There Is Nothing Wrong with Kansas: The Effect of Race and Economics on Voting Correctly in U.S. Presidential Elections

By Glas, Jeffrey M.; Richey, Sean et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016 | Go to article overview

There Is Nothing Wrong with Kansas: The Effect of Race and Economics on Voting Correctly in U.S. Presidential Elections


Glas, Jeffrey M., Richey, Sean, Taylor, J. Benjamin, Zhu, Junyan, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Do poor whites vote for the wrong party more than other voters? Scholars and popular media have highlighted the ways poor whites may cast ballots against their beliefs and policy interests (Bartels 2006; Brooks 2001; Frank 2005; Hutchinson 2012). The supposed outcome of this irrational behavior is a group of voters who systemically vote against their own interests. This question is of particular concern because there is not yet an accepted answer in both academic and media accounts. The dominant claim in the media each presidential election season, however, is that poor whites are being duped into voting for Republican presidential candidates (see, e.g., Frank 2005; Hutchinson 2012).

Empirical tests of these claims show that poor whites still vote for Democrats more than Republicans (Bartels 2006) and that there are state-level differences that need to be taken into account when considering these voters' behavior (Gelman 2009; Gelman et al. 2007). Essentially, the academic literature suggests that poor white voters are not voting for Republicans to the extent that popular media figures suggest. Discussion about poor whites and their role in presidential elections has been intense in both political science and popular media since Nixon's Southern Strategy, despite the fact that the migration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party began much before that (Shafer and Johnston 2009). (1) For example, focus on this group of voters has given rise to talk of NASCAR dads who would benefit from the economic policies of Democrats, but they are erroneously convinced to vote for the Republican Party (Elder and Greene 2007). There are many reasons suggested for why poor whites vote against their self-interest to support Republican candidates, including race baiting, fear mongering, or other values-based manipulations in which Republican candidates supposedly engage (Frank 2005). The fundamental interest in this phenomenon stems from the general perception that the Republican Party now needs--and indeed uses--these poor white voters to win elections (Peterson and Chinni 2014).

Popular accounts suggest that poor white voters are voting en masse for candidates who do not reflect their policy preferences, while academic accounts focus on the empirical data, which suggest that poor whites vote Democratic just as they always have. Missing from both journalists' accounts and political scientists' accounts is a measure matching the political preferences of voters with the candidates for whom they vote. We account for this gap in the debate by using Lau and Redlawsk's (1997, 2006) measure of voting correctly from 1972 to 2008 American National Election Survey (ANES) data as the dependent variable. Correct voting in presidential elections is a better theoretical tool because the claims by both camps in the debate rest on notions of rational behavior. This is the crucial missing piece of the existing literature, as that research does not measure whether these poor whites are voting against their stated policy views but simply shows that their vote totals are higher for Democratic candidates. With this in mind, we test the definitive question in the debate: are poor whites less likely to vote correctly when they vote for Republican presidential candidates?

We add to this debate by showing how the interaction of economics and race--namely, being a poor white voter--is an insignificant predictor of voting correctly for Republican presidential candidates between 1972 and 2008 in presidential elections. This finding is important because it is the first time this debate has been adjudicated using this direct measure of voter preference and choice, but also because we highlight the availability of bias producing this red herring and how it does not hold up when other factors are taken into account. We conclude by suggesting ways to overcome this debate by turning to more substantively interesting aspects of voting behavior by this demographic group. …

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