Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The highest income electorate in history?

Mark Penn, writing in Politico, argues that it was the support of higher income voters that was key to Obama's success:

"The exit poll demographics show that the fastest growing group of voters in America has been those making over $100,000 a year in income. In 1996, only 9 percent of the electorate said their family income was that high. Last week it had grown to 26 percent — more than one in four voters. And those making over $75,000 are up to 15 percent from 9 percent. Put another way, more than 40 percent of those voting earned over $75,000, making this the highest-income electorate in history. The poorest segment of the electorate, those making under $15,000, has shrunk from 11 percent to 6 percent over the past dozen years. And those making $15,000 to $30,000 annually — the working poor — also shrunk from 23 percent to 12 percent of the electorate."

Now if that was true, it would have a number of important policy implications, and President Obama would need to make a priority of retaining the support of the 'fastest growing group of voters', even if in doing so he upset the 'shrinking' number of lower income voters, if he wanted to be re-elected.

But the problem is that Penn's argument relies on the curious idea that $100,000 has the same purchasing power in 2008 as it did in 1996. The table below gives an idea of how wrong that is:

CPI (Dec) Value of $100,000
1996 100,000
1997 1.7% 98,300
1998 1.6% 96,727
1999 2.7% 94,116
2000 3.4% 90,916
2001 1.6% 89,461
2002 2.4% 87,314
2003 1.9% 85,655
2004 3.3% 82,828
2005 3.4% 80,012
2006 2.5% 78,012
2007 4.1% 74,813
2008 4.9% 71,148
2008 is Sept Figure

Here are the exit polls for 2008 and 1996.

Penn argues that 'over 40%' of voters in 2008 earned over $75,000, compared to just 9% in 1996. But if you adjust for inflation, the 15% earning $50,000-$75,000 2008 dollars earn between $35,574 and $53,361 1996 dollars. And the 14% earning $100,000- $150,000 2008 dollars earn between $71,148-$106,721 1996 dollars.

So rather than the proportion of voters earning $75,000 plus going from 9% to 'over 40%' it has gone from 9% to 12%.

And the working poor? In 1996, 23% of voters earned between $15,000 and $30,000. Adjust for inflation, and that is about $21,000-$42,000 in 2008. About 21% of voters earned between those amounts. About 11% earned less than $15,000 in 1996, and about 10% earned less than $21,000 in 2008.

It's worth remembering that the analysis of election trends is not only Penn's job, but also what he claims to be an expert in. Normally, if you find an expert twisting the facts to serve the cause of the wealthy, you'd assume they were doing it cynically and deliberately. However, with Penn's track record, it might just be that he's got no more of a clue about inflation then he did about how to win elections when he was Hilary Clinton's chief strategist.


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