What Color Are You? What Color Is Your State?

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • D. Brad Wright Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Iowa

First of all, let me stress that the question "what color are you" is about political ideology, not race. Second, I am choosing to post this today as a follow-up to the Massachusetts Goes Purple post of Monday, which seemed to ruffle a few feathers. Looking through the comments, there were plenty of people who said that Massachusetts had not "gone" purple, but has been purple for a long time now. There were others who emphasized that the state was as blue as ever, and that my assertion otherwise was indicative of my never having set foot in the state (although I've been there numerous times). So, I thought a little enlightenment about the red-blue divide was in order. Hope you enjoy it.

By now, we're all accustomed to the readily applied labels of red states and blue states. In fact, pretty much since the closely contested 2000 Presidential election, most of us can easily envision the map of the United States broken out into the two colors. The west coast and the the northeast are blue (i.e., liberal) states, while the rest of the country tends to consist of red (i.e., conservative) states. Of course, if we break things down further, we see that even within red states, the large cities tend to be blue. There are patterns to all of this. There are powerful stereotypes of red and blue voters, too, and the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman uncovers it all.

Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, and he recently sent me a review copy of the revised edition of his book. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, and am just now finding the time to get a quick review up on the blog.

If you watch Fox News, or take in the fervor surrounding "everywoman" Sarah Palin, you'll get the sense that the Republicans are the party of the common people--the hardworking, salt-of-the-earth, Walmart shopping, God-fearing, gun-toting backbone of America. You might also get the sense that the Democrats are well-educated, wealthy, Volvo-driving, Starbucks-sipping, atheistic elites who are out of touch with mainstream America. When you then consider that the Republicans' policy positions--especially their economic ones--typically favor not the average citizen, but the very well off, and that the Democrats' policy positions--again, especially their economic ones--typically favor redistribution to aid the less-well-off, you find a paradox. It's only a paradox, though, because the image you have of Republicans and Democrats is wrong.

As Gelman shows using a wealth of data, high-income individuals are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat--no matter where they live or anything else about them (like their race, religious beliefs, etc.). The reality is that this effect of income level on voting preference matters less in states that are wealthier on average than it does in states that are less wealthy. That's the central finding of Gelman's work. Of course, he walks through a variety of other arguments and controls for a variety of other factors, finding some (e.g., race and religion) fairly important, and others (e.g., income inequality) less so. The book goes a long way in explaining the partisan divide in this country--and as someone who hails from the ultra-conservative deep south, but has morphed into more of a left-leaning moderate over time--I've got to say every story Gelman tells made sense to me. You should pick up a copy and give it a read. It's full of great graphs, which will make that easy for you. Plus, you might be pretty surprised to find out how easily you can be put in a box on the basis of just a few relevant factors. I know I was.

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