How Do the Rich Vote? Follow the Money

February 27th, 2011 at 10:39 am | 11 Comments |

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In response to my recent blogpost arguing that the rich really are more Republican, FrumForum reader Ken writes that the truly wealthy “vote Democrat by a margin of two to one.” Ken cites a Wall Street Journal article from 2008 to support this claim. Unfortunately, the statistics in that article are unsourced. Robert Frank, the author of this article, cites a survey by Prince & Associates. Back when that article came out, I tried to track down the data and the claim and got nowhere. Here’s what I wrote back in 2008:

Do I believe [the claim that voters worth $30 million or more were favoring Barack Obama]? Not really. My problem here is that I don’t know where the survey is coming from. How did Prince & Associates sample people making $30 million or more? Without knowing at least something about the sampling, it’s hard to say anything at all about these claims. For example, a graph accompanying the article linked above gives estimates of about 0.1 million households with over $25 million and 9 million households with over $1 million. This ratio is about 1%; thus, in a simple random sample of 493 people worth over $1 million, you’d expect to see about a whopping 5 people in the survey worth over $30 million. Or maybe there were 6 such people in the sample; that would explain why the percentages of the super-rich cited in the linked article are 16% (1 in 6) and 67% (4 in 6). The survey might have more than 6 super-rich people in it; I don’t know since no details are given. (I searched on the web for the survey but all I could find were links to the Robert Frank article discussed here.) How do you take a sample of super-rich people? Prince & Associates is a Connecticut-based consulting company that describes itself as “the foremost empirical research firm in the realm of private wealth. . . Using purposive sampling methodologies, Prince & Associates, Inc. has created statistically valid single-study and panel samples providing detailed insights into the hard-to-reach and exceptionally private universe of the affluent.” I respect that this sort of sampling is difficult but it’s hard for me to evaluate it when no description is provided of the sample. I’ll email Russ Alan Prince to see if he can enlighten me on this, but really I’d think it would be the responsibility of a Wall Street Journal reporter to ask some questions here. (I guess it’s possible that Frank did ask some questions but for proprietary reasons did not want to describe the sampling methodology, but if so I would’ve appreciated just a sentence or two on it, to give me a little more confidence in the results.)

The substantive reason I’m skeptical about these findings (as well as a similar report by Daniel Gross in 2004) is the following passage from page 144 of our Red State, Blue State book:

Probably the best evidence [about the political views of the richest Americans] comes from studies of political contributions. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has tracked political donations of top corporate executives and the Forbes 400 richest Americans (or their equivalents, in earlier periods). The data presented in his 1995 book, Golden Rule, indicate that America’s superrich have generally learned Republican, but with some notable exceptions that have changed over time. Certain industries have persistently higher rates of contributions to the Democrats. In the New Deal, these included industries with a strong interest in free trade. Since the Reagan years, finance, and high technology firms have been much friendlier to Democratic presidential candidates than most of the rest of American business. For 2004, Ferguson consolidated the lists of top executives and richest families into a lot of 674 firms and investors. Out of this list, 53% contributed to George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and 16% donated to Kerry, with Bush doing better among the oil and pharmaceutical industries and Kerry getting more from investment banks and hedge funds.

Given that this 53%-16% gap in contributions in 2004, I’m skeptical of the claim that, in 2004, “the haute millionaires, those worth more than $10 million, favored Kerry 59-41.” Which leaves me skeptical of the 2008 survey as well. Perhaps Prince & Associates is oversampling hedge-funders in Connecticut? I emailed Prince back in 2008 but received no response. That’s fine–I’m sure he’s a busy guy with better things to do that answer emails from statistics professors. But the bottom line is the data I’ve seen shows upper income Americans supporting Republicans (with exceptions in some states, some years, and some sectors of the economy). And the claims I’ve seen to the contrary do not seem supported by high-quality data.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • armstp


    I do not think anyone believes that the rich support Democrats more than Republicans, although I am sure the gap is not as wide as most think.

    The reality is the wealthy have done far better since Reagan in terms of tax cuts and the concentration of the wealth into the top 2%. The rich have benefit very nicely with Republican policies, so given self interest, I am sure the rich on average vote much more for Republicans.

  • Nanotek

    “How Do the Rich Vote?”

    money can enable a long view that poverty denies

  • Non-Contributor

    More importantly how do the rich spend their money?

    Koch Brothers.

  • Churl

    Suddenly the Koch Brothers have displaced Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and Fox News as the Demons of the Moment. How did the Brothers get promoted so quickly?

  • ChallengingFrum


    I guess they needed someone new to hate…or maybe following around Palenty’s kids got boring.

    as far as the article, pull the records from goldman sachs.

  • balconesfault

    I think the 2008 election was non representative.

    A lot of rich people in 2008 considered John McCain to be an economic dimwit who would just run the economy deeper into the ditch that George Bush ran it into.

    In general, however – the wealthy support those candidates whose policies will most favor the wealthy.

    And while the Democrats are only about 70% committed to ensuring that the wealthiest Americans become wealthier … the Republicans are 100% committed to that principle.

    Per the above – the Goldman Sachs folks did support Obama in the 2008 election. They knew what a disaster McCain would be. And they were rewarded as the market stabilized and then boomed thanks to Obama’s policies.

    OTOH, when the 2010 elections rolled around, with the serious threat of additional regulations and higher taxes, Goldman Sachs and the rest of Wall Street went back to heavily favoring the GOP.

  • Houndentenor

    Dunno. Maybe the same way the right loves to hate on Soros?

    My experience on Wall St. working for execs was that they gave money to both sides unless it was a runaway election. (Can’t risk not having access for the next 2-4-6 years!) I would also say that I met as many Democrats as I did Republicans at the top. In the middle it was very tilted towards the GOP.

  • tommybones

    Um, if you all don’t know yet that the GOP exists solely to represent the richest 2% of the population, then you need to wake the eff up.

  • PatrickQuint

    Churl “Suddenly the Koch Brothers have displaced Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and Fox News as the Demons of the Moment. How did the Brothers get promoted so quickly?”

    A hypothesis: Rachel Maddow mentions the Koch brothers more than any of those others.

    The duo have come up often because of the Wisconsin demonstrations, and Ms. Maddow doesn’t mention Beck/Palin/Fox often. Without Keith Olbermann to remind people of what these people are doing, MSNBC’s evening audience going goldfish on us.

  • jjv

    How did they make their money? I bet that centimillionaires and billionaires in entertainment, finance and communications vote Democrat and those in oil, gas, real estate and construction in general vote Republican. Inherited wealth probably tilts Democrat out of guilt (gilt?!).

  • balconesfault

    Inherited wealth probably tilts Democrat out of guilt (gilt?!).

    I find this argument very tiresome. Most wealthy liberals support a progressive income and inheritance taxes on the basis that they think these are critical tools to ensuring a stable economy and society – and because they believe their wealth is best protected via a stable economy and society.

    This is the same as arguments over affirmative action. There are those of us who champion the successes of AA not out of guilt – but because we believe that AA programs were significant contribtors to increasing the wealth and opportunity for the black and hispanic communities … and that these factors have been significant in creating additional economic growth throughout society.

    I think that there is a huge portion of the conservative community who just can’t wrap their heads around these arguments.