Wealth Problems

John Sides posts some results suggesting that while voters mostly understand that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are rich, they are more likely to think that Mitt Romney doesn’t care about their interests because he is rich, than Barack Obama.

The better one thinks “personally wealthy” describes Romney, the better one thinks that “cares about the wealthy” describes him (the correlation is 0.60). But the same correlation for Obama is much smaller (0.18). People’s perception that Obama is personally wealth[y] does not translate as strongly into the perception that he cares about the wealthy. Moreover, people who perceive that Obama cares about the wealthy are actually a bit MORE likely to perceive that he cares about “people like me,” the poor, and the middle class. The correlations are not always large, but they are positive—e.g., the correlation between believing Obama cares about the wealthy and cares about “people like me” is 0.19.

This obviously has implications for the kind of ‘how the 2012 US presidential elections are likely to play out’ questions that I usually don’t have much to say about here. But there is a more interesting general point – should people think that the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to be biased in favor of the rich.

Interestingly, this survey suggests that public opinion sort-of accords with what evidence we have. Larry Bartels has carried out research on the US Senate (which for a variety of reasons makes it easier to do useful comparisons than e.g. with presidents). And his findings suggest the following. First – if you look at a set of politically salient issues, senators from both parties are totally unresponsive to the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution. Second, that Republicans don’t care about the views of voters in the middle of the income distribution either, while Democrats do care significantly. Third, that Republicans care almost three times as much as Democrats about the views of those in the top third of the distribution. Overall, senators tend to be much more responsive to the opinions of better off people than of middle income people, and don’t care at all about the bottom third. These measures are of course somewhat crude – if one had better data, one could subdivide the population further (top 10%, top 1%), and perhaps find an even more striking relationship.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.