by Michael Dimock, Associate Director, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
The Republican Party has traditionally garnered it strongest backing among wealthier voters. But the recent overall decline in Republican Party affiliation nationwide has taken a toll even on GOP support among affluent voters. The latest Pew surveys find Democrats pulling even with Republicans among registered voters with annual family incomes in excess of roughly $135,000 per annum. Overall, while remarkably high voter enthusiasm is undoubtedly the key factor in the Democratic Party’s fundraising success in 2006 and thus far this year, the pool of potential campaign donors is also less tilted toward the GOP today than it has been in the past.
Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the past 13 years reveals a stark change in the party identification among the wealthiest voters – defined here as those in the top 10% of household incomes. In 1995, the year after the Republicans took control of the House and Senate, there were nearly twice as many Republicans (46%) as Democrats (25%) among the most affluent 10% of registered voters (household incomes of approximately $84,000 or more at the time). By comparison, there are just as many Democrats (31%) as Republicans (32%) among this class of voters today (household incomes of approximately $135,000 or more).
As has been the case nationwide, the shifting balance has had more to do with Republican losses than Democratic gains. Within the past two years, Republican Party identification has fallen nine percentage points among the wealthiest voters (from 41% to 32%), while Democratic identification is up just three points. This mirrors the overall pattern nationwide, which shows a sizeable decline in GOP identification, and only modest growth in Democratic Party identification. (For details, see March 22, 2007: Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats.)
While much of the shifting balance among affluent voters reflects changes in the national mood, two important demographic changes among high income voters are related to the parties’ fortunes. First, members of minority groups constitute a greater share of high-income voters than at any time in the past. The proportion of top-income voters who are black, Hispanic, or from another racial minority background has doubled from 10% in 1995 to 21% today, while the proportion who are white has dropped from 90% to 79%.
Secondly, a greater share of top-income voters have a post-graduate education than in the past — 35% up from 24% in 1995. In general, Americans with post-graduate training are more likely to be Democrats than those with four-year degrees or who attended but did not complete college.
Despite these shifts, affluent voters remain more Republican than low-income voters. In the data Pew collected in the first quarter of 2007, Democrats have a nearly three-to-one identification advantage (48% vs. 18% Republican) among voters earning $20,000 or less, an advantage that shrinks as income increases. Among voters earning between $40,000 and $100,000 neither party has a clear advantage, while Republicans have a 34% to 27% identification edge among those in the $100-$150,000 household income range. But at the very top — among the 7% of voters with household incomes of $150,000 or more — Democrats once again run even (33% Democrat vs. 31% Republican).
The ability of Democratic presidential candidates to out-raise the GOP field in the first quarter of 2007 was almost certainly driven by high levels of enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Throughout the past few months Pew surveys have consistently found that Democrats are tracking campaign news far more closely than are Republicans, and a March survey by CBS News and the New York Times showed that Democrats are both more satisfied with their slate of candidates and more optimistic about victory in 2008 than are Republicans. This is comparable with the high enthusiasm and optimism about the chances of victory that allowed the Democrats to compete with, and even exceed, Republican fundraising efforts in the 2006 midterm. At the same time, the GOP’s fading fortunes may have weakened the Republicans’ traditional advantage in having a broader pool of potential donors. This combination of factors has the potential to reshape the traditional expectations for fundraising in 2008.
This analysis is based on compiled data from all Pew Research Center surveys conducted in each calendar year that included measures of income, party identification and voter registration. The top 10% income category is based on self-reported household income among registered voters who gave their income. To capture the top 10%, a special weight is used to adjust the relative share of voters from each income category. For example, in 2007 the top decile includes all voters reporting a household income of $150,000 or more, while voters reporting a household income of $100,000-$150,000 are weighted down to approximate the estimated cutoff of $135,000 in that year.
The 2007 estimates are based on data from five surveys conducted in January, February and March, with an overall sample size of 6,902 registered voters and an estimated sample size of 662 voters in the top income decile. The margin of error for this top-decile subsample is plus or minus 4.5%. In all previous years sample sizes are larger because data from the full calendar year are available for analysis.