The richest states will vote Obama and the poorest states will vote Romney

Yes, "it's the economy, stupid" is true, but other issues are influencing voters counter-intuitively, too.

According to a report last month, the five richest states in the USA are Maryland, Alaska, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts whilst the five poorest states are Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama. Politically, four of the five richest states (the exception is Alaska) are regarded as safe for Barack Obama and all five of the poorest states are regarded as safe for Mitt Romney.

Viewed from these shores, this is puzzling because the richest states are supporting the candidate of the left-wing party while the poorest states are voting for the candidate of the right-wing party. In England, if a constituency is prosperous you can be sure it does not have a Labour MP; very probably it will have a Tory MP and occasionally a Lib Dem. If a constituency is deprived, the Tories are glad if they save their deposit and the MP is invariably Labour.

A partial explanation for the prosperous citizens of a state like Maryland voting for a Democrat is that the centre of politics in the US is significantly to the right of the centre of politics in the UK and Europe. However, it is still the case that if you are earning very well you can expect to pay more tax under the Democrats.

Journalists often use the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” when analysing elections and it is true that some people vote in elections on the basis of which party they think will make them and their family better off financially. It is ironic, as the phrase originated in the US, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign, that this test is applied more by voters in the UK than those in America. In the US millions of votes are cast for non-economic reasons.

For the last few decades fierce debates have raged in America which have come to be known as “Culture Wars”. These cover a range of issues which are highly controversial in the US, such as the importance of religion, the law on abortion, gun-control and issues around homosexuality like gay marriage. Depressingly, even the issue of climate change, rather than being judged on the basis of scientific evidence, has become caught up in these Culture Wars. On these issues, the Democrats tend to have progressive, liberal views and the Republicans conservative, traditional views. For millions of Americans these issues are decisive.

Many of the poorest states in the US are in the Deep South. These states now vote solidly Republican in presidential elections. The vote is split on racial grounds. In 2008, Obama received some 98 per cent of the black vote in Mississippi and Alabama but was easily beaten by John McCain who received some 90 per cent of the white vote. The result was much the same when the Democrat candidate has been white.

Once it was the Democrats who were the beneficiary of white Southern voters as a result of the civil war and its aftermath. The states in the Deep South were slave states and they were defeated in the Civil War by a government led by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a Republican, in fact the first Republican president.

After the Civil War and after Lincoln’s assassination it was the Republican Party that tried and failed to secure proper rights for the blacks in the Deep South. It was the Democrats who ensured that, although slavery was finished, the blacks in their states had minimal rights. Into the 1960s southern blacks faced discrimination, segregation and were denied the right to vote. Southern whites at the time never voted anything other than Democrat.

In 1964 it was a Democrat president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who forced through the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act to make sure that blacks in the South could vote and had proper legal rights. He knew that this would earn his party the hatred of the white voters in the South. As he signed the law he reportedly said: “There goes the South for a generation.”

LBJ was right in that voters who had only ever voted Democrat now proceeded to only ever vote Republican. He was wrong about this voting pattern lasting “for a generation” – it has already been far longer than that.
The economy may well be the most important issue in the battle between Obama and Romney but it is by no means the only important issue.

Romney supporters. Photograph: Getty Images
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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