The Myths of Red and Blue States

Readers of this blog might be interested in a new book on electoral politics set to arrive in bookstores at the end of summer. Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman — my colleague in Columbia University’s political science department — explodes some well-trod myths about American voting behavior.

Consider, for example, what he calls the “red-blue paradox”: rich states vote Democratic; poor states vote Republican. Two explanations that readily come to mind are shown to be invalid by Gelman: namely that Democrats are picking up a greater share of rich votes (not true); or that rich states are growing more socially liberal (also not true). To provide a better account, Gelman works his way, state by state, to help us better understand the relationship of class, culture, and voting. The book is a terrific read and offers much insight into the changing electoral landscape.

Taking class into account: at the lower end of the income spectrum Gelman doesn’t really find significant differences in voting between the states — in red and blue states, the poor vote similarly.

At the higher end of the income spectrum, however, the differences are more stark. In his words:

… income strongly predicts Republican voting in red America but not in blue America, where rich people are conflicted in their economic and social views … the key question is, what happened in the past twenty years to explain the red-blue pattern among upper-income voters?

The rich who live in red states have grown much more conservative on social issues (than their counterparts in blue states) and this trend has produced great gains for the Republican Party.

Perhaps this suggests that Obama’s political strategy should be targeted toward rich voters in blue states. That is, red staters are going to vote as they always have, so why spend the resources to change their minds. For his part, McCain ought to hold onto his blue state voters, since he (also) can’t do much to alter voting patterns in red states.

Elsewhere, Gelman writes that

Our results stand in contradiction to the commonly held idea that social issues detract lower income voters from their natural economic concerns.

Church attendance predicts Republican voting among the rich, not necessarily among the poor. And even more directly, he states:

It does not appear to be the case that rich people vote based on their economic interests, with lower income voters being more likely to be swayed by emotional appeals.

I wonder what Thomas Frank might say in response.

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  1. DJH says:

    Far too much is made of the red/blue state model. It was, at the start, an incredible oversimplification, based on electoral politics rather than demographics. Its original purpose was to display voting results as they came in, as Election Day ended, an easy visual clue helping people know how many electoral votes each candidate had.

    It served that particular purpose quite well, and was therefore useful.

    But over the last few years, a lot has been attributed to the “red state-blue state” labels. It has become both philosophical and metaphysical — as if presuming that each state possesses some sort of vast “voter compulsion” that forces its people to vote in certain ways.

    These 50 metaphysical entities do not, so far as I know, exist. Yet people who know better (i.e. mass-media pundits) act as if they’re really there. I suppose they do so because it’s easy … but as has been shown here and elsewhere, it’s EXTREMELY misleading. Politicians have pandered to this model, too, almost literally speaking to each state’s metaphysical “voter compulsion” rather than to voters themselves.

    It’s disgraceful, and it needs to end. Yesterday. Unfortunately, since it’s such an easy model which lends itself to easy graphical displays, there is no way the mass media are ever going to let go of it. They will cling to it in spite of any demonstration that it’s simplistic and faulty. Besides, Americans love their easy oversimplifications and metaphysical assignations … even if they have no basis in reality.

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  2. Carl Jonard says:

    Perhaps this suggests that Obama’s political strategy should be targeted toward rich voters in blue states.

    How are we defining “blue states?” If it’s a state that votes consistently Democratic, then, by definition, there’s no need to target the rich voters there, or anyone else. The purple and red states are the ones that need to be won over.

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  3. Ben says:

    Well Said #1

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  4. PaulK says:

    #1: “Far too much is made of the red/blue state model” – I have to disagree. It is not that there is magic. It is a reflection of the electoral college. It only matters who the majority of voters, who vote in a presidential election, vote for. If a certain percentage in any area will always vote for the R or the D, regardless of the person, then the question is whether the area/region will ever vote against that “color”. There are “purple” areas where the balance of party-voters is close and so “swing” voters (who may actually vote based on the person or ideas) can decide it. But, the strongly red or strongly blue regions are rarely worth fighting for if there is little you can do to influence them.

    Where the model falls apart is when you have such a mess as Bush has made of the country. In that case, traditional red voters may switch or may just not vote. So, red regions can become less red, just as blue regions became less blue after the Clinton scandal.

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  5. Dan M says:

    Seems like the optimal strategy for either candidate would be to concentrate resources on Pennsylvania and Missouri to gather conquest votes while focusing on grassroots (cheap) efforts to turn out current supporters in states that are already “decided”. DJH nailed it, this is a broken system that gives small, loud states control of the rest.

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  6. Mike says:

    I agree, well said #1. Red State/Blue State is first and foremost a media concoction. I’m surprised someone from the Poli Sci department at Columbia would be taken in by this. More likely, he’s just trotting out the mythical dichotomy to sell books.

    For instance, what or where is “red America”? I live in Upstate NY where many counties vote Republican in the presidential elections. But the state is blue! Where do I live? How am I supposed to vote?!

    And while we’re at it, I didn’t realize we had a parliamentary government. I thought voters in this country voted for CANDIDATES, not PARTIES.

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  7. MRB says:


    you may be interested in the “Urban Archipelago” article by the Editors of The Stranger (A Seattle Alternative Weekly) [] that further dissects some Red State/Blue State theories.

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  8. Jon B says:

    The red/blue state model is as flawed as the electoral college system. Neither represent the will of the people, as neither is based on the popular vote, but rather on the elected delgates. The electoral college, the red/blue state mentality along with party-line voters represent a serious flaw in the political fabric of our nation. It is the rather childish bi-partisan squables that occur daily in politics that has disenfranchised many a voter. Perhaps it is time for electoral reform, and fresh, new blood in DC.

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