News Center

Red Versus Blue in a New Light

by Avi Feller and Andrew Gelman

The basic question driving the 2012 campaign was always clear: could Mitt Romney gain enough of the vote among older, upper-income white Americans to overcome President Obama’s overwhelming advantage among young, low-income and minority voters?

As in previous elections, richer voters leaned Republican while lower-income voters came out strong as Democrats.

But there’s much more to this story. The maps we have made show that the election was not just about red and blue states. What’s actually going on is that the division between red and blue America is mostly about a split among richer voters.

To picture this, imagine two alternative universes for the 2012 election. In the first, only individuals making less than $50,000 a year can vote; in the second, only those making more than $100,000 a year can. Based on exit polls from Election Day, we have a decent idea of how these scenarios would play out.

In the first universe, Barack Obama wins in a 1984-style landslide, with a near sweep of the Electoral College and around 60 percent of the popular vote.

In the second universe, Mitt Romney wins with a healthy 54 percent of the popular vote. Though he still carries the red states, a landslide remains out of his grasp — wealthy voters in blue states like New York and California still support Obama by comfortable margins. We’ll come back to this thought in a moment.

The maps in fig. 2 show the election results for four income groups as measured by exit polls (with blanks for the states that were not polled):

Remarkably, this same pattern has occurred in every presidential contest over the past twenty years. Lower-income voters consistently support the Democratic candidate in nearly every state. Upper-income voters, on the other hand, are more mixed in their political views: wealthy voters in Mississippi are strongly Republican while wealthy voters in Massachusetts are strongly Democratic. Extensive analyses of survey information from these elections show that this relationship holds even when controlling for age, race, sex and education.

In other words, contrary to what you have heard, there’s only a strong red America-blue America split toward the top of the income distribution. Toward the bottom, the electoral map is a sea of blue.

Why does this happen? Our research on opinion poll data from earlier elections finds that lower-income Americans tend to vote based on economic issues, while richer voters consider social issues as well as economics in their voting decisions. This is sometimes called post-materialism: the idea that, as individuals or groups become more comfortable, they can afford to think beyond their immediate needs.

The so-called culture war between red and blue America is concentrated in the upper half of the income distribution, and voting patterns reflect this.

We can break down the electorate by age similarly. Among young voters, Obama won a sizable 60 percent of the vote, with a solid majority in nearly all states included in the exit polls. In contrast, Romney won a solid 56 percent among senior citizens, with a strong showing in the red states (including two-thirds of elderly Arizonans), but with a sizable majority supporting the president in blue states like New York and Massachusetts.

Similar patterns show up if you break up the state-by-state vote by sex or race.

In all these cases, the red-state, blue-state division is sharper in categories that tend to vote Republican. Put another way: Obama’s voting blocs look about the same everywhere in the country, while Romney’s vary more from state to state.

This is not a story about the Obama campaign’s strategy or Mitt Romney’s failures as a presidential candidate — the demographic maps for 2004 and 2008 look very similar. The red-blue electoral map that we’re used to poring over is mainly the result of a political and geographic divide among American voters at the older, richer and whiter end of the socioeconomic spectrum.


Avi Feller is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy and worked from 2010 to 2011 in the Office of Management and Budget in Washington. Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia and the author of “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.” 

This article was originally posted on the New York Times.