The GOP’s Class Divide on Austerity

The GOP’s Class Divide on Austerity

Even inside the GOP, the working poor don’t support the austerity politics of the party’s elites.


As the 2016 election intensifies, one of the frequently discussed political fissures is that between the wealthy elites in each of the major parties and their bases. David Frum and other pundits have argued that the divide is most stark for the GOP, but no one has yet brought data to the question. So I used a mass survey that is performed each election year and that includes questions about austerity policies to examine the divide between wealthy and low-income Republicans and Democrats. I found striking results.

I drew from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey with a large sample size of more than 50,000. (Of those, nearly 22,000 Democrats and 17,000 Republicans both reported their income and responded to a battery of questions related to the federal budget.) Many surveys stop dividing respondents by annual income after they reach $100,000, a practice known as top coding, but CCES includes a meaningful sample of respondents all the way up to $350,000. As a result, the data allow for a more granular examination of those at the highest levels of the economic ladder.

I examined support for three policies that relate closely to redistribution and inequality: the 2010 Bowles-Simpson bipartisan plan for deficit reduction; Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for FY2012, which he put forward as the GOP’s “Roadmap” to a fiscally sound future; and extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Each of these policies has the potential to divide the donor class and the base of each party, as they all involve key questions about redistribution, where the deepest class divides typically appear.

In the survey, each policy was explained to participants, who were then asked if they supported or opposed it. The data do in fact reveal deep class divides within the parties on redistributive issues, but particularly within the GOP.

The Ryan Budget

Polling explanation: “The Budget plan would cut Medicare and Medicaid by 42%. Would reduce debt by 16% by 2020.”

Among all respondents in both parties, only 20 percent supported the budget, making it incredibly unpopular. Among Democrats, opposition was universal: Only 11 percent supported it. Among Republicans, support was equally tepid: Only a third of all Republicans supported the Ryan budget.

However, when looking at responses by income on the Republican side, wide gaps emerge. Among Republicans earning less than $50,000, only a quarter of respondents supported the budget, while among Republicans earning more than $350,000, a full 64 percent supported it.

The Bowles-Simpson Plan

Polling explanation: “Plan would make 15% cuts across the board in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense, as well as other programs. Eliminate many tax breaks for individuals and corporations. Would reduce debt by 21% by 2020.”

Bowles-Simpson was hailed by centrist commentators as an ideal budget agreement, which would combine tax cuts and defense cuts with deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. However, more liberal critics, like economist Paul Krugman, argued that the deep cuts to safety-net programs would harm seniors and weaken growth.

In the survey, support was split directly down the middle among all respondents, with 50 percent in support and opposed. Indeed, even within parties, there was surprisingly little divide, with 49 percent of Democrats in support and 51 percent opposed, compared with 52 percent of Republicans in support and 48 percent opposed. However, there were once again deep class divides, this time in both parties.

Among Republicans earning less than $50,000, 47 percent supported Bowles-Simpson, and among Democrats, 44 percent supported the plan. However, among Republicans earning more than $350,000, 64 percent supported the plan, as did 66 percent of high-income Democrats. The sample of individuals earning more than $500,000 is small, but among that group, two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans supported the policy.

The Tax Hike Prevention Act

Polling explanation: “Would extend Bush-era tax cuts for all individuals, regardless of income. Would increase the budget deficit by an estimated $405 billion.”

The Bush tax cuts were unpopular with both Democrats (only 13 percent support full extension) and Republicans (42 percent support full extension). However, among Republicans making less than $50,000 a year, only 37 percent supported full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Meanwhile, among those making more than $350,000 a year, a full 73 percent supported it.

Another questions asked survey participants about partial extension of the Bush tax cuts, in the form of the Middle Class Tax Cut Act, which would have extended Bush tax cuts for those with incomes below $200,000 and increased the budget deficit by an estimated $250 billion. Among Republicans who earn less than $200,000—those who would benefit from the bill—61 percent supported the extension. Among those who earned $200,000 or more, only 48 percent did. Among the highest earners, those making $350,000 or more, support dropped further, to only 43 percent.

These data also suggest that there are deep class divides not just between the parties but within them. Though the divides are deeper on the right, they exist in both parties. This can partially be explained by the fact that many white voters who are broadly supportive of safety-net programs are nonetheless pushed toward right-wing candidates by racial resentment. As the wealthy accrue more influence in the post–Citizens United world, these divides may become more powerful, particularly since leading GOP candidates have largely submitted to the demands of the donor class on taxes. On the other side, there are important divides in the Democratic coalition between those who prioritize deficit reduction and those who want looser fiscal policy. These class divides will become increasingly important as inequality becomes an increasingly focal point in American politics.

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