Fifty Million Voters Can't Be Wrong: Economic Self-Interest and Redistributive Politics
Why do voters at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum support political candidates who generally disfavor redistributive policies? Existing explanations often presume that voters are explicitly acting in opposition to their economic self-interest, or that they hold persistently optimistic expectations regarding the probability of moving into the upper ranks of the income distribution. This paper provides an alternative economic explanation. When voters evaluate their well-being by making relative utility comparisons, support for redistribution depends not only on absolute income but on one's status relative to a reference group. When reference groups are defined geographically, support depends on exposure to higher-income neighbors. The predictions of the model are supported by empirical evidence drawn from county-level election returns in 1980 and 2000, and by individual-level polling data following the 2000 election.