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
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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