Politics Now

The financially stressed favor Democrats, don't vote much, study finds

Among financially stressed Americans, 42% backed Democrats, but only 12% actually planned to vote for one

About half of American adults have no retirement account beyond Social Security, 4 in 10 don’t have a credit card, and 1 in 5 lack a checking account.

Statistics like that paint a picture of the widespread nature of financial insecurity in the U.S. The numbers, from an in-depth study by the Pew Research Center, also provide significant information about politics.

Americans who are most financially secure were, by a large margin, the most likely to have voted this last fall, the study found. They were also the most likely to favor Republicans.

By contrast, Americans whose finances are precarious tended to reject the GOP, but were also much more likely to have dropped out of the political process, either not registering to vote or not planning to cast a ballot.

The study’s most striking finding was that financial security affected support for the two major parties in very different ways.

Support for a Republican for Congress depended hugely on how financially stressed a person was. Among the most well-off, about half favored the GOP. That support dropped to fewer than 1 in 5 among the least well-off, the study found.

Support for Democrats was very different - pretty much constant at about 4 in 10 at all levels of financial security.

The problem for Democrats was that among the less well-off, that support usually wasn’t translating into votes. Among those facing the most financial stress, for example, 42% said they favored a Democrat, but only 12% seemed likely to show up and vote for one in the midterm election, the study’s pre-election survey indicated.

Although race plays a major role in politics, and blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among the financially insecure, the study found that the pattern of support for the two parties was very similar whether they looked at the overall electorate or just at white Americans. Democrats got less support among whites than among the electorate as a whole, but the level of backing was fairly consistent at all levels of financial security. Support for Republicans dropped sharply among whites in the least financially stable groups.

The fact that wealthier Americans are more likely than the poor to favor Republicans is not new. But by gauging overall financial security, rather than just income, the new study provides a clearer picture of how personal finances affect politics.

To measure security, Pew used a series of 10 financial questions to survey 3,154 adult Americans. In addition to asking whether people had retirement savings or checking accounts, the questions included whether they had had difficulty paying the rent or mortgage in the last year, whether they had trouble paying for medical care, whether they had received food stamps and other indicators of money problems.

The study divided Americans into five tiers of financial security, each with about 20% of the adult U.S. population, based on how many indicators of financial stress each person had.

The survey also asked respondents about their political attitudes and voting histories. Based on those answers, the study found that among Americans in the most financially secure tier – those who answered “no” to all the questions about financial problems – almost two-thirds were likely voters in the weeks before the November election. Among those in the least-secure group, only about one-fifth seemed likely to vote.

That finding backs up a pattern seen repeatedly over the years – voting, particularly in non-presidential elections, tends to be something of a luxury product, indulged in most by those who aren’t constantly worried about money.

Ideological consistency is even more for the upper-crust, the study found. Both consistent liberals and consistent conservatives are much more likely to be found among well-off Americans than among those who are financially struggling, and down-the-line conservatism is particularly concentrated among the well off.

Among the most financially secure Americans, 40% are conservative on a majority of issues on which Pew has polled while 36% are liberal. Shift to the least economically secure, and the number of liberals remains nearly the same, at 37%, but the share who are conservative falls to 13%.

Most people aren't fully consistent in their ideologies. Just under 1 in 5 (18%) well-off Americans gave liberal answers across the board on Pew's questions, and that dropped to only 9% of the least well-off. On the other side, 15% of the well-off were consistent conservatives, but only 3% of the least financially secure were.

A majority of Americans in the least-well-off group have no consistent ideology at all – picking liberal positions on some issues and conservative positions on others. At the upper end of the financial scale, that sort of inconsistency is relatively uncommon, adopted by only about one-quarter of people.

Previous Pew studies have shown that the people who are most involved in American politics – voting in nearly all elections, contributing to candidates and contacting government officials – tend to be the most ideological. Ideological consistency also increases among those with the most education. Those who hold a mix of liberal and conservative views tend to be less involved in the political system.

Strongly held ideological views may draw people into political action. But being involved in politics also reinforces ideological consistency as people tend to adopt the positions of the political “teams” they root for.  

Not surprisingly, those who are better off are more conservative on issues involving government spending and help for the poor. The wealthy are much more likely than the poor to believe that government benefits are overly generous. The poor are also more skeptical of business than are the well off.

Yet on other issues, the views of rich and poor don’t differ by much. Support for military defense, for example, holds steady across different financial levels. So, too, does majority backing for environmental laws and regulations.

Similarly, backing for gay rights was consistent across all positions on the financial scale, with Americans by about 2-1 saying that “homosexuality should be accepted,” not “discouraged by society.”

On only one issue in the survey, immigration, were less economically secure Americans more likely than the well off to take a conservative stand.

Well-off Americans said, by more than 2-1, that they agreed with a statement that immigrants “strengthen our country” rather than one that said that immigrants are a “burden … because they take our jobs.” Among the least financially secure, that pro-immigration position still commanded a majority, but the division was much tighter, 51%-44%.

The study was based on polling conducted in September and early October among a panel of 3,154 American adults. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

For more on politics and policy, follow @DavidLauter on Twitter.

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