Frum’s facts and fallacies

David Frum, author of “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday that has some interesting insights and but also suffers from some of the usual confusions about rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans. Overall I think Frum has some interesting things to say but I want to point out a couple of places where I think he may have been misled by focusing too strongly on the D.C. metropolitan area.

Income inequality and Democratic voting

Frum writes: “As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican.” At least at the state level, it’s not so clear. Below is a map of the states with high income inequality (in dark colors) and low inequality (in light colors), revealing high-inequality Democratic states such as California and New York but also high-inequality Republican states such as Texas and Arizona, with the most unequal states being those with high immigration. Overall, the Democrats’ vote share by state is slightly correlated with income inequality, but much less than the correlation with income itself. It is in the rich states, but not consistently the unequal states, that Democrats are doing best:


Rich and poor counties

Frum writes about rich Fairfax County, Virginia, which, we writes, was largely middle class a third of a century ago and now is rich. During this period, Fairfax, like many wealthy east-coast suburbs, has moved from the Republican to the Democratic column. This is interesting but I want to point out a few things:

1. This is a coastal thing. In other places, the rich suburbs go for Republicans, not Democrats. See this graph of Bush vote vs. county income in Texas:


The graph above shows the pattern: Collin and Zavala (the dark circles on the scatterplot) are the richest and poorest counties in Texas, and there is a clear pattern that poor counties supported the Democrats while the Republicans won in middle-class and rich counties.

When we showed this to a political scientist, he asked about the state capital, noted for its liberal attitudes, vibrant alternative rock scene, and the University of Texas: “What about Austin? It must be rich and liberal.” We looked it up. Austin is in Travis County and makes up almost all its population. Travis County has a median household income of $45,000 and gave George W. Bush 53% of the vote, putting it about midway between Collin and Zavala counties in the graph.

By comparison, if you go to a state such as Maryland or Virginia, the pattern isn’t so clear, and it’s possible to pick rich or poor counties that go either way.

2. Fairfax County is rich now, but it was also rich a third of a century ago. Here are some numbers. In 2004, when Kerry beat Bush in Fairfax County, the median family income there was $90,000, which 1.7 times the U.S. median of $54,000. In 1979, it was $33,000, which was 1.7 times the U.S. median of $19,500. Fairfax is, by some measures, the richest county in America today. A third of a century ago, it was in the top five richest, I believe.

3. Frum writes, “America’s wealthiest ZIP codes are a roll call of Democratic strongholds.” Again, this is a red-state, blue-state thing. In the coastal blue states, rich areas are likely to lean Democratic, but in red states, rich areas are more Republican. See the graphs on pages 68-70 of Red State, Blue State.

4. The “media center” thing. Frum lives in D.C. and he is naturally attuned to patterns in the northeast. If he were to go to Oklahoma or Texas, he would see that it is the richer areas, and the richer voters, who are more Republican. By focusing on Fairfax County, Virginia, he’s missing the big picture.

Concerns about inequality in general

Frum talks about Republicans’ attitudes toward inequality. One thing I’d like to add, in favor of his argument, is that, on average, inequality has been decreasing in poor, Republican-controlled states and increasing in richer states, which tend to have Democratic majorities. In poor states, the poor have been getting richer:


And in rich states, it is the rich who have been getting richer:


See here (and in chapter 5 of our book) for further discussion of this point.

P.S. See here for Frum’s further thoughts and here for my thoughts on Frum’s thoughts on my thoughts on Frum’s thoughts.

12 thoughts on “Frum’s facts and fallacies

  1. Travis County has a median household income of $45,000 and gave George W. Bush 53% of the vote, putting it about midway between Collin and Zavala counties in the graph.

    This is misleading. Kerry won 56% of the vote in Travis County in 2004. Bush won the county with a plurality of 47% in 2000, but this was because Nader did really well in Travis County, getting 10% of the vote – it's only by removing Nader's votes from consideration that you get Bush winning with 53% of the two-party vote.

  2. John,

    Interesting. I don't think this wrecks my main point about income and voting in Texas–Travis is just one county, and an unusual one at that–but I wish I'd known what you wrote above before using that example!

  3. If you really want to entertain yourself, run Republican-Democratic voting patterns based upon the percentage of the public school that is white and the percentage of the population that is blue collar whites.

    What Frum was getting out but avoided is that in cities like DC or SF where there are few blue collar whites, the Democrats dominate. In those cities, whites send their children to private schools (See Boston, Chicago, or even Seattle). In Republican counties such as Collins County Texas (Plano) the rich still send their children to public schools.

  4. superdestroyer, i don't mean to be pedantic or nitpicky, but i grew up in seattle and have since moved around the country, mostly in the midwest and east coast (i'm 30). one of the things that i noticed is that, from what i could tell, very few people in the northwest went to private schools as compared to the other regions i lived in.

    i don't think that is central to your point, but i mention it because i think it's an interesting contrast (if it's in fact true outside of my anecdotal observations) that is probably a reflection of some other underlying trend. specifically, it seems to me that the urban areas in the northwest have far less inequality than, say, cleveland, detroit or new jersey, where they are more or less left to rot.

  5. "In poor states, the poor have been getting richer:"

    I can imagine several possible reasons–net transfers from the center, the extent of labor market competition at the lower end due to immigration, public policies. Do you know of any work in this area?

  6. This is off topic, but these folks say that resampling and cross validation is useless for most practical purposes. I don't know what cross validation is, but I have thought about learning resampling methods, so I am interested in what you think about this.

  7. Finn,

    If you will look at you will see that 30%… attend private school. This was part of the issue about the Seattle forced busing Supreme Court case. The amount of children who attend private schools in Seattle is equivalent to Boston.

    Also, the Seattle Schools are only 42% white… 30% private schools and 42% white means that Seattle should be overwhelmingly Democratic and it is.

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