Wealth Problems

by Henry on January 13, 2012

John Sides posts some results suggesting that while voters mostly understand that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are rich, they are more likely to think that Mitt Romney doesn’t care about their interests because he is rich, than Barack Obama.

The better one thinks “personally wealthy” describes Romney, the better one thinks that “cares about the wealthy” describes him (the correlation is 0.60). But the same correlation for Obama is much smaller (0.18). People’s perception that Obama is personally wealth[y] does not translate as strongly into the perception that he cares about the wealthy. Moreover, people who perceive that Obama cares about the wealthy are actually a bit MORE likely to perceive that he cares about “people like me,” the poor, and the middle class. The correlations are not always large, but they are positive—e.g., the correlation between believing Obama cares about the wealthy and cares about “people like me” is 0.19.

This obviously has implications for the kind of ‘how the 2012 US presidential elections are likely to play out’ questions that we usually don’t have much to say about here at CT (our partial reticence doing its little bit to cancel out the volubility on this topic in the rest of the political blogosphere). But there is a more interesting general point – should people think that the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to be biased in favor of the rich.

Interestingly, this survey suggests that public opinion sort-of accords with what evidence we have. Larry Bartels has carried out research on the US Senate (which for a variety of reasons makes it easier to do useful comparisons than e.g. with presidents). And his findings suggest the following. First – if you look at a set of politically salient issues, senators from both parties are totally unresponsive to the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution. Second, that Republicans don’t care about the views of voters in the middle of the income distribution either, while Democrats do care significantly. Third, that Republicans care almost three times as much as Democrats about the views of those in the top third of the distribution. Overall, senators tend to be much more responsive to the opinions of better off people than of middle income people, and don’t care at all about the bottom third. These measures are of course somewhat crude – if one had better data, one could subdivide the population further (top 10%, top 1%), and perhaps find an even more striking relationship.

{ 19 comments }

1

StevenAttewell 01.13.12 at 8:04 pm

On the other hand, Bartels’ research also shows that, even though Democrats don’t care about the opinions of the poor, the poor do much better economically under Democratic rule than they do under Republican rule.

So it may well be that voters are responding more consequentially than on process terms.

2

Brainz 01.13.12 at 8:05 pm

I think there may be some awareness that Obama, while rich, is an order of magnitude less rich than Romney and also that Obama was not born rich.

3

Kaveh 01.14.12 at 12:37 am

should people think that the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to be biased in favor of the rich.

Do you mean the other way around?

4

Jim Harrison 01.14.12 at 1:15 am

I don’t think people at large are really aware of the enormous gulf between the prosperous, even the very prosperous, and the hyper rich. Finding out what people know (or think they know) is rather like determining if the light’s on when you close the refrigerator door. There are methodological problems aplenty. Can anybody point me to recent research on this issue?

5

LFC 01.14.12 at 2:08 am

same pt as Kaveh @3. shd be “less likely”

6

rm 01.14.12 at 3:26 am

What Brainz and Jim Harrison said. While people generally understand who does better under each party, also with Obama and Romney themselves, their personal mannerisms signal very different class origins. Obama talks and holds himself like a successful lawyer, but not like the scion of an elite family. I would guess people are aware that Obama is rich from his books, but that Romney is hyper-super-rich from having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and then from being a vulture in a tailored suit.

It’s hard to talk about subtle cultural signifiers without turning into a Bobo Dowd, but I think culture matters and is too subtle for polls to measure.

7

David Wright 01.14.12 at 3:44 am

What does Bartels mean by “responsive” in this context? Does he mean that he called random senators and voiced opposition to whatever position the senator had taken on a random bill, and found that Republican senators were more likely to change their positions in response to the call when the caller identified himself as rich than when the caller identified himself as poor? That would be a truely interesting result! Or does he just mean that he identified various positions as what the rich wanted, and determine that Republican senators were more likely to hold those positions. That’s rather uninteresting and hardly in accord with the meaning of the word “responsive”.

8

StevenAttewell 01.14.12 at 4:14 am

Unequal Democracy p. 253:

“statistical studies of political representation dating back to…the early 60s have found strong statistical connections between constituents’ policy preferences and their representatives’ policy choices. However, these studies have invariably treated constituents in an undistributed way…Using both summary measures of senators’ voting patterns and specific roll call votes on the minimum wage, civil rights, government spending, and abortion, I find that senators in this period were vastly more responsive to affluent constituents than to constituents of modest means. Indeed, my analyses indicate that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third…the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all.”

Views are taken from opinion surveys.

I don’t know why you’d consider this to be uninteresting; it’s a basic question of democracy – do representatives vote the way a majority of their constituents would vote?

Ultimately, the interesting point is the partisan divergence in responsiveness to the middle class.

9

Meredith 01.14.12 at 4:38 am

“First – if you look at a set of politically salient issues, senators from both parties are totally unresponsive to the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution.”
Since the bottom third lacks the income to make financial contributions to political campaigns (most even via unions or other organizations), that confines the influence they might ply on elected officials to the ballot box. And how many in the bottom third vote, relative to the other two thirds? (Sincere question, but my impression is turnout is generally lower among the bottom third.) If a smaller percentage of them actually vote, then (one would expect) elected officials will pay less attention to their interests.
A question about what each “third” of “constitutents” refers to here: registered voters? (I assume not but can’t be sure); all people of voting age? everyone, including children? including adults who cannot legally vote? Exactly how the “thirds” are being measured would matter a lot here, it seems to me.

10

David Wright 01.14.12 at 6:59 am

Thanks for the response, Steven Atwell @8. It looks like what Bartels measures is neither of my scenarios. Essentially, he measures that senators’ positions are more closely aligned with their constituants in richer states, and Republicans more so than Democrats. That is indeed non-trivial and interesting, although not quite as interesting as measuring the response to an actual treatment would be.

11

StevenAttewell 01.14.12 at 6:27 pm

Glad to help, but people with more technical questions should probably look it up themselves on google books. Hint hint.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.15.12 at 9:16 am

@9 Since the bottom third lacks the income [...] that confines the influence they might ply on elected officials to the ballot box

This is a wrong proposition, because it assumes a political system with proportional representation where everybody can find a party that represents their interests and vote for it.

But in the real world there are only two parties in the US. If (as it happens) both of them choose to ignore the bottom third (or, for that matter, any segment, say, the 99%), then this segment simply has no way at all to advance its interests, to exercise its influence. It has no influence.

13

chris 01.16.12 at 2:27 am

But in the real world there are only two parties in the US. If (as it happens) both of them choose to ignore the bottom third (or, for that matter, any segment, say, the 99%), then this segment simply has no way at all to advance its interests, to exercise its influence. It has no influence.

I think you’re reversing effect and cause. If they had influence, the parties couldn’t afford to ignore them.

Their lack of influence comes from a lot of factors — disproportionately many of them are immigrants, some are disenfranchised as criminals, the remainder have little free time to study politics, etc.

14

Peter T 01.16.12 at 7:18 am

15

Harald Korneliussen 01.16.12 at 7:31 am

Is that a referral link I see, Henry Farrell?

Not that it really matters, it is very interesting research you’re pointing to.

16

James 01.16.12 at 4:44 pm

Wealth is a poor factor for tracking who Senators pay attention to. Young people do not vote in any great numbers. The Elderly vote in significant numbers. The Elderly are currently the largest block of the populous at this time in US history. As a group the Elderly are much wealther than the young. So is it a case of who has money, or who shows up on election day?

17

Rob in CT 01.16.12 at 9:53 pm

[16] Probably a bit of both, but that seems like a solid point to me.

Taking this local, my town’s budget meetings are often dominated by seniors who don’t want any tax increases. They’re not buying influence. They’re showing up.

Obviously, at the national level, there’s a lot of buying going on. No doubt. But showing up still counts, I figure.

18

Andrew Perrin 01.17.12 at 12:34 am

Interesting research indeed, and important. We found the opposite logic at work in a qualitative study of 2004 voters:
http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122325166/abstract

Note that we were only describing the presence of a phenomenon, not estimating its prevalence; but we did find that many voters described Kerry’s less-pro-rich positions as inauthentic because he was rich himself. Bush’s personal wealth was not seen as similarly problematic because they believed he wasn’t promoting anti-wealth policy.

19

Zach Pruckowski 01.17.12 at 6:41 pm

I agree with Brainz @2. Obama only really became a multimillionaire in like 2006 when his book sales took off (though certainly a Chicago state legislator/professor/law partner is doing pretty well). Which means he grew up poor-to-middle-class, and was still paying off his student loans when he had his kids – Obama spent a non-trivial fraction of his life as middle class or upper middle class before he hit the jackpot, whereas Romney was born on third base.

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