The great, but shifting, divide

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic thinks that John Kerry “is right to be scared” over the Wisconsin primary results. Scheiber bases this view on an analysis of the Wisconsin vote by income category. He argues that Edwards’ strong showing among upper income voters means that the more sophisticated voters are turning to Edwards, and that this may signal a burst in the Kerry bubble that could cost him the nomination.
I agree that Kerry is right to be scared, but I think that the primary object of his fear, in light of the Wisconsin numbers, should be President Bush. In presidential elections, there almost always is a single level of income above which the Republican candidate wins a majority of votes and below which the Democrat does. The election turns on what that income level, let’s call it the “income divide point,” is. For example, if the number is $50,000 — i.e. the Republican captures a majority of those making over $50,000 per year — the Republican wins. If the number is $100,000, the Democrat wins (I’m counting on my colleagues, who know much more about this stuff than I do, to correct me if I’m wrong about these numbers). There are many reasons why Bill Clinton was successful, but one simple way of explaining his success is to note that he did well with upper income voters — his income divide point was high. This explanation dovetails with the more common one that Clinton appealed to suburban voters.
Which brings us to Kerry. As Scheiber notes, in Wisconsin, he clobbered Edwards among low-income voters and defeated him fairly comfortably among voters making between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. The two fared equally well among voters in the $50,000-$75,000 category, and above that level, Edwards had the upper hand. Scheiber finds these results surprising, but I’m not sure why. Edwards is a Clinton-style candidate, whereas Kerry is a traditional liberal. So Edwards should win the relatively upscale voters that Clinton attracted but that Dukakis and Mondale scared away.
Now, it does not follow from Edwards’ relatively good showing against Kerry among voters making more than $50,000 per year that President Bush will have the advantage over Kerry that he needs with these voters. However, Edwards didn’t do anything that would have caused him to appeal to the relatively affluent. Certainly, his trusty “two Americas” speech is not directed at these voters. My guess is that Kerry’s problem with voters making more than $50,000 in Wisconsin mostly had to do with Kerry, not Edwards. If so, that’s good news for Bush.
One other thought: If the income divide point really is a key to the election, then the Democrats will probably be making a big mistake if they nominate Kerry for his “electability.” My sense is that Kerry’s income divide point is lower not only than Edwards’, but also Dean’s.
HINDROCKET adds: I think this is one of the most astute analyses yet of the 2004 race. Deacon is right; to win, the Democrats have to find a candidate with appeal to upper-income voters. Edwards could be that candidate; it will not be easy for Kerry.


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