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The “trustfunder left” and the personification of states and counties

Boris forwarded to me this article by Michael Barone on “the trustfunder left.” Some excerpts:

Who are the trustfunders? People with enough money not to have to work for a living, or not to have to work very hard. . . . These people tend to be very liberal politically. Aware that they have done nothing to earn their money, they feel a certain sense of guilt. . . . they are citizens of the world with contempt for those who feel chills up their spines when they hear “The Star Spangled Banner.” . . . Where can you find trustfunders? Not scattered randomly around the country, but heavily concentrated in certain areas. . . . Trustfunders stand out even more vividly when you look at the political map of the Rocky Mountain states. In Idaho and Wyoming, each state’s wealthiest county was also the only county to vote for John Kerry . . . Massachusetts Catholics gave their fellow Massachusetts Catholic Kerry only 51 percent of their votes, but he won 77 percent in Boston, 85 percent in Cambridge, and 69 percent and 73 percent in trustfunder-heavy Hampshire and Berkshire Counties in the western mountains. . . .

Rich states and counties mostly support the Democrats, but rich voters mostly support the Republicans

This is vivid writing but, I think, incorrect electoral analysis. Barone is making the common error of “personifying” states and counties. Since 1996, and especially since 2000, rich states and rich counties have tended to support the Democrats–but rich voters have continued to support the Republicans.

For example, as David Park found looking through the exit polls, the 2004 election showed a consistent correlation between income and support for the Republicans, with Bush getting the support of 36% of voters with incomes below $15,000, 14% of those with incomes between $15-30,000, . . . and 62% of those with incomes above $200,000.

Given these statistics, I strongly doubt that trustfunders–in Barone’s words, “people with enough money not to have to work for a living, or not to have to work very hard”–are mostly liberal, as he claims. Of course it’s possible, but the data strongly support the statements that (a) richer people tend to support the Republicans, but (b) voters in richer states (and, to some extent, counties) tend to support Democrats. There definitely are differences between richer and poorer states–but the evidence is that, within any state, the richer voters tend to go for the Republicans. See here for more.

Confusion of the columnists

My first thought on seeing Barone’s article was disappointment that the author of the Almanac of American Politics would write something so misinformed. However, other columnists have made the same mistake. For example, here’s here’s Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

The interesting thing is that the conceptual confusion between patterns among states and among individuals (sometimes called the “ecological fallacy” or “Simpson’s paradox” in statistics) led Barone to confusion even at the state and county level. For example, he writes,

Where Democrats had a good year in 2004 they owed much to trustfunders. In Colorado, they captured a Senate and a House seat and both houses of the legislature. Their political base in that state is increasingly not the oppressed proletariat of Denver, but the trustfunder-heavy counties that contain Aspen (68 percent for Kerry), Telluride (72 percent) and Boulder (66 percent). . . .

I went and looked it up. Actually, Kerry got 70% of the vote in Denver.

What’s going on?

How can Barone, an experienced observer who knows a lot more about voting patterns than I do, make this mistake–not recognizing that rich people are voting for Republicans and not even noticing that Kerry got 70% of the vote in Denver? I think the fundamental problem, both of conservatives like Barone and liberals on the other side, is not coming to grips with the basic fact that both parties have close to 50% support.

Perhaps the Democrats are the party of trustfunders, welfare cheats, drug addicts, communists, and whatever other categories of people you don’t like. Perhaps the Republicans are the party of rich CEO’s, bigots, fascists, and so forth. No matter how you slice it, both sides have to add up to 50%, so you either have to throw in a lot of “normal” voters on both sides or else you have to marginalize large chunks of the population.

For example, Barone notes that Kerry won only 51% of the Catholic votes in Massachusetts. That looks pretty bad–he’s so unpopular that he barely got the support of voters of his own state and religion. But, hey, he got 48% of the vote national vote, so somebody was voting for him. And considering that Bush got 62% of the voters with incomes over $200,000, Kerry’s voters can’t all be trustfunders!

Barone might be right, however, when he cites the trustfunders as a new source of money for the Democrats (as they of course also are for the Republicans). And, as a political matter, it might very well be a bad thing if both political parties are being funded by people from the top of the income distribution. This would be an interesting thing to look at. There’s a wide spectrum of political participation, ranging from voting, to campaign contributions, to activism (see Verba, Schlozman, and Brady), and the demographics of these contributors and activists is potentially important. But you’re not going to find it by looking at state-level or county-level vote returns.

Reasoning by analogy?

I clicked through to the link on Barone’s page to his book, “Hard and Soft America.” This looks much more reasonable. I wonder if he caught on to something real with “Hard America, Soft America” and then too quickly generalized it to imply, “anyone I agree with is part of hard America, which I like” and “anyone I disagree with is part of Soft America, which I dislike.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that a smart person was led by ideology to overgeneralize.

P.S. See also here, here, and here, and here for various takes on Barone’s article.

5 Comments

  1. Eric says:

    Might some of the confusion be due to undefined terms (ie "rich", "trust funder", and "person with high income" are not necessarily the same thing.)?

  2. Andrew says:

    Using undefined terms definitely makes it easier to get confused. But, given the demographics, I expect that most "trustfunders" support the Republicans–unless being liberal is part of the definition of "trustfunder." Or, to put it another way, there are well-off people on the liberal and the conservative end, and Barone is implicitly defining a rich liberal in Boulder, Colorado, as a "trustfunder," whereas a rich conservative in the suburbs of Dallas (say) would not count as such.

    I think the problem is that Barone is implicitly including liberal ideology as part of his definition.

    As I noted in the above entry, Barone knows a lot, so I'm surprised he made this mistake, but I think it's ultimately a statistical error of confusing aggregates with individuals. (And of course we all tend to see in the data what we want to see.) Barone may well be on to something in his understanding of San Francisco, Boulder, etc. Looking at exit poll data can perhaps help him get an analogous understanding of areas populated by rich conservatives.

  3. Josh says:

    Isn't a "trustfunder" someone who has a significant income that comes in via an inheritance? Therefore, trustfunders are a subset of people who make over more than $200,000 a year, and I would guess a pretty small subset at that. I don't see anything necessarily illogical in Barone's characterization, though whether it is a true one or not is an open question.

    The statistic that 62% of people who earned more than $200,000 a year vote Republican isn't relevant- the question is what percentage of people who earned more than $200,000 a year AND earned the vast majority of their income from a trust fund voted Republican.

  4. Andrew says:

    Josh,

    Yes, I agree that it's possible–I just don't think it's likely. Given that 62% of the rich folks voted for Bush, the trustfunders would have to be a lot different from the others for Barone's claim (that they are "very liberal politically") to hold water. I don't see the evidence to support the claim.

    It's possible that Barone has this evidence, but it appeard from his column that he was making the claim based on data such as the Democrats getting 77% of the vote in Boston, 66% in Boulder, etc. So I think it probably is an example of the ecological fallacy.

  5. Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks for the comments, Andrew!