they’re going to vote. The first type of person they try to mobilise just to turn out and vote, and the second kind of person they try to persuade. They’re pretty good at knowing who people are. In fact, at this point, a lot of this is just a question of resources. To the extent they have resources they will go out to people and call you on the phone. If they think you’re already likely to vote for a certain candidate, they’ll try to find somebody to knock on your door and convince you that it’s an important election and it’s worth voting for. In some sense it’s not as mysterious or conspiratorial as it’s made out to be in that book.

It’s just a question of resources?

Yes, it’s expensive. It’s said to cost about $40 per vote. You have to get enthusiastic volunteers and really knock on people’s doors.

It’s not about sending out some subliminal message – it’s just about having someone enthusiastic on your doorstep?

They do play with the messages a lot. They do a lot of experimentation. I remember reading one paper that came out where they framed the same question in two different ways. They try to say things like, “Everybody votes, so you should vote too.” I don’t know how much I believe it, but from some experimental evidence they claim that certain phrasing is particularly effective. Of course both sides are doing it, which is what you’d want. It’s only fair for both sides to do it. A lot of the great inequalities arise before you get to the general election. Certain candidates just don’t have a chance in the primary because they don’t have the money. The two parties are more equally balanced. The other issues in unfairness come in what policies the parties consider. The actual election is not too far from a fair fight.

What do you mean by unfairness in the policies parties consider?

I mean that there are policies that get proposed and policies that don’t get proposed, and the lobbyists have an impact. When the election year comes up, we think a lot about elections. But if you think about what issues get raised in Congress and what things the president does and doesn’t do, a lot of those are going to be affected by campaign contributors.

Tell me about The Rational Public: 50 Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences.

The Rational Public was written by two political scientists, Ben Page and Bob Shapiro. Bob Shapiro has the office next to mine in the political science department here at Columbia. The book came out in 1992 and they found something in public opinion that my colleagues and I had already noticed in elections, which is something we call “uniform partisan swing”. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but the basic idea is that Americans are spread out on some left-right scale, and we are, of course, quite diverse in our opinions. But when there is a change in opinion it tends to move everybody together. Not always, but generally. For example, gay rights are more popular than they used to be, amongst pretty much all groups. Or attitudes about economic issues – Americans are more economically conservative and more socially liberal than they used to be. Things tend to move at a national level.

Normally, when you have an election, it’s the same. Barack Obama is expected to get 4% to 5% less of the vote this election than last time. It’s roughly the same amount less in every state. Page and Shapiro looked at a whole bunch of issues and found that people were moving together.

They also found that people’s attitudes were rational, they made some sense. There have been findings in public opinion literature about something called “non-attitudes”, which is that sometimes you ask people a question and you come back and ask them later and they seem to have a completely different answer. But on issues that people have thought about, people have fairly sensible views. Often people have reasonable views that are not always conveyed that well, because they contradict a larger story. For example, voters tend to be consistently willing to cut certain aspects of the budget, including the military. But cutting the military is never very popular in Congress. That’s something you don’t always hear about. Americans support the military but they don’t support such a high military budget. It’s a very impressive book. They go through every issue and it’s quantitative – they have a lot of graphs – but they look at every issue seriously on its own terms.

So the public really is rational?

That’s what they say. The public can be manipulated, but generally they feel that people have fairly consistent views.

Why does this happen, people swinging on issues together, at a national level?

The ideological playing field is already laid out, so it varies. Sometimes an issue will become politicised. Take, for example, attitudes about climate change. That became very politicised – Democrats and Republicans moved in different directions. Most issues are already politicised. Once the politicisation has happened, once the issue has gone through that phase, then everybody tends to move together. You can even think about it in terms of attitudes to Obama. When he was elected, Democrats were very excited about him, and Republicans were sceptical. Independents wanted to give him a chance. Then, after some bad economic years, we have Republicans really detesting him, Independents not liking him – and Democrats not really liking him much either. The interesting thing is that a lot of Democrats say they don’t like Obama because they feel he’s not so liberal, he’s selling out, whereas a lot of Republicans don’t like Obama because they feel he’s an ideologue. I don’t buy either of those claims. What I think is happening is that fundamentally people aren’t liking Obama because they don’t think he’s performing well. They just have different storylines. The Republican storyline for someone who is a Democrat who they don’t like is that he’s an extreme liberal. The Democratic storyline for someone they don’t like is that he’s a weak sell-out. Even though it seems like they’re having opposite reactions, in reality it’s just the same reaction that’s being rationalised. It’s not that people are being irrational, it’s that the reason they give for their attitudes doesn’t always hold up. But the actual attitude is reasonable. Even if people get a lot of the facts wrong – and you can certainly do survey after survey, where you see people getting the facts wrong, and misunderstanding things – it is reasonable to say you’re less supportive of the president after some bad economic times.

Going back to what we discussed at the beginning, and this trend discussed in books like What’s the Matter with Kansas? – you really don’t think it’s irrational to vote against your economic interests?

What’s rational in voting is not about your own personal economic interests. The main outcome of the election is not what affects you, it’s what affects the entire country. So there’s a lot of evidence that people vote for what they think is good for the country. Of course, if you’re personally unemployed and know a lot of unemployed people, then it makes sense that you will feel that unemployment is a big issue. On the other hand, if you have money in the bank, people are still somehow concerned about inflation. What you consider important problems are certainly impacted by your experiences. But, no, I don’t think it’s a matter of your direct economic interests. I would say it’s indirect.

By the way, Bob Shapiro wrote an interesting paper in 2009 right after the last election where he talked about all the problems Obama would have passing healthcare reform. He was right. Everybody thought it would be easy, but he recognised from looking at the survey data, that things in 2009 with Obama were very similar to what they were in 1993 with Bill Clinton. He’s a very clear-eyed observer. He should be the guy on the TV they ask about public opinion, not all these other bozos.

So here is one of the broader questions I wanted to put to you: Why is America so right wing? Take healthcare, which you just mentioned. Every other developed country in the world has universal healthcare. For wealthy countries, the idea that the government should either provide it or make sure it’s provided is completely uncontroversial. Why is the US different?

It’s hard to get from point A to point B. It would probably be hard to find many people who would argue that the American healthcare system is better than the French healthcare system, or even the Taiwanese healthcare system. What’s not obvious is how to get there. There are so many interests involved, so much money, so many companies. If they could somehow switch out the US system and switch in this other system – like they have in Taiwan or France – I think that would be wonderful. But it doesn’t seem that that’s considered an option. There are too many people who are doing fine from the current system. The argument made by the opponents of healthcare reform is that it would just be worse if you tried to get to that point from what we already have – we’d have the worst of both worlds. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s my answer.

What about the right-wingness of America generally? When you go to America as a European, you begin to feel like Fidel Castro compared with the people around you. Everyone just seems further to the right on all sorts of issues. Do you have any insights into why that is?

I don’t have a good answer to that. People sometimes say it has to do with geographical divisions. In the United States the lower-income parts of the country tend to be more politically conservative. This happens in other countries too. The idea is that the richer places within a country – or even within a continent like Europe – tend to be more cosmopolitan, more socially liberal and lower-income places tend to be more traditional. Look at a country like Finland – it used to be one of the poorest places in Europe and now it’s one of the richest places. Being richer is associated with more of an open, liberal social attitude. Economics is more complicated. Traditionally, lower-income areas support more economic redistribution. In Europe, for example, the Greeks are lower income and more supportive of redistribution, and the Germans are in the opposite position.

In the US that was traditionally the case as well. But now the lower-income areas are less supportive of redistribution. This is one of the issues we explore in our book. We don’t have a complete story. Part of it is to do with racial politics. The South changed to the Republican Party, and there were changes that happened in the South – legal changes in the 1960s, where there was redistricting – and rural parts of the South got less representation and the cities and the suburbs got more representation. People from the cities and the suburbs tend to be more conservative on economic issues, and may be a better fit for the national Republican Party.

Another thing is that the Democratic Party is very reliant on various groups of rich people. Even to the extent that they’re liberal rich people, they’re not extremely liberal economically. They’re very much supportive of free markets. A Silicon Valley millionaire who supports Obama is looking for a Bill Clinton-style economic boom – he’s not looking for some sort of traditional socialist party.

You mentioned the politics of race. This is a big part of your next book, Fire on the Prairie, about Chicago’s first black mayor. Do you want to tell me a bit about it?

This is just an amazing story. It’s written by a journalist from Chicago who was clearly very sympathetic to Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago in the 1980s. He was an African-American, he’d been a member of Congress, and after the end of the old Daley machine in Chicago he ran for mayor. Actually there are several amazing stories. First that Chicago is a majority white city and he won the Democratic primary election and then the general election. He took advantage of divisions among his opponents. It was a very racist campaign. Washington was saying his opponents were corrupt and that they needed new leadership; his white opponents were saying that he couldn’t be trusted, that he was corrupt and that you should stick with what you have.

Then, after he became the mayor, there was just this amazing battle. The city council had 50 members and they were divided between supporters of Washington and supporters of his white opponents with a couple inbetween. Over the next couple of years, through a series of deals and elections, Washington and his allies ended up taking control of the council. It wasn’t just about winning the election, but this Stalingrad-type block-by-block battle afterwards. It’s just a very exciting story. And he won. You just don’t expect to see that. They managed to replace this alderman, then they managed to get this person to vote on their side, and eventually they twisted enough arms and did what they needed. Then Washington died of a heart attack.

It’s a fascinating book because it’s not only about the election but also about the political manoeuvrings. I’m an expert on public opinion and elections but I don’t really have much understanding of political manoeuvrings. In university politics I always managed to piss people off. This is a readable book, very fascinating, and then at the end when he dies, it’s very sad.

From the reviews I’ve read, it does seem like a bit of a potboiler.

It’s got good guys and bad guys, and unexpected twists. Washington was a very tough guy. It would have been very tempting for him to just have given up, and say, “Well, I did what I could.” But he didn’t.

In terms of the politics of race, what do we need to know about how race affects voting in the US?

At the national level, close to 90% of African-Americans vote for Democrats. For Obama it was about 96%. I think a lot of white people feel Democrats are the black party and don’t support them for that reason.

This is particularly in the Southern states?

Yes, though obviously it was also a big deal in Chicago. The assumption has always been that a black candidate could not win most of the white vote, so at first he was just not considered a serious candidate. It was just assumed that white people weren’t going to vote for this guy.

Were you incredibly surprised when Obama was elected?

No. He was in the lead, and the economy had not being doing well, so that meant the Democrat would do well. The stronger the partisan cues are, the less important other things are. People do argue about this. Some people claim – which may be true – that Obama maybe didn’t do as well as he would have done if he’d been white. He did about as well as predicted, based on the economy, but he outspent McCain. You could argue that Obama should have done a couple of percentage points better than forecast, because of the unequal campaign. It’s hard to say. People did some surveys where they claimed that some percentage of white people were less likely to vote for Obama because he was black. This kind of thing came up with Romney too. There were some people who said they wouldn’t vote for him because he’s a Mormon. People say all sorts of things in the abstract, but then when it comes to the election, they vote for him. I don’t really believe a lot of these things now, when people say “I won’t do x or y”. They won’t do it right up to the second they do it, and after they do it, they try to explain why it didn’t count.

These uniform partisan swings you mentioned, don’t they go against the whole notion of increasing partisanship in the US?

There is increasing partisanship, but it’s something that is happening gradually. Things that are happening in the timescale of a week or a month or a year, are pretty uniform. Long-term, though, the parties have been moving apart. Democrats are more and more distrustful of the Republicans and Republicans are more and more distrustful of the Democrats. So that is happening at the same time. You have the local uniform swings, within the context of the entire topography changing.

We’ve got to your last book, The Emerging Republican Majority.

This is by Kevin Phillips. I don’t know his exact job title, but he worked for Richard Nixon. This was a classic book from 1969, about how American politics were changing. The idea was that, partly as a result of the Democrats becoming more uniformly liberal and having more support of blacks, Republicans would soon be able to get the support of various groups of white people, such as urban Catholics, who had traditionally been very strong Democrats. Richard Nixon could get political success, basically, by convincing a lot of white people – not the white people who are traditionally in charge of the country but so-called ethnic white people – that the Democrats were not on their side. Their pitch was that the Republicans were the only truly national party and the Democrats were a sectional party. The Democrats were representing interest groups and only Republicans were representing America. This was seemingly a very successful pitch, and it really mapped a new populism. It wasn’t a new argument. Nixon was making this argument back when he was Joe McCarthy’s buddy in the 1950s. Back then he was already arguing that the Democrats were a bunch of Communists and elitists, but the message didn’t catch on so well in the 1950s. Somehow it became more convincing around 1970 when the economy wasn’t going so well, and when there was a war in Vietnam and fighting in the streets.

In the last few years Phillips has written some very angry books. He really detests George W Bush, basically arguing that the Republicans have been captured by a mixture of rich elites and extreme religious groups. If you look at a book like The Emerging Republican Majority, it’s not about the rich, it’s much more the idea that the Republicans are the sane middle of the country. He became a bit disturbed. This doesn’t discredit the Republicans, the fact that one of their operatives think they went too far. He’s just one guy. But it’s a very important book historically. It’s about a tactic that was actually followed successfully.

Does it have insights for the present?

It has insights in terms of how we got to where we are. Looking back, there was no reason to think the Republicans would become this alliance between some very religiously conservative people and these very economically conservative people. It was a different era of what was possible. Various industrialists at the time would have loved to have very low tax rates, but I don’t think it would have been considered possible. There have been big changes in American politics – big moves to the right on economic issues and to the left on social issues.

This interview was first published in June 2012. 

Books by Andrew Gelman

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