How the GOP is Winning Among the Poor

Among the far-right entertainer class, 2012 was defined as the “takers versus makers” election. According to that narrative, Romney lost because the grasping poor wanted a President who would promise them “free stuff” instead of opening up opportunities to succeed through hard work. Minority voters supposedly chose Obama by spectacular margins because, well…you know what those people are like.

The results tell a very different story. Obama performed well in many of America’s wealthiest areas, including places that have been Republican strongholds for generations. Romney, on the other hand, racked up lopsided wins won in some of the country’s poorest counties. A closer look at Romney’s success among the poor reveals a disturbing picture of the forces overwhelming the Republican Party in our time.

Brian Kelsey at Civic Analytics in Austin did an excellent analysis of voting patterns in the most government dependent counties in the US. He used data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to gather a list of counties whose residents are most dependent on government aid in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and other “welfare” programs.

Strangely, Kelsey discovered that Romney won 21 of the 25 most welfare-dependent counties in the country. The pattern Kelsey found extends beyond his limited data set. Romney won some of his most overwhelming support in the 2012 election from America’s most “dependent” regions, carrying 77 of America’s 100 most welfare-dependent counties.

It turns out that America’s most aid-dependent counties share some other characteristics that might explain their voting patterns. They are overwhelmingly white, southern, and rural. In fact, 86 of them are in areas that did not outlaw slavery prior to the Civil War and 81 of them are majority white.

Romney lost only four of those 81. Three of those four are in the North. He lost only one county on that list which was white and Southern (Elliot, KY), and he lost there by 60 votes.

Another surprising pattern emerges from the analysis – the stark racial divide between the poorest Americans, and those who receive the most poverty relief. In an interesting irony, the list of most dependent counties does not line up with the list of poorest counties. The counties which receive the highest levels of welfare assistance are disproportionately white; while most of America’s poorest counties are majority-minority.

Though African-Americans and Hispanics suffer far higher poverty rates, they receive far less proportionately in government transfers. Poor whites receive government assistance at a far higher rate than poor non-whites. In other words, even in poverty, it pays to be white.

On the other end of the spectrum, Obama won half of the nation’s fifty wealthiest counties. He lost all of the counties on the 50 wealthiest list which are located in the South (if you exclude Virginia’s DC suburbs – not exactly the heart of Dixie).

This reflects a pattern seen across the country in the 2012 results. The Republican ticket saw its greatest success based not on wealth or welfare, but on three, ranked criteria:

1) Region – The single highest indicator of success for the GOP ticket regional. Republicans won reliably in sections of the country in which slavery was legal until Lincoln’s election.

2) Urbanity – The lower the population density, the more successful the GOP ticket.

3) Race – Romney performed best among white voters, particularly older white voters.

Where factors were at tension with one another, as in Harris County (Houston), the outcome was muddled. Houston is Southern, urban, and ethnically diverse. Obama scored a narrow win there, also winning Texas’ other big cities by modest margins.

In rural, Southern, majority-white counties, Romney racked up margins sometimes topping 90%. Apart from those three criteria, outcomes appear to be almost completely unaffected by poverty rates, welfare, food stamps, or any other socio-economic factors.

The “takers” narrative is not born out anywhere in the election results. Like voter fraud and un-skewed polls, it’s one of those ironclad facts of life that somehow only exist inside the magical world of rightwing media. Were those desperately poor white voters in counties across Kentucky and Tennessee choosing Romney in order to end their own “dependency,” or did some other factor inspire their passionate support of the GOP ticket?

The racial and regional character of the 2012 election and every subsequent political fight is ominous. It helps explain why political compromise has come to be equated with betrayal and why so-called “patriots” are willing to bring the country to its knees just to take rhetorical swipes at this Administration.

This approach to politics is not just failing the GOP at a national level. It is placing the party at odds with the country’s future direction. By playing on latent racial tensions, the party is fostering a degree of bitterness that will be difficult to diffuse and may have dangerous implications down the line.

More of this discussion and other links at Building a Better GOP on Facebook.

Links to datasets:

100 most welfare-dependent counties, with demographics and election results

100 poorest counties

100 richest counties

Complete list of US counties ranked by government dependence, from Brian Kelsey (.xls).

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Economics, Election 2012, Race
2 comments on “How the GOP is Winning Among the Poor
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