Monday, November 24, 2014

Mitt Romney Rejects His Natural Voters

CAMBRIDGE – The political fallout from Mitt Romney’s characterization of 47% of the American electorate as “victims” who are “dependent on government” and refuse to take “personal responsibility” for their lives demonstrates anew that cultural generalizations, particularly in politics, are usually dangerous. In fact, Romney appears to have categorized a large segment of his party’s own voters as supporters of President Barack Obama.

As a rule, one should judge people on their merits, not on the supposed attributes of the racial, socioeconomic, or geographic groups to which they belong. Yet statistical relationships sometimes are so strong that it is worth pondering their significance.

In the United States, a distinction is frequently drawn between citizens of “red states,” which usually vote for the Republican Party, and those of “blue states” – concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific coast – which usually vote for the Democratic Party.

The unspoken truth is that, compared to “blue-staters,” those who live in red states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies.

Statistical analysis shows that states where more residents suffer from obesity, often because they get less physical exercise and eat more junk food, tend to vote Republican. To illustrate, a mere 1% decrease in a state’s obesity on average is estimated to raise the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07, easily enough to swing an election.

Similarly, states with high pregnancy rates among girls aged 15-17 tend to vote Republican. Again, the relationship is highly significant statistically. Evidently, people in New England, New York, and Hawaii, who more often vote Democratic, are not just slimmer, but are also less prone to engage in unprotected sex than those in the South and Republican-leaning Midwestern states. States with high rates of cigarette smoking also vote Republican, as do states with high rates of fatal accidents from drunk driving.

The average score of the five “reddest” states (Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, and Alaska) is worse on each of six measures of irresponsibility than the average score of the five “bluest” (New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Hawaii): more obesity, smoking, chlamydia, teenage pregnancy, drunk-driving fatalities, and firearms assaults. In the latter three measures, the “reckless” share of the population is almost twice as high among the reddest states as it is among the bluest.

The states that score worst on these measures are also the states whose congressional representatives voted against Obama’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2010, though many of these unhealthy people free-ride on their fellow citizens when they show up uninsured in hospital emergency rooms. That political hypocrisy comes at a price: obese Americans incur medical costs that are 42% higher than those of normal-weight Americans.

Figure 1 combines all of these variables into a single measure of personal behavior, state by state, with citizens of states on the left-hand side behaving more irresponsibly. The vertical dimension shows the ratio of Democratic to Republican votes in the 2008 presidential election. The overall relationship, again, is statistically significant: those with the least responsible behavior are the most likely to vote Republican.

Policy wonks have long known that one gets similar results when looking at which states receive more federal subsidies: Despite all the rhetoric about “getting the government off our backs,” the red states receive the most federal transfers, with Alaska, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, and the Dakotas topping the list. Democratic-leaning states – especially New York, New Jersey, California, and the New England states – are net contributors to the federal budget, and thus subsidize everyone else. Those who claim to be most fiscally conservative in fact tend to feed most voraciously at the public trough.

Blue-state residents, who tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than residents of red states, have refrained from suggesting that their red-states compatriots exhibit behavior that falls short of the conservative rhetoric of personal responsibility. It would be unseemly and perhaps “elitist” to point fingers at fellow Americans and imply that they are promiscuous, fat, gluttonous, lazy, uneducated, or that they are more prone to divorce, drunkeness, and gun-related deaths.

Fortunately, the conservative political scientist Charles Murray points out some of these statistics in his latest book, Coming Apart. Murray argues that those living in the “super-zip codes” – areas with high levels of income and education, such as Belmont, Massachusetts – have maintained the traditional American values of hard work and family values. Those who live elsewhere have shown “crashing” rates of industriousness and marriage.

Indeed, according to Murray, they leave the labor force, often falsely claiming disability. They “goof off,” “sleeping and watching television.” Those with jobs have reduced their working hours, while those living in the super-zip codes have increased theirs. The proportion of children born out of wedlock has skyrocketed for women who did not finish high school, to more than 60%, which is more than 12 times the rate among women who finish college. (Murray’s statistics are based on whites alone, to control for race.)

For Murray, however, the blame lies with those living in the super-zip codes: “The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.” So the problem is “an unwillingness on the part of any significant portion of the new upper class to preach what they practice.”

That is a stunning argument, especially coming from a conservative/libertarian. What about the millions of red-state Americans who have been preaching hard work, family values, self-reliance, and small government, while practicing the opposite? Surely this is the more objectionable stance. Yet, for red-state politicians, this hypocrisy has been a winning electoral strategy for three decades.

Read more from our "America Votes" Focal Point.

Figure 1: Personal Responsibility Index and Ratio of Democratic to Republican votes (2008 presidential election) click to enlarge

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    1. CommentedPaul Johnson

      When states are ranked by philanthropy, liberal states rank at the bottom. When states are ranked by geographical proximity to federal centers of power, liberal states rank higher. Anyone can play this game. This is not valid statistical analysis when the author has selected from a pool of characteristics until he gets the sort of result that favors his side.

        Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

        CommentedJeffrey Frankel

        Dear Paul Johnson,
        I can assure you that I did not "select from a pool of characteristics until [I got] the sort of result that favors" my conclusion. I used every category to measure personal responsibility that I could think of and find data on. The monetary measures are especially strong, no matter how you slice it. I would not call geographic proximity from Washington a measure of personal responsibility.
        Jeff Frankel

    2. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      Dear Ronald Wagner:
      Actually I did notice the Mormon point. I devoted a paragraph to it in my Christian Science Monitor op-ed of Sept. 6, my Vox column of Oct. 2, and my blogpost of Oct.4:

      “ Utah is the most conspicuous outlier in most of these relationships. It has a high population of Mormons. Apparently they follow the strictures of their religion more closely than those of other religious denominations. (Could this be why evangelicals tend to resent Mormons so much, according to opinion polls?)”

      [You can find them all at]


    3. CommentedRonald Wagner

      It should be of interest that states with high Mormon affiliation are on the right side of the graph.
      Interesting that the author did not notice this. Mitt Romney has lived true to LDS philosophy. He provides a high example of righteous leadership. America is unlike Europe in demography.

    4. CommentedMichael McMaster

      Quite a streatch Id say. During the time frame in which you derive your statistics in the first refrance, Ohio was under the leadership of Democrat Governor. My guess you'll find this the case in many of the States you deem Red and vice versa. I know your a Harvard proffessor but this is a bit adolecent even for thier standards.

    5. CommentedKeshav Prasad Bhattarai

      What a brutal way of grouping people along the party line – in world’s most powerful and second largest democracy.
      Sorry it is not an academic presentation, aimed at something creating like communal or ethnical hatred among people.
      Almost all articles published in Project Syndicate stir creativity, are full of academic worth and enlightening appeal but this one creates an uneasy feeling coupled with . . . . . Sorry.

    6. CommentedMark Scher

      One should read Antonio Gramsci describing cultural hegemony to explain why some poor people vote against their own interests.

        CommentedMK Anon

        Tongren: I totally agree with you in that no one should define the best interest of others, so if the argument in the red states was that they want to live fat, smoking and.. short. THen fine.

        But this is not the case. Most of the representant of the movement argue that their state doesn't want to give hard won money to the Fed Gov.. while they actually receive proportionally more than others.
        The argument would still hold if the federal gov was super inefficient and that they would be richer overall by being their own state. But I doubt it. THe biggest inefficiency of the Fed gov are useless wars anyway - those favored in majority by red states.. and they should also not forget that the welfare of each state - even the red one - is very much related to the international weight of the US.

        CommentedTongren Pu

        Who are we here to define "interest" for the poor and accusing them of voting against their own interest? So we assume we know their interest better than they do? They don't vote for the person that we like. That constitutes voting against their interest? Sounds like we should let a few elites who are supposedly know better than everyone else run the country. Problem solved.

    7. Commentedjames durante

      How do I say this? The article is lame. Lots of the obesity/irresponsible behavior is not by republican voters in red states. Obesity is much greater in low income groups where there is a very low registration and turnout rate. Then, especially in red southern states, large numbers of minorities who are low income and obese will vote democratic.

      Anyway, the real hypocrisy lies with the irresponsible super rich who complain about victimization by government via high taxes when they are, in act, among those who pay nothing. "About 162,000 people among the top 10% of earners have found ways to avoid paying any federal income tax. This includes approximately 3,000 people in the top 0.1%, a group that makes $2,178,886 per year or more."

      Let the Romney/Ryan tax breaks take effect and see what happens to income and wealth inequality, already at historic highs. Occupy will look like romper room.

        CommentedA. T.

        In red southern states, the minorities who are low income and obese are a minority of low-income, obese people.

        But analysis would certainly have benefitted from being finer grained – looked at by county, or at least, congressional district. Lumping together some 38M people in CA or 26M people in TX might is liable to distort the conclusion.

    8. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      To Thomas Haynie and any others interested in where the data came from:

      There is a statistical appendix with all the information, posted on my website:

      You could have gotten to it by clicking on the first link at the words "Statistical analysis" starting the 5th paragraph.
      (I would have preferred a more explicit note at the end, but newspapers don't want those.)

      Otherwise, go to my wepage and then click on the 3rd line.

      So far the feedback has been positive. Thanks everyone.
      Jeff Frankel

        CommentedProcyon Mukherjee


        Your Appendix III: The relationship between states’ votes on Obamacare and measures of personal responsibility says it all and there is absolutely no way that your data sets could be challenged.

        My only question is, and this is a thought provoking idea, that if proclivity towards rhetoric is going to be the guiding principle of voter engagement, how does the system of democracy function where preponderance of guidance that is contrary to facts could rule?

        Procyon Mukherjee

    9. CommentedVictor Stern

      All the fun with statistics on both sides is pointing at a real point that Romney seems to be making in earnest - he values hard work and is repelled by the idea of handouts. I suspect most people writing and commenting here share this value on a personal level, even if they would not necessarily vote Republican.

      The personal, however, does not scale directly to society as a whole. The US society and economy are much more complex than a single individual and her budget. The biggest economy in the world cannot be maintained with the level of internal coherence that would be minimal for a person to just be called sane. It has to have diversity of focus and direction, exhibit conflict dynamics and competition for resources, and a high rate of internal transformation.

      To run such a hot system without there must be many safety nets for actual people that may be riding high one decade and destitute the next and visa versa. The difference between the value of personal responsibility and the value of government as a safety net and the bellow of the vibrant social and economic dynamics is what Romney's comment seems to be deaf to. It is the kind of idealistic prescription an amateur would give. It offers a metaphor as a way forward without the comfort of being wise advice

        CommentedVictor Stern

        A.T., I agree. Inequality of opportunity, uneven flow of history, mismatch between social and economic rhythms - there are many disbalancing forces operating on the country. Government policy needs to smooth many of those out temporarily to keep cohesion. However, a country that does not produce, for whatever reason, will fail eventually and will have to reorganize and reconstitute.

        The problem with the Republican small government attitude is that they dont think government can or should have this balancing function, that the market should fix it. The market is a huge but limited social force. For a gigantic economy that depends on world-wide interests, effectively projected military power, massive immigration, and capital flexibility, that is just reckless. Its like saying that if you can drive a tractor, you can fly a jumbo jet.

        CommentedA. T.

        >>a real point that Romney seems to be making in earnest - he values hard work and is repelled by the idea of handouts<<

        One of the most helpful unearned handouts is winning at the genetic lottery – being born into rich, powerful family (in a rich and powerful nation) and having the right gender and colour of skin. It's nice to talk of hard work if you are not a Somali orphan, but it glosses over starting out with the game being stacked significantly in your favour WITHOUT you having to earn it. It's like a game of Monopoly, with one of the players starting out with all of the best properties already under his control.

        SO, either we all start out at more or less exactly the same point and consider everything else the product of hard work and any transfers as 'handouts';

        OR we acknowledge that equality of opportunity is highly distorted by some social conventions and see transfers as the price people benefitting from those conventions have to pay for their continuance.

    10. CommentedThomas Haynie

      I love this article but my only complaint about this sort of thing is that I wish there were sources listed for the raw numbers and analysis. The high points are a neat summary but I want to know more about the analysis. Where was the data gotten? Where can I look more into this for a deeper understanding of the analysis?

    11. CommentedJake Lopata

      I actually just put together a few graphs and a table that more or less show this relationship.


    12. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      It does serve to point out the rarely discussed fact that the American poor and working class are among the most manipulated and exploited populations on the planet. Voting against their own interests in favour of those of a tiny minority of plutocrats.
      Rabidly loyal to their exploiters and hostile to their real friends.

    13. CommentedAnne Smith-Stolberg

      Whilst I get the hypocrisy angle, I just wonder whether as many uninsured people turn up in an ER in say Cheyenne on any given day as in a major hospital in say Boston -- and whether statistical analysis between such very different demographies in the end really leads terribly far other than being interesting and provocative and cementing a view held outside of the US of two Americas and never the twain shall meet. Also, in my opinion the "free-ride" terminology comes a bit too much from the Romney dictionary of too simple discourse!

    14. CommentedChristopher Follenus

      These people used to actually be democrats, and were democrats since the days of Andrew Jackson, democrats through the Civil War, and as the author perhaps suggests have only been represented by the GOP in the last 30 years. I think the main reason is due to social values.

      Listen to Merle Haggard's song 'Okie from Muskogee', a reaction to hippies, war protesters, environmentalists. This sums up the values held in these states and by whom they are held, values which can be extended views on women's place in society, a certain interpretation of Christianity etc.

      It seems that they don't necessarily have capitalist, industrialist ideals, but they do dislike Government and have very conservative views on social issues. And this seems to be what they respond to, and its something the GOP can encourage as anti-Government means smaller Government, less tax and regulations etc.

    15. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      Why only cultural generalization, it pervades every walk as partisanship takes the better of any rational argument and if the statistics is indeed to be believed fiscal conservatism has led to more federal subsidies while personal responsibility waned at the back of mild profanity in the examples cited.

      I am sure the statistics would be challenged, but the report leaves a lingering thought how one must clamber to get to the pinnacle of truth to get anywhere close to the real world where things actually happen and not the world where reality is bent to the advantage of the powerful; historicity of Presidential elections and the claims of successive candidates, incumbents included, did not suggest anything close to this analysis.

      Procyon Mukherjee