Research News

Study of affluent Americans shows where their politics differ


The wealthiest Americans are urgently concerned with reducing the national deficit and look favorably on cutting social programs such as Social Security to do so, according to a new study.

“Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” was published in March in Perspective on Politics. It is co-authored by Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright, both of Northwestern.

“Most people suspect that the wealthy play a big role in American politics,” Bartels said. “Remarkably, though, we have never had any systematic evidence about their political preferences and behavior. This project begins to fill that gap.”

After an extensive screening process, the researchers identified 83 Chicago-area respondents willing to be surveyed who had an average wealth of $14 million, putting them in the top 1 percent of wealth-holders.

“Wealthy Americans are much less willing than others to provide broad educational opportunities, including ‘spend(ing) whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to’ or ‘mak(ing) sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so,’” researchers found.

“They are less willing to pay taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone, and they are much less supportive of tax-financed national health insurance. The wealthy tend to favor lower estate tax rates and to be less eager to increase income taxes on high-income people. … The wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth.”

A significant amount of wealthy Americans spend time engaging in political activity. The research showed that 99 percent of them voted in 2008 and 84 percent said they paid attention to politics most of the time. Two-thirds said they contributed to political campaigns, and they averaged $4,633 to candidates or organizations in the previous year. (An American National Election Study survey conducted after the 2008 presidential election found that 14 percent of the general population contributed to a candidate, party, or political action committee.)

Larry Bartels (Vanderbilt)

Twenty-one percent of wealthy respondents in the “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” study solicited or “bundled” other peoples’ political contributions – something rarely if ever done by ordinary citizens. Wealthy respondents also reported personal contact with politicians unlikely to be enjoyed by voters of lesser means.

“The contemporary emphasis in Washington on reducing the federal budget deficit addresses what is, by far, the most important public problem in the minds of wealthy Americans – though not of the American public as a whole,” the report concludes.

“The willingness of many policymakers to cut popular social welfare programs, and their reluctance to increase taxes on people with high incomes, may be explained in part by the fact that social welfare programs are much less popular among wealthy people than among ordinary citizens.”

The investigators are seeking funding for a larger national study of the political views of the wealthy.