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New England is rich – so why does it vote Democrat?

The Democrat leanings of affluent New England are part of a broader trend. It's as if, in the UK, Buckinghamshire and Surrey were to vote Labour, while the northeast and Wales went Tory.

By Jonn Elledge

Connecticut is about as safely Democratic a state as Hillary Clinton could want. It hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988. In 2012 it voted for Barack Obama by an 18-point margin, and FiveThirtyEight gives Hillary Clinton a 94 per cent chance of carrying it next Tuesday.

Which is funny, at least if you’re used to British politics, because it’s also one of the richest states in the union. The towns of its southern “Gold Coast”, commuter suburbs for New York City, are full of white clapper-board houses the size of small mansions. Greenwich, CT, is even the centre of the US hedge fund industry.

This is not an isolated example. The top ten states by median household income include the safe Republican Alaska (a state which has, bafflingly, flirted with a Clinton victory this year); New Hampshire, which is a swing state but one where the odds are in her favour – and eight more states, plus Washington DC, which she is all but certain to win, even if she loses the election.

Look at the bottom ten by income and, well, you can see where this is going. Eight are safe Republican; one more, South Carolina, looked like it might swing, but then reverted to the red column; the last is one, solitary blue state – the heavily Hispanic New Mexico. It’s as if, in the UK, Buckinghamshire and Surrey were to vote Labour, while the northeast and Wales went Tory.

So what’s going on? Part of explanation is that averages can obscure as much as reveal. A state with a higher median income could also have a higher number of very poor people than one with a lower median. Indeed, for all the talk of Trump’s appeal to the working class, the average Trump voter is still richer than the average Clinton voter.

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Average income may be a poor measure of wealth in another way. The libertarian writer Tim Worstall has tried to explain the divergence between votes and bank accounts by arguing that the key measure of how rich you feel is how much you can consume. Ostensibly richer areas often come with higher living costs, mostly in the form of housing. As a result, the household earning $70,000 in Connecticut may feel poorer than the one earning $50,000 in Alabama.

But only an economist could think this was the whole explanation: financial self-interest may be a big influence on how people vote, but it clearly isn’t the only one. And whatever the averages say, there clearly are a lot of rich people who vote Democrat and a lot of poor ones who vote Republican.

I suspect there’s another reason that rich but metropolitan states like Connecticut are off the table for Republican presidential candidates these days: because the party has increasingly fought elections on “values”. God, guns and gays, as the Democrat house minority leader Nancy Pelosi has put it (or, as I put it, being increasingly unsubtle about sucking up to racists).

That’s done wonders to turn once reliably blue states red, putting the vast majority of southern states out of reach to Clinton. Elsewhere, though, it’s had the opposite effect. All else being equal, enough rich New York commuters might vote for the party promising them lower taxes to make Connecticut Republican once again. But all else isn’t equal – and many of those voters care about other things, like minority rights and religious toleration. The Republicans’ attempt to appeal to “values voters” in some parts of the country has cost it votes elsewhere. Turns out, rich liberals have values too.

This phenomenon has gone into overdrive with Trump, who looks set to be the first Republican in decades not to win a plurality of white graduate voters, but is gaining votes among working-class whites without degrees. Education is not the same as wealth, of course – would that it were – but the two are linked. Trump is losing the votes of relatively rich white voters, and gaining those of relatively poor ones, even while he offers lower taxes – because those voters also care about other things, too. (Arguably, if you think Trump is likely to trigger World War 3 in a fit of pique there’s no point voting for him no matter how good he is for your finances, because who cares how much radioactive slag you own; but that’s a side issue.)

I said a few paragraphs back that the US electoral map was weird to a Brit because it was like Surrey voting Labour and Sunderland voting Tory. Well, there is a map that saw the former vote for what was widely seen as the “liberal” option, and the latter go for the conservative one: the one of the referendum result.

Trump’s coalition looks set to consist of the old, the rural, and blue collar workers. Clinton’s will be more younger, more diverse, more educated and more urban. And turning elections into a culture war based on values has split the US electorate into two groups which totally hate each others’ guts.

Remind you of anywhere?