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Rich county, poor county

- May 27, 2008

In his influential Atlantic magazine article, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” published after the 2000 election, David Brooks compared Montgomery County, Maryland, the liberal, upper-middle-class suburb where he lives, to rural, conservative Franklin County, Pennsylvania, a short drive away but distant in attitudes and values, with “no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble,” plenty of churches but not so many Thai restaurants, “a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters.”

In Brooks’s home state of Maryland, there is no clear pattern of county income and Republican vote, and it was not difficult for him to go from Montgomery County, the prototypical wealthy slice of blue America, to a poorer, more Republican-supporting county nearby. Here are the data from 2000:


Brooks lives in a liberal, well-off part of the country. It is characteristic of the East and West Coasts that the richer areas tend to be more liberal, but in other parts of the country, notably the South, richer areas tend to be more conservative. A comparable journey in Texas would go from Collin County, a wealthy suburb of Dallas where George W. Bush received 71% of the vote, to rural Zavala County in the southwest, where Bush received only 25% of the vote:


When we showed our graph of Texas counties to another political scientist, he asked about the state capital, noted for its liberal attitudes, vibrant alternative rock scene, and the University of Texas: “What about Austin? It must be rich and liberal.” We looked it up. Austin is in Travis County and makes up almost all of its population. Travis County has a median household income of $45,000 and gave George W. Bush 53% of the vote in 2000, about midway between Collin and Zavala counties. (Austin has its own red-blue divide, with a highly Democratic university area and urban center, and strongly Republican suburbs.)

This is not to dismiss Brooks’s insights but rather to place them in the national context of income mattering more in poor states than in rich states, which is the subject of our forthcoming Red State, Blue State book (from which the above graphs were taken).