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Gary Younge

Americans are particularly reluctant to describe themselves as even working class let alone poor, which explains why many are unwilling to vote for candidates who favour policies that help the poor. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Working class voters: why America's poor are willing to vote Republican

Tracey Owings is fighting hard to keep the home that has been in his family for 34 years. In 2000 his mother refinanced. In 2006 she died. In 2009 he lost his job and had no paid work for nine months. He fell behind with the mortgage. The bank moved to foreclose on the house. Gradually the work came back. Less than before. Much less. But just enough. The house is not in negative equity and now he can make the payments. But he can't get the bank to take his money. Attempts to modify the loan and take advantage of a settlement, brokered by the White House, between mortgage companies and the justice department have come to nought. "I don't qualify," he says with exasperation detailing both his efforts to meet each bureaucratic challenge and his frustration at each bureaucratic obstacle.

He stands in the waiting room of Gulfcoast Legal Services offices in Sarasota with an armful of documents and a belly full of bile. "They have failed me," he says. "Obama came in offering hope and change but he's failed. I just want to save my mother's house."

Owings is voting for Mitt Romney. Does he think Romney will improve his lot? "I'm willing to try anything at this point," he says.

There is nothing more vexing to liberals than poor Republicans. Their very existence rankles. It turns their world on its head and their assumptions inside out. The effort to explain them is understood not just as a political paradox but a psychological disorder. They have been duped. They must have been. How else would one explain putting your cross next to the man who derided them as "victims" among the 47% "I don't worry about". To many liberals these are turkeys voting for Christmas or lemmings off for a leap; the condemned tying the noose for their own execution.

At times the contradictions are striking. In August 2009, when opponents of Obamacare were disrupting town hall meetings with claims of death panels, Kenneth Gladney and other members of St Louis tea party got into a fight with Democrats at a public meeting. He had to go to the emergency room with injuries to his knee, back, elbow, shoulder and face and ended up in a wheelchair. It turned out Gladney, who had recently been laid off, had no health insurance. He appealed for donations.

Trace a map highlighting government dependency and those most reliant on benefits live in Republican states and often Republican counties. In Floyd county in Eastern Kentucky, 40% of the income comes from the government. In 2008 Floyd, where almost 20% live below the poverty line and the median income is almost 20% lower than the country, voted for McCain – a 27 point swing against the Democrats and the first victory for Republicans in living memory.

"We're getting more and more ­people coming here as time goes by," Tom Price, who helps administer a food bank for the local church told me when I visited just a year after Obama was elected. "The bottom's just fallen out of it all … Is there a direct correlation [between Obama's victory and the region's bad times]? I don't know. But I do know a lot of people are hurting." Of the 10 states with the lowest median household income 9 backed John McCain. (The one exception is New Mexico which Bush won in 2004).

"For decades, Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting," writes Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas. "The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawoof toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. 'We are here,' they scream, 'to cut your taxes."

So why do poor people vote Republican? The first thing to note is that most of them don't. In 2008 73% of those who earned less than $15,000, 60% of those who earned between $15,000 and $30,000, and 55% of those who earned between $30,000 and $50,000 voted for Obama. This year 57% of those earning less than $36,000 plan to vote Democrat as do 50% of those with a high school diploma or less. Even in deeply conservative Mississippi the overwhelming majority of the poor voted for Obama.

Most of the clients I met in Sarasota's Gulf Coast legal centre struggling with the threat of repossession or foreclosure voted for Obama and will do so again. "I'm for Obama all the way," says Betty-Jean Haines, the fate of whose home currently rests in the courts. "He really wants to do something good but he's running into so many road blocks."

The question of why poor people vote Republican is not simply an issue of income but primarily race and partly region and gender. Poor people may be more likely to vote Democrat; poor white people are not. In 2008 McCain won a slim majority (51%) of white Americans who earn less than $50,000 (this is just below the national median income which is not poor but the only figure available from exit polls that breaks down votes down by race and income), while Obama won a whopping majority of non-whites in the same category (86%). Asked in May which candidate would do more to advance their family's economic interests middle-class white voters who say they are struggling to maintain their financial positions gave Romney a 26 point lead over Obama.

But that support is less pronounced among white women than white men and is not uniform across the country. In Mississippi 84% of whites who earn below $50,000 backed McCain: in Vermont 70% in the same category voted for Obama. Of the nine states that backed Obama in 2008 in three less affluent whites went for McCain, in five they backed Obama and one was a tie. In all of them non-whites voted Democrat.

"In Republican states, rich and poor have similar views on social issues," wrote Andrew Gelman, Lake Kenworthy and Yu-Sung Su in a paper, Income inequality and partisan voting in the United States, in the Social Science Quarterly. "But in Democratic states, the rich are quite a bit more socially liberal than the poor. Factors such as religion and education result in a less clear pattern of class-based voting than we might expect based on income in- equality alone."

The fact that race is a factor does not necessarily follow that racism is the driving force (more of that later) or that Obama's race is the principle motivating force. Things are more complicated than that. Gladney, for example, was black while many of the trade unionists he confronted were white. Race is so deeply embedded in American history and culture that to talk of where politics ends and race begins sets up a false dichotomy. Since the end of the second world war Democrats have only once (in 1964) won the presidency with a majority of the white vote. A far higher percentage and number of whites voted for Obama than voted for Kerry.

On some level explaining why poorer whites would vote for the Republicans demands a resource sorely lacking in American political culture at present – particularly during election time: empathy. There are more to "interests" than just the economic. If someone's core conviction is that abortion is murder or gay marriage is wrong then their decision to vote for a candidate who is against abortion or gay marriage is not an act of delusion but conviction. In any case working class white voters who are against abortion are significantly more likely to vote Democrat than their more affluent counterparts. So the economy still matters.

But it is not the only consideration. In 2008 Obama won narrowly among people who earn $200,000 or more. Given his plans to tax high earners more heavily many of them were voting against their economic interests as do Warren Buffett, George Soros and all of Obama's wealthy funders. If poor states voting Republican is a paradox then the fact that 9 out of 10 states with the highest median income vote Democrat is no less so.

 The question of why poor people vote Republican is not simply an issue of income but primarily race and partly region and gender. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The question of why poor people vote Republican is not simply an issue of income but primarily race and partly region and gender. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Moreover some people, despite being poor, legitimately believe in free market and small government, even if it doesn't benefit them in precisely the same way that wealthy people may favour greater government intervention even if it doesn't benefit them. This partly describes the position of Mark Weaver, whom I met in Fort Collins, Colorado, a few weeks ago. Weaver had been the chairman of Loveland chamber of commerce and effectively lobbied for the business community of northern Colorado. He was a registered Republican and evangelical Christian who lost his job and found himself visiting a food bank and now works at a book store where he makes $9 just so that he can get the healthcare benefits for his family. He changed his registration to independent on polling day.

His political views are eclectic. He is for gun control and a more humane immigration policy and thinks unions are dinosaurs and is against abortion – thinks its preferable to get rid of it by changing peoples' hearts than the law.

He doesn't like Romney and said he thought the 47% remarks merely confirmed his believe the Republican candidate was a snob. "It doesn't surprise me about Romney because he's always struck me as a stuffed shirt. He's arrogant, and it's hard for me to get past that. It didn't change my mind about him because I always thought that about him." But when we met – a few hours before the first debate – he was still considering voting for him because he's concerned about deficit and thought Romney might do a better job. One could argue about whether his assessment of Romney's deficit-cutting plans are plausible. But one can't reasonably insist it wasn't a considered viewpoint.

Finally, as Weaver's circumstances illustrate, poverty is not necessarily a permanent state. People fall in and climb out of it. Americans are particularly reluctant to describe themselves as even working class let alone poor. A Pew survey in 2008 revealed that 91% believe they are either middle class, upper-middle class or lower-middle class. Relatively few claim to be working class or upper class, intimating more of a cultural aspiration than an economic relationship. Amy Pezzani, the executive director of the Larimer county food bank in Colorado, explained that politicians are reluctant to refer to "the poor" and "poverty" because it turns low-income voters off. "People who find themselves in these situations don't want to consider themselves poor. They're more likely to refer to themselves as the 'struggling middle class'.

In a report from Minnesota earlier this year the New York Times examined the growing number of people who were simultaneously dependent on government aid and against more government spending. "Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it," it concluded. "But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age."

In a country where social mobility is assumed – even if it has in fact stalled – and class consciousness is week the poor may vote in the interests of an imagined, but not necessarily imaginary future, rather than solidarity based on shared economic hardships. A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that while only 2% of Americans described themselves as "rich", 31% thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would "ever be rich". No doubt that figure will have dropped since the crisis but it doubtless remains high.

Indeed, so polarised is the nation's politics that a recent poll from the Pew research centre revealed that people's views on their financial situation are shaped by their partisan affiliation rather than the other way around. The survey showed show 55% of Republicans say their household finances are in worse shape than in December 2007 compared with only 40% of Democrats even if Republicans feel they are faring better financially than Democrats. "People bring their own views of the president and partisan identification to these questions," Pew's Kim Parker told the Financial Times.

In fact, the truly shocking thing about income and voting patterns in the US isn't the number of poor people who vote Republican but the number who don't vote at all. Inequality in income is intimately related to inequality in turnout. In 2008, 41% of voters who earn less than $10,000 voted; among those who earn more than $150,000 the figure was 78%. One can only assume that many poor people do not feel they have anyone to vote for. Shortly before the 2004 election I met Cynthia Huntington in Maine. She was 60 then and had a hernia, no health insurance and was in extreme discomfort. She was in two minds as to whether to vote Democrat (Maine could have been a swing state at the time) or for third party candidate Ralph Nader. "They don't give a shit about us," she said. "They're all rich people, and they're all run by corporations. They don't care about the fact that I need surgery and can't pay for it."

"You want to let Bush back in and make things even worse," asked her friend Gladys Pollard. "Worse than what?" asked Huntington. "Kerry's not going to get me my operation."

She did, eventually, vote for Kerry.

When liberals depict the existence of poor white Republicans as an expression of mass idiocy and false consciousness they not only disparage poor white people, they provide conservatives with one of their key talking points which is that liberals are elitists who look down on poorer whites. The condescension is reminiscent of the musings of Ignatius J Reilly, the hapless protagonist of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, regarding African Americans apparent conservatism.

"In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the coloured race because its position is the same as mine. We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I cannot imagine why. I must admit that this desire on their part leads me to question their value judgements. However if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business. They may seal their own doom."

All that said, there are still some basic facts to contend with that do suggest many Republican voters believe things that are either misinformed or absurd or both. Since the last election the number of Republicans who believe Obama is a Muslim has doubled; in 2010 a poll showed that about two-thirds of Republicans either believe or are not sure that Obama is "a racist who hates white people", and more than half believe or are not sure that he was not born in the US and that he wants the terrorists to win. Earlier this year a Dartmouth poll revealed that 63% of Republicans still believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. A poll last year revealed that a quarter of Republicans believed a community rights organisation called Acorn would try to steal the election for Barack Obama, while 31% weren't sure whether it would or not. There was precious little chance of that, because Acorn no longer existed at that stage. It was defunded and disbanded after a successful sting operation by conservatives a few years earlier.

Where breakdowns of these falsehoods exist those with less education are more likely to believe them. But even assuming they are evenly spread among poor and rich alike it would be fair to say that a significant number of Americans are working off faulty facts that would affect their vote. After all, if Obama really did want terrorists to win, hated white people and stole the election then it would be logical not to vote for him regardless of your race and income.

Furthermore, most of these explanations regarding deeply held religious beliefs, class aspiration and political philosophy are no less of non whites than whites. Blacks and Latinos are both poorer and more religious than the nation at large and vote overwhelmingly Democrat. While racism may not be the primary motivating force behind poorer whites tendency to vote Republican it is certainly a factor.

"I voted for McCain," says Price in Kentucky's Floyd county as he snatched a cigarette outside the food bank. "Because, well I voted for the old white guy. At least he's American." A few days earlier, the chairman of the Republican party in Jackson County, Arkansas, insisted electing Obama is destroying America in the same way electing Nelson Mandela destroyed South Africa. "Handing it over to the wrong people."

In Las Vegas shortly before the 2010 mid-terms I met a woman protesting illegal immigration outside an Obama event who was voting for the tea party candidate Sharon Angle. When it turned out she didn't have health care I asked her if that wouldn't be a reason for her to support Obama. "I haven't really gotten into the whole Obamacare thing," she said. "To be honest I can't even think about that right now. I'm so concentrated on the illegals."

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