The Agenda

How Partisan Demographics Shape Policy Thinking

Earlier today, I had a brief conversation with Josh Barro of Business Insider, during which we briefly touched on a number of topics, including climate policy and the employer mandate. This reminded me of Josh’s series of charts describing the various ways in which the demographic composition of congressional districts represented by Republicans and Democrats differ. The most striking contrast is that Republicans represent districts that have a much higher proportion of non-Hispanic whites (75% R, 51% D), married-couple families (52% R, 44% D), and homeowners (42% R, 30% D). And as David Frum observed in 2008, regions represented by Republicans also tend to have an egalitarian distribution of income, which might flow from the fact that they have somewhat fewer adults with less than a high school diploma as well as fewer adults with a college degree or more. 

So why does this matter? A year ago, during the GOP presidential primaries, I described how the demographics of partisanship might interact with the demographics of unemployment. Crudely, I argued that because unemployment had more of an impact of Democratic-aligned constituencies than Republican-aligned constituencies, Republican candidates faced less political pressure to focus on the near-term unemployment problem. John Hudak’s analysis of the politics of coverage expansion makes a similar point: Republican governors of states with large numbers of uninsured individuals generally don’t represent the uninsured population, which is disproportionately Latino and black and low-income. 

In a basic way, Republican and Democratic governors are not putting principle before politics. Instead, they are capitalizing on the politics of health care and appealing to the voters most important to their electoral needs. While Republican governors have higher percentages of uninsured in their states, their key voters don’t face the same burden. Conversely, voters critical to Democrats’ electoral fates face dramatically higher uninsured rates. Such a basis for policy support—constituency needs—is certainly not a damning trait. Elected officials are seeking to represent a sufficient percentage of their electorate. However, both sides’ political rhetoric of principle and altruism is disingenuous. Concerns about general health and welfare or of government takeovers are window dressing for political pandering.

One might object to Hudak’s ungenerous framing — but the upshot is the same if we assume, as we ought to, that Republican governors and lawmakers are more engaged with the concerns and interests of their supporters, for the obvious reason that they are more likely to interact with their supporters. Tax-sensitive middle-income and upper-middle-income voters weigh more heavily in their minds than voters who rely heavily on means-tested programs like Medicaid or who are uninsured, and so a desire to contain the costs of Medicaid will tend to trump a desire to expand access to Medicaid or to make the Medicaid program more generous. In a similar vein, Democratic governors and lawmakers might be more inclined to emphasize coverage expansion, as they are more likely to represent voters who would directly benefit from it. Democrats also tend to represent public employees, which will incline them towards backing the expansion of public services more broadly. (Hudak’s analysis sheds light on the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats have tended to emphasize that less-skilled immigration will improve labor market matching and thus will expand the overall size of the economic pie, which can then be divvied up to meet any resulting increase in the demand for means-tested transfers. Republicans, or rather some Republicans, have tended to emphasize that less-skilled immigration will increase the demand for means-tested transfers, and that even if we assume that less-skilled immigration will grow the economic pie, the benefits will largely accrue to new immigrants and the most affluent natives and the process of divvying up the pie for redistributive purposes is notoriously imprecise and friction-creating.) 

To return to Josh’s charts, looking at the demographics of congressional districts is one thing. If we were able to drill into the demographics of Republican voters in these districts in congressional elections, or indeed in GOP primaries, I would guess that we’d find a population in which non-Hispanic whites, married-couple families, and homeowners are even more overrepresented relative to the country as a whole. Though there are many married non-Hispanic white homeowners who’ve suffered in the post-crisis economic climate – I imagine that the numbers are particularly high in states like Nevada, Arizona, and Florida that were hit hardest by the housing bust – this is a constituency that has fared relatively well, and that is disproportionately likely to have access to employer-provided health coverage. (In the new issue of National Affairs, Chris Pope describes the often-unheralded virtues of employer-provided coverage.)

And finally, consider educational outcomes for non-Hispanic white students. We are often told that U.S. K-12 students perform poorly relative to their counterparts in other affluent countries. In 2010, Tino Sanandaji contrasted educational outcomes for Americans of European ancestry with students of European ancestry from other OECD countries, the U.S. performed extremely well. Finland, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium were ahead of the U.S., but the U.S. was ahead of Estonia, Australia, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Ireland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovakia, and Greece. Americans of European ancestry were just behind the average of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Sanandaji’s methods are imperfect, as he would readily acknowledge. Yet his analysis does help explain why Republican voters tend to be content with the quality of their local schools. GOP advocates of school reform have tended to have the most success at the state level, when entrepreneurial governors have sought to promote institutional innovation by reducing the power of teachers unions. This reflects the fact that Republicans running statewide are obligated to represent a somewhat broader constituency than Republican lawmakers, but it might also reflect the fact that reducing the power of teacher unions might have ancillary political benefits, as teachers unions are a large, vocal, and active Democratic constituency. 

Conservative reformers often argue that the GOP ought to devote more time and attention to coverage expansion, education reform, and efforts to increase employment and wage levels. Some go further and argue that Republicans should place less of an emphasis on reducing federal taxes overall or making the federal tax burden less steeply progressive while placing more of an emphasis on a wide range of affordability and quality-of-life issues, e.g., the cost of higher education and medical care, traffic congestion, etc. I’m a big believer in this agenda. It is important to acknowledge, however, that this agenda is a tough sell, as voters tend to be risk-averse and the benefits of many aspects of this agenda will likely flow to non-Republicans while the costs will be borne by Republicans. Efforts to contain medical expenditures will involve curbing the power of physicians, a constituency that is divided between the two major parties, yet which contains large numbers of Republicans. Reducing taxes on middle-income families with children in a revenue-neutral fashion will require (under one scenario) raising taxes on high-income families residing in high-tax jurisdictions, a group that is overrepresented among influential Republicans, including many GOP donors. Everyone benefits from efforts to increase employment and wage levels — but if these efforts entail tolerating somewhat higher inflation levels and somewhat higher deficits in the medium-term, tax-sensitive employed voters who see inflation and deficits through a moralistic lens aren’t going to be thrilled. 

None of this is to suggest that reform conservatism is doomed. It is a natural fit for Republicans running for national office, or in diverse, heavily urbanized states and congressional districts, as these GOP candidates are obligated to win the votes of at least some voters who are outside of the party’s cultural and economic wheelhouse. But my guess is that more Republicans in the near-term will gravitate towards the libertarian populism championed by Ben Domenech and others, as it is better-aligned with the (perceived) interests of the existing Republican constituency and it is thus likely to appeal to the Republican primary electorate. So if reform conservatism is going to bear fruit, I’d anticipate that it will take a fairly long time. If the country elects a Republican president and a Republican Congress, including a filibuster-proof GOP Senate majority, in 2016, conservatives will have a good shot at repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017. If Republicans fall short, it seems more likely than not that conservatives will have to find a way to reform the ACA. And as the Obama administration’s decision to delay the employer mandate ought to make clear, living with the ACA will require a much broader transformation of U.S. political economy than we’ve been led to believe. So that is the time horizon I have in mind. 

Basically, Republican voters are faring tolerably well in a pretty dismal economy, and this is actually making it harder for Republican politicians to embrace policy approaches that are relevant to the broader economic and social problems facing the country as a whole. Democratic voters are divided between those who are also doing tolerably well and those who are doing terribly, and so Democrats are schizophrenic. 

P.S. Briefly, I thought I’d point out that the Democratic coalition creates problems of its own. A coalition that includes upper-middle-income knowledge workers and less-skilled women and men at the bottom of the income distribution, many of whom are only intermittently attached to the formal labor market, may well fragment as the strategy of raising taxes on only the highest-earners to finance coverage expansion and public services reaches its limits, as it will grow increasingly difficult to shield upper-middle-income households from tax increases. Democrats represent both the neediest consumers of public services and the providers of public services, and the interests of these groups don’t always align — a phenomenon that is most vividly illustrated in K-12 education. Democrats are committed to increasing the size of the less-skilled immigrant influx, which will tend to increase the incidence of food insecurity and other correlates of poverty, which in turn will shift resources away from other public sector priorities. Republicans don’t have much to be smug about, but Democrats don’t either.  


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