Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Value Voters

The best indicator of whether a state will swing Red or Blue? The cost of buying a home and raising a family.

No matter who wins the 2008 presidential election, pundits will afterwards hypothesize feverishly about why the country is so divided into vast inland expanses of Red (Republican) regions versus thin coastal strips of Blue (Democratic) metropolises. Yet looking at 2000 and 2004, few will stumble upon the engine driving this partisan pattern, even though the statistical correlations are among the highest in the history of the social sciences.

The Republicans lost the popular vote in 2000 while advocating a “humble” foreign policy and won in 2004 while defending a foreign policy that Napoleon might have found bombastic. But all that happened from 2000 to 2004 was that virtually every part of the country moved a few points toward the Republicans. The relative stability of this Red-Blue geographic split suggests that more fundamental forces are at work than just the transient issues of the day.

Neither Jane Austen nor Benjamin Franklin, however, would have found the question of what drives the Red-Blue divide so baffling. Unlike today’s intellectuals, they both thought intensely about the web linking wealth, property, marriage, and children. They would not have been surprised that a state’s voting proclivities are now dominated by the relative presence or absence of affordable family formation.

First-time readers of Pride and Prejudice frequently remark that Austen’s romance novels are, by American standards, not terribly romantic. She possessed a hard-headed understanding of how in traditional English society, wedlock was a luxury that some would never be able to afford, an assumption that often shocks us in our more sentimental 21st century.

Economic historian Gregory Clark’s recent book, A Farewell to Alms, quantified the Malthusian reality under the social structure acerbically depicted in Austen’s books. The English in the 1200-1800 era imposed upon themselves the sexual self-restraint that pioneering economist Thomas Malthus famously (but belatedly) suggested they follow in 1798. By practicing population control, the English largely avoided the cycles of rapid growth followed by cataclysmic famines that plagued China, where women married universally and young. The English postponed marriage and children until a man and woman could afford the accouterments suitable for a respectable married couple of their class.

In the six centuries up through Austen’s lifetime, Clark found, English women didn’t marry on average until age 24 to 26, with poor women often having to wait until their 30s to wed. And 10 to 20 percent never married. Judging from the high fertility of married couples, contraceptive practices appear to have been almost unknown in England in this time, but merely three or four percent of all births were illegitimate, demonstrating that rigid premarital self-discipline was the norm.

Remarkably, a half-century before Malthus’s gloomy and Austen’s witty reflections on life and love in crowded England, Ben Franklin had pointed out that in his lightly populated America, the human condition was more relaxed and happy. In his insightful 1751 essay, “Observations concerning The Increase of Mankind,” Franklin spelled out, with an 18th-century surfeit of capitalization, the first, nonpartisan half of the theory of affordable family formation: “For People increase in Proportion to the Number of Marriages, and that is greater in Proportion to the Ease and Convenience of supporting a Family. When Families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life.”

He outlined the virtuous cycle con-necting the colonies’ limited population, low land prices, high wages, early marriage, and abundant children: “Europe is generally full settled with Husbandmen, Manufacturers, &c. and therefore cannot now much increase in People. … Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short Time save Money enough to purchase a Piece of new Land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family; such are not afraid to marry…” Franklin concluded, “Hence Marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe.”

The Industrial Revolution broke the tyranny of the Malthusian Trap over food, but the supply of and demand for land never ceased to influence decisions to marry and have children. As America’s coastal regions filled up, affordability of family formation began to differ sharply from state to state (disparities partially masked over the last few years by subprime mortgages and other financial gambits). CNN reported in 2006: “More than 90 percent of homes in [Indianapolis] were affordable to families earning the median income for the area of about $65,100. In Los Angeles, the least affordable big metro area, only 1.9 percent of the homes sold were within the reach of families earning a median income for the city of $56,200.”

When I lived in the Midwest, from age 24 to 34, I attended numerous weddings, but as my social circle matured, the invitations naturally dried up. Yet when I moved back to my native, but now much more expensive, Los Angeles in 2000, I suddenly started being invited to weddings again. Like male characters in a Jane Austen novel, four of my seven closest friends from my high-school class of 1976 got married and bought houses for the first time in their early forties.

Similarly, the cost of childrearing varies more across the country than ever before. A study of census data by the New York Times found that “Manhattan’s 35,000 or so white non-Hispanic toddlers are being raised by parents whose median income was $284,208 a year in 2005.” Second was San Francisco, where the 50th percentile of income for white parents of small children fell at $150,763. That explains a lot about why the city by the bay is last in the country in percentage of residents under 18, below even retirement havens such as Palm Beach.

The culture wars between Red and Blue States are driven in large part by these objective differences in how family-friendly they are, financially speaking. For example, according to ACCRA, a nonprofit organization that measures the cost of living so corporations can adjust the salaries of employees they relocate, the liberal San Francisco-Oakland area is twice as expensive as the conservative Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The BestPlaces.net calculator reports, “To maintain the same standard of living, your salary of $100,000 in San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, California could decrease to $49,708 in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas.”

Not surprisingly, the San Francisco area is popular with people who don’t need a big backyard for their kids, such as homosexuals and childless couples, while North Texas attracts families from across America. San Francisco is very Democratic, while the Metroplex is quite Republican.

Why? The simplest explanation is that GOP “family values” resound more in states where people can more afford to have families. In parts of the country where “Families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life.” And where it is economical to buy a house with a yard in a neighborhood with a decent public school, you will generally find more conservatives. It’s a stereotype that marriage, mortgage, and kids make people more conservative, but, like most stereotypes, it’s reasonably true. You’ll find fewer Republicans in places where family formation is expensive. Where fewer people can form families, Republican candidates making speeches about family values just sound irrelevant or irritating.

The arrow of causality points in both directions. Some family-oriented people move to more affordable states in order to marry and have children, while people uninterested in marriage and children move in the opposite direction to enjoy adult lifestyles. This population swapping just makes the electorate more divided by geography rather than tipping the national balance toward one party.

Still, for the many Americans whose innate inclinations fall somewhere in the middle, the cost of forming a family in their current state affects how likely they are to start down the path toward married-with-children conservatism and therefore, cumulatively, which party will eventually prevail nationally.

Imagine a young couple considering marriage who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. He makes $60,000 and she makes $40,000 annually. If he could find a job that pays $50,000 in northern Texas, where costs are only half as high, she could stay home and raise the children. But if they can’t bear to leave California, with its inspiring scenery and lovely weather, she will have to keep working. And if she has to work, are children really such a good idea? And if they aren’t going to have children, why get married at all? And if they aren’t married, are they going to appreciate the nagging of socially conservative politicians?

Four interlocking reasons explain why the affordability of family formation paints the electoral map red or blue.

First is the Dirt Gap: Republican regions simply have more acres of land per person. Even excluding Alaska, counties that voted for Bush are only one-fourth as densely populated on average as Kerry’s counties. Blue State metropolises, such as Boston, Seattle, and Chicago, are mostly located on oceans or Great Lakes, so their suburban expansion is permanently limited to their landward sides. (That’s why Chicago has a West Side but not an East Side.) In contrast, Red State metropolises (such as Atlanta, Phoenix, and San Antonio) are mostly inland. They tend to be surrounded by dirt, not water, allowing their suburbs to spread out over virtually 360 degrees. The supply of suburban land available for development is larger in Red State cities, so the price is lower.

To demonstrate this, consider the 53 percent of the nation’s population who live in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Among these folks, 73 percent of the Blue Staters live in metropolises bounded by deep water, compared to only 19 percent of the Red Staters.

The second major factor in the Red-Blue divide is the Mortgage Gap. As the law of supply and demand dictates, the limited availability of suburban dirt in most Blue States means housing generally costs more.

This has a striking political corollary. According to ACCRA, Bush carried the 20 states that have the cheapest housing costs, while Kerry won the nine states that are most expensive. The states with the lowest-cost housing are Mississippi (where Bush won an extraordinary 85 percent of the white vote), Arkansas (home state of Bill Clinton but now solidly Republican) and the GOP’s anchor state of Texas.

In recent years, the most expensive state for housing has been California. Although GOP presidential candidates carried California nine out of ten times from 1952 to 1988, they have not come close in the four elections since. Next most expensive are Hawaii and the District of Columbia (where Bush won only 9 percent).

Of course, Blue State cities are also more likely to use environmental and zoning restrictions to limit housing supply artificially. Portland, Oregon, for instance, is an inland city that pretends to be a coastal city by outlawing development of most adjoining land, thereby inflating home costs. This has helped turn Portland, once a blue-collar burgh, into one of America’s most fashionable cities. Indeed, so many young whites have moved to Portland that some are now gentrifying stretches of the inner city’s Martin Luther King Boulevard. (A cynic might suggest that the fact that Portland’s leftist land-use regulations tend to drive out poor blacks and slow the influx of Hispanic illegal immigrants is not an accidental bug but a planned feature.) These development restrictions make children more expensive, as the title of a 2005 New York Times article focusing on Portland made clear: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children.”

Moreover, the Mortgage Gap has been growing. Bush was victorious in the 26 states with the least home-price inflation since 1980, while Kerry triumphed in the 14 states with the most. Home prices rose fastest in Kerry’s Massachusetts (515 percent) and second slowest in Bush’s Texas (89 percent), trailing only nearby Oklahoma. The correlation between low housing inflation and Bush’s share of the vote was strong, with a correlation coefficient, or “r,” of 0.72.

A rule of thumb in the social sciences is that correlation coefficients of 0.2 are low, 0.4 moderate, and 0.6 high. Thus 0.72 is quite high, especially given the complexity of voting patterns.

To put the influence of housing inflation in perspective, compare its correlation with voting to a more obvious factor influencing who a state votes for: the minority proportion of the state’s electorate. Nationally, Bush carried 58 percent of the white vote compared to only 23 percent of the minority vote. Yet the percentage of minority voters in a state correlated with Bush’s share of the vote only at the moderate -0.37 level.

To further help explain the importance of a correlation coefficient, you should multiply the number by itself. Squaring 0.72 reveals that the amount of variation accounted for by the relationship between housing inflation and 2004 voting was 52 percent of the total. In contrast, squaring the 0.37 correlation for minority share shows it can only account for 13 percent of the variance, just one quarter as much as housing inflation can.

Despite the explanatory power of the Dirt Gap and the Mortgage Gap, these concepts have not been widely discussed. Perhaps they are too objective, too emotionally neutral. What people want to hear instead are justifications for why they are ethically and culturally superior to their enemies.

The Mortgage Gap leads, in turn, to a third factor: the Marriage Gap. Sophisticated voting analysts have long noted that the celebrated “gender gap” is dwarfed by the obscure “marriage gap.” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s multiple regression analysis of the 2004 exit polls revealed:

The marriage gap is one of the most important cleavages in electoral politics. This is true even when controlling for other demographic and behavioral factors such as gender, age, race, gun ownership, union household membership, party identification, education, income, and church attendance. Controlling for all these other variables, the odds of voting for Kerry were 1.56 times greater if the voter was unmarried than if the voter was married. In contrast, once other demographic and behavioral factors were controlled for, a voter’s gender had no significant effect on their likelihood to vote for the Democrat. [Italics mine]

Bush carried 61 percent of married non-Hispanic white women but merely 44 percent of single white females—a 17-point difference. Among white men, Bush won 53 percent of the single and 66 percent of the married guys—a 13-point difference.

Why do I, like Greenberg, concentrate more on analyzing non-Hispanic white voting? First, this allows an apples-to-apples comparison between states. Second, the white vote is the decisive swing vote. Although the media drones on about supposedly decisive minority “swing voters” such as the small Hispanic bloc (only 6.0 percent of all voters in 2004, according to the census), the white bloc was dominant, casting 79 percent of the vote.

And whites are highly diverse politically. Bush’s performance among white voters ranged from only 40 percent in Massachusetts and Vermont to 85 percent in Mississippi—a 45-point spread. In contrast, Bush’s percentage of blacks varied only from 3 percent in D.C. to 28 percent in Oklahoma—a 25-point range.

Third, each state’s overall voting behavior is driven primarily by the divergences in marriage and baby-making among whites. Whites appear more sensitive to cost-of-living calculations about marriage and babies. While white parents of small children in Manhattan have a median income of $284,208, the NYT reports, “In comparison, the median income of other Manhattan households with toddlers was $66,213 for Asians, $31,171 for blacks and $25,467 for Hispanic families.” Similarly, demographer Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California finds that American-born white women in costly California are having babies at a rate of only 1.6 per lifetime, while immigrant Latinas are having 3.7.

The impact of marriage on the Red-Blue divide among states was long difficult to quantify graphically because the government only provides data on “getting married,” yet it’s “being married” that drives voters toward the GOP. Many white people get married in Nevada, for example, but the state is only purplish-red because they also get divorced frequently. Next door Utah, however, is the most rock-ribbed Red State (Bush won 72 percent) because the locals get married and stay married.

Consequently, I devised a measure called “Years Married” (modeled on Total Fertility) that estimated how many years a woman could expect to be married during her childbearing years of 18-44.

For example, white women in Utah lead the nation by being married an average of 17.0 years during those 27 years from age 18 through 44. In contrast, in liberal Washington D.C., the average white woman is married only 7.4 years. In Massachusetts, where Bush won merely 37 percent, years married average just 12.2.

Applied to white women, this new measure proved to be the single-best predictor imaginable of Bush’s share of the vote by state in the last two elections. Bush carried the top 25 states, while Kerry won 16 of the lowest 19.

The 2004 correlation coefficient was a stratospheric 0.91, accounting for an astonishing r-squared equal to 83 percent of total variation in voting by state. This has to be one of the highest correlations for an unexpected factor ever seen in political science.

Although there are profound cultural differences among states, the Marriage Gap among whites appears to be pushed to a sizable extent by the Mortgage Gap. The cost-of-housing index correlates with “years married” with an r-squared equal to 53 percent. Similarly, the housing inflation rate since 1980 and “years married” correlate at an r-squared equal to 48 percent.

While young couples during the postwar Baby Boom rushed into marriage at very early ages, assuming that with wages high and housing costs low, they could somehow make things work, modern Americans have developed an attitude similar in some ways to Jane Austen’s characters: money should precede marriage. Miss Austen, though, would never have approved of the corollary: that sex, and even children, can precede money.

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas conducted a five-year study of 162 low-income white, black, and Hispanic single mothers in Philadelphia. They found that “Marriage, we heard time and again, ought to be reserved for those couples who’ve acquired the symbols of working-class respectability: a mortgage on a modest rowhouse, a reliable car, a savings account and enough money left over to host a ‘decent’ wedding.”

Little media attention has been paid to the relentless surge in illegitimacy. From 2005 to 2006, the number of babies born to married white women declined 0.4 percent, while the number born to unmarried Hispanic women rose an astonishing 9.6 percent. Across all races, the illegitimacy rate in 2006 was 39 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990. For blacks, it was 71 percent, for Hispanics 50 percent, and for whites 27 percent.

Women in higher social classes are more likely to avoid the troubles of giving birth out of wedlock. But they often postpone marriage and children until they can afford the down payment on a house in a neighborhood with good public schools.

That leads to the fourth and final factor: the Baby Gap. Bush carried 25 of the top 26 states in the “total fertility rate” (expected number of babies per woman per lifetime) among whites, while Kerry was victorious in the bottom 16. In Utah, for instance, white women in 2002 were having babies at a pace equivalent to 2.45 per lifetime. In the District of Columbia, white women average only 1.11 babies.

The correlation between white total fertility and Bush’s performance produced an impressive r-squared of 74 percent. In a 2006 paper entitled “The ‘Second Demographic Transition’ in the US,” demographers Ron J. Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert of the University of Michigan confirmed the findings that I first published in my “Baby Gap” article in The American Conservative in 2004: the white total fertility rate correlates extraordinarily well with whether a state voted for Bush or Kerry. They note that this provides “to our knowledge one of the highest spatial correlations between demographic and voting behavior on record.”

Yet the Baby Gap appears to be somewhat less important than the Marriage Gap. Nevertheless, together they proved extraordinarily powerful in explaining Bush’s performance. Their combined r-squared: 88 percent.

Affordable family formation won’t predict who will win this November. But it offers profound implications for long-range political strategies. For example, the late housing bubble, over which Republicans George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan complacently presided, reduced the affordability of family formation, which should help the Democrats in the long run.

This theory suggests that, in order to encourage marriage and children among voters, Republicans should pursue policies that raise wages, lower demand for houses, and keep the public schools from eroding further. The most obvious way to move the country toward a more Republican future is to restrict immigration. This revamped GOP could then position itself as the party of more weddings and more babies, while describing the Democrats, with some accuracy, as the party of dying alone.

Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and a columnist for VDARE.com. His blog is iSteve.Blogspot.com.



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here