Barack Obama promised he would lower taxes for 95 percent of Americans and presumably raise them for the 5 percent who benefited most under President Bush’s tax policies. But, remarkably, the most affluent 5 percent supported Obama and that was perhaps the key to his victory last week.
This group — and the rise of a new elite class of voters — is at the heart of the fast-paced changes in demographics affecting the political, sociological and economic landscape of the country. While there has been some inflation over the past 12 years, 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.
At the same time, the voters have become more racially diverse (with white voters dropping 9 points from 1996 to 74 percent of the electorate and minorities) and better educated — voters who had attended some college are surging.
While Obama received record votes from the expanded minority communities, that alone would not have led to victory had he not also secured so much support among the growing professional class — and in doing so went beyond the successful 1996 coalition that also climbed the income ladder to include newly targeted soccer moms. Back then, President Clinton got 38 percent of the vote among those making over $100,000. This year Obama earned 49 percent of that vote. He also got 52 percent of a new polling category — those making over $200,000 a year who were no longer among the top 1 percent of earners, as they had been in past elections, but were now the top 6 per cent.
And for all the talk about the surging youth vote, those under 29 went from 17 percent in 1996 and 17 percent in 2004 to a mere to 18 percent of the electorate today — and that youth surge was heavily fueled by the fact that the minority communities are much younger than their white counterparts. Of the 18 percent under age 29 who voted this year, 11 percent were white and 7 percent were minority.
So the fusion of expanded minority voting and the expanded upper class, combined with shifting demographics, were key to Obama’s victory. But while demographers have been predicting the growth in minority voting — especially the Latino increases — for decades, they did not predict the upscale income changes in the electorate or focus on them. Most people in America (over 80 percent) no matter what their income, say they are middle class, which is why that phrase is so powerful on the stump.
But 69 percent of all Americans in polls I conducted in recent years now also call themselves “professionals,” a new class transcending the old class labels or working or middle class or the wealthy. They have white-collar jobs requiring higher education and are earning more than ever before. Because of layoffs and business scandals of recent years, they have become increasingly embittered toward the corporate cultures that would have otherwise been their natural home base.
Unlike the small-businessman who is typically anti-government, these professionals come out of the era of the growth of global corporations believing more than ever before in government intervention, teamwork and collective action. They are the voters who favored the bailout, while the left and the right saw it as a betrayal of their fundamental principles.
These higher educated voters generally believe more in science than religion, in the interconnectedness of the world, and in pragmatism over ideology. They see us all living in a new world and are watching their kids enter it taking new economy kinds of jobs in places increasingly far away from home.
This group is at the core of voters receiving more of their information online and through cable TV in their offices all day long. As they leave many of the problems of working class life behind, this new class is easily captivated by the Sunday shows. What appears on the front pages has more impact on shaping their views than what they experience in their everyday life.
In the end when it comes to a congressional vote, will they support higher taxes if they have to pay them? That is a big question that remains to be seen – they could quickly fragment over the issue if it gets raised early in the Obama administration. And they part company with many other Obama supporters in believing that we need to compete and win in the global economy, seeing trade as a necessity for economic growth.
These new professionals in software, the media, consulting, and mid-management have now declared themselves to be Democrats. After seeing Clinton and Bush back to back, they have switched their votes as part of a rejection of the religious right, the war in Iraq, and laissez-faire economics.
The history of revolution usually parallels the history of rising, not falling incomes, and the middle class revolutions of 1848 brought many countries the democratic system in the first place. In the Obama revolution, the upper-classing of America took a front seat – the central question is whether they will remain there.
Mark J. Penn served as chief adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election and to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her Senate and presidential races. He is the author of “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” (Twelve, 2007).