Jack Kemp famously called for the GOP to “take off its green eyeshades” in the late 1970s. By this he meant that the GOP needed to stop focusing primarily on balancing budgets and start focusing on how to grow the economy and improve the lives of average Americans. After its brief, unsuccessful detour into modern greeneyeshadism by nominating venture capitalist and business consultant extraordinaire Mitt Romney, most nationally serious Republicans are back to talking less about numbers and more about middle-class people. But if this map is any indication, even this effort still views America through a lens of green eyeshades.
This map shows household income for every county, town, and neighborhood in America. Wealthy and upper-middle-class areas are colored green, while the rest of America is colored in orange. As you can see, most of America is some shade of brown, while most of the eastern seaboard is colored in some shade of green.
This small detail on a map makes a world of difference to conservative and GOP chances to run the country. Virtually every major national consultant, analyst, staffer, and journalist lives in the green areas in and around Washington D.C., America’s Emerald City. This is a land where families making $100,000 a year struggle to buy a decent house, where everyone has a college degree, and the major health-care struggle is finding a doctor who takes your insurance.
This problem is compounded by the rise of super-donor-driven super PACs. Virtually all of the large donors who give to super PACs and GOP campaigns live in local versions of the Emerald City. They see highly educated people who get ahead by working hard, lots of prosperity and wealth, and think this is what America looks like. The major political problem they see is that some of their neighbors and friends vote Democratic, so they naturally think a national majority can be crafted by persuading those people to vote more on their self-interest and less on social and other issues. That view makes sense within the walls of the Emerald City, but outside of that realm America is a horse of a different color.
Contrast that with the vast bulk of the country, especially in the swing states needed to retake the presidency. Ohio has very few green counties; Florida, Wisconsin, and Iowa have virtually none. In those states, making $100,000 is rare and enables you to live a very comfortable life. Most people make between $25,000 and $75,000 a year, with many more on the low end of that range than the high. In most of these counties, more people get by on less than $25,000 a year than earn more than $75,000. In these places, “decent home” means something much more humble, very few people have college degrees, and the major health-care struggle is getting or keeping private health insurance at all.
People with high-school degrees making $40,000 a year face problems very different from those of college-educated folks making $80,000. Their economic future is much more unstable, their job opportunities more limited, and their family finances more precarious. There are many more families in these circumstances among the growing Hispanic populations of the Southwest or the vast plains of the Midwest than one would guess living in the Emerald Cities. Republicans are right to focus on the needs of the middle class, but they must better understand who the middle class is if they are to succeed.
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.