Political scientists, pundits, and journalists have noted that partisan divisions in the United States have become increasingly correlated with cultural cleavages. But given that cultural conservatives have not always been quick to embrace McCain, will we see the same cultural divisions this year as we did in 2004?
For this (final) post, I wanted to examine the extent to which a handful of cultural indicators was correlated with presidential vote preferences in the 50 states. To do this, I draw from two sources of data. First, I use Pollster.com to create a measure of the margin by which Obama leads/trails McCain in each state. In most states, I use the Pollster.com average for the state; in states where there was not enough polling to create that average, I used the most recent survey from that state. Second, I use the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) to create the statewide cultural indicators. The CCES is valuable in this regard because it includes nearly 20,000 interviews conducted across all 50 states, thereby including a significant sample size in each state. So, with that out of the way, on to the analysis...
First, let's start with one factor that is often tied directly into politics--gun ownership. Gun owners have tended to vote more Republican over the years due at least partly to the fact that the Democratic Party has often sided with stricter gun ownership statutes compared to Republicans. However, despite recent attempts to improve his image with gun owners, McCain not typically been a favorite of gun owners and the N.R.A. So how strongly does gun ownership correlate with the breakdown in support for Obama and McCain so far? The figure below plots this relationship.
Obama's margin over McCain decreases significantly as the percentage of gun owners in a state increases. On average, in state's where gun owners comprise about 20% of the population, Obama holds a lead of about 20% over McCain. On the other hand, in states where gun owners make up about 60% of the population, McCain has, on average, a 10% advantage over Obama. Montana is an interesting outlier here. Despite having the highest percentage of gun owners in the country, the last poll out of Montana gave Obama a 5% lead over McCain.
A second cultural indicator we can examine is the pickup truck ownership. Of course, owning a pickup truck is not as obviously connected to politics as gun ownership, but there is often something culturally distinct about a pickup truck owner versus someone who drives a Prius (to take an extreme example). Indeed, we would expect the states with more pickup truck owners to generally be more Republican. As the figure below shows, this appears to be the case.
While the relationship is not as perfect as it was for gun ownership, it is still the case that support for Obama decreases (and support for McCain increases) as the percentage of pickup truck owners in a state increases. Once again, Montana is a big outlier here, along with Hawaii, Vermont and Maine. In each of these four states, Obama holds a bigger lead over McCain than one would expect based on the percentage of pickup truck owners.
As the largest private employer in the world, Wal-Mart is certainly a cultural icon in the United States. As such, it stands to reason that those who shop regularly at Wal-Mart may share a different perspective from those who do not. Indeed, Wal-Mart shoppers tend to be culturally conservative and they were much more likely to vote for Bush in 2004 than Kerry. Thus, it would not be surprising to find a similar relationship in 2008. The figure below shows the relationship between the percentage of a state's population that shops regularly at Wal-Mart and the support for Obama vs. McCain.
For the most part, this is one of the clearest relationships among the cultural indicators that I examine in this post. There are only a few outliers, Obama's home state of Illinois, Hawaii (his childhood home), Vermont, and Maine. Otherwise, the relationship is pretty clear: when more of a state's population shops at Wal-Mart, Obama fares worse and McCain does better. Even Montana (an outlier when looking at gun and pickup truck ownership) falls close to the regression line in this figure.
So, Obama fares better in states with fewer gun owners, fewer pickup truck owners, and fewer Wal-Mart patrons. After looking at those three cultural indicators, it only seems obvious that the last factor we should examine is a state's affinity for Jon Stewart. Respondents to the CCES survey were asked to rate Jon Stewart on a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being very favorable and 1 being very unfavorable. As a vocal critic of the Bush administration, there is little doubt about the type of relationship we would expect here.
Indeed, when a state's population had a more favorable opinion of Jon Stewart, that state was more likely to support Obama over McCain. In fact, on average, an increase of just 1-point of the favorability scale (from 4 to 5) would turn a state from supporting McCain by about 10 points to supporting Obama by a similar margin. As with the other cultural indicators, there are some interesting outliers. For example, North Dakota has the second most favorable opinion of Jon Stewart, yet Obama trailed McCain by a substantial margin in the last poll taken in that state. On the other hand, Delaware has a relatively low opinion of Jon Stewart, but it favors Obama by a significant margin.
If you put all these cultural indicators together, how well can they actually predict support for Obama vs. McCain? Well, they actually do a pretty good job. In fact, these four indicators can account for about 70% of the variance in support for Obama over McCain (even better if you drop a few of the outlier states like Illinois, Vermont, and Maine). That means that you can probably get a good sense of how your neighborhood is going to vote if you know how many of your neighbors own guns, how many have pickup trucks parked in their driveways, how many of them you see shopping at the local Wal-Mart, and how many of them saw the funny bit that Jon Stewart did on his show the night before. As always, there will be exceptions to the rule (Vermont and Maine are good examples of places where people like their guns and pickup trucks, but still support Democrats), but these cultural traits do appear to be associated with political predispositions.
Now, back to my "day job."