“Who Turned My Blue State Red?” asks Alec MacGillis in the New York Times this past weekend.

MacGillis aims to answer the question that has befuddled Democrats for a generation: Why do poor, rural, white communities vote increasingly for Republicans? Why do people who are poor vote for the party that seeks to reduce funding for programs and policies that benefit poor people?

MacGillis writes:

“In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.”

Meanwhile, MacGillis asserts, better off residents are voting in larger proportions and they are voting Republican, in part, because of a growing reaction to abuses within the welfare state. Simply, they are angry at the decline in their local economies and they blame freeloaders. And then they vote Republican.

Poor people who are likely to support government programs are voting less and richer people are voting more, and increasingly for Republicans.

That’s MacGillis’s theory, but is that right? Not much, says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who studies political polarization.

Yes, poor people do vote less than rich people. “But a lot of low income whites do vote in places like Eastern Kentucky and they generally vote for Republicans,” Abramowitz wrote in an email.  “Among all white voters in recent elections, religiosity trumps social class.  And by a lot.  Low income whites who attend religious services regularly are staunch Republicans.”

MacGillis may think people ought to vote based on their economic status, but they don’t. Lilliana Mason, a University of Maryland political scientist, contends that people vote now to assert an identity. Voting isn’t based on interest, but on the self.

Besides, even if you were to vote solely in your economic self-interest, which party should you support?

“In many of these places, voting on the basis of economic interest doesn’t make sense because no matter who is in office, Republican or Democrat, their local economies don’t improve,” writes James Gimpel, another Maryland political scientist.

“How long will it take you to stop voting on the basis of economic assessments if nothing ever improves for you on the economic front?” Gimpel continues. “Probably not very long. So people decide to cast their votes on the basis of impressions and issues unrelated to economic standing. There is nothing strange or unusual about it.”

Moreover, MacGillis’s evidence is also a bit shaky. For example, he uses Pike County, in Eastern Kentucky coal country, as an example of this theory that lower turnout is leading to higher Republican percentages.

“This month, Pike County went 55 percent for the Republican candidate for governor, Matt Bevin,” MacGillis writes. “That’s the opposite of how the county voted a dozen years ago.” And 30 percent fewer people voted this year than in 2013, he continues.

True enough. But in 2011, in the last governor’s election, Pike County voted for a Democrat. Fifty-eight percent of the voters in Pike County voted for Democrat Steve Beshear in 2011.

Was there a huge fall in turnout in Pike County that led to the Republican’s victory in 2013? Not hardly. In fact, the vote total in Pike County increased by more than 23 percent in 2015.

So, turnout went up and so did the vote for the Republicans!

We received our copy of the Mountain Eagle recently. The Eagle is the weekly paper in Letcher County, Kentucky, one of the counties that is both poor and staunchly Republican.

The lead story in the Eagle was about the demise of an auction held by the Whitesburg Lions Club each fall since 1963. The Lions would auction donated items and then use the proceeds to pay for eyeglasses for poor children.

Letcher County is in the middle of coal country. Mines have been closing and that has ripped through the local economy. The Lions cancelled the auction this year simply because local businesses couldn’t afford to donate items.

“Over the past year, and in particular the past few months, many of our local businesses have been forced to permanently close their doors,” wrote Lions Club President Edison G. Banks II, “and many of the faithful supporters and friends o the Whitesburg Lions Club have permanently lost their jobs.”

So, if you were living in Whitesburg, whom would you vote for, in your economic self-interest? The party that increases Medicaid payments but wants to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal? Or, the party that wants to resume mining, but decrease spending on Medicaid?

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.