By Dennis Cauchon
Democratic members of the House of Representatives now represent most of the nation’s wealthiest people, a sharp turnaround from the long-standing dominance that Republicans have held over affluent districts.
A USA TODAY analysis of new Census data found that Democrats represent a far different constituency today than they did in 2005, when they were the minority in the House, or in 1990, when they were the majority.
The Democratic-controlled House is now an unusual combination of the richest and poorest districts, the best and least educated, and the best and the worst insured. The analysis found that Democrats have attracted educated, affluent whites who had tended previously to vote Republican.
Democrats now represent 57% of the 4.8 million households that had incomes of $200,000 or more in 2008. In 2005, Republicans represented 55% of those affluent households.
“Democrats have made enormous gains in affluent, educated suburban districts,” says Warren Glimpse, founder of Proximity, a firm that analyzes demographics. “What’s not clear is whether this reflects a profound change or a temporary blip.”
The Democrats’ new coalition of extremes could cause friction on issues such as health care and tax policy because of Democratic proposals to raise taxes on affluent households.
“We’re going to win back the hearts and minds of affluent voters when people see what the left-leaning Democrats do on health care and the economy,” says Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy. His state’s three most affluent districts have flipped from Republican control to Democrats since 2006.
Ruy Teixeira of the liberal Center for American Progress disagrees: “The movement of professionals to the Democratic Party is a long-term realignment in American politics.”
“The story is really education,” says David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.He says “educated, wine-drinking Democrats” and poorer minority voters are an effective coalition because both groups are increasing in numbers. Even so, Wasserman expects Democrats to lose up to two dozen seats in the 2010 congressional elections, especially in poorer, white districts.
Democrats have virtually erased the historic wealth gap that has long defined the parties and their policies. The median household income of Democratic districts last year was just $1,180 less than in Republican districts, down from $6,793 in 1990.
Wasserman says Republicans have tended to appeal to affluent voters since the Roosevelt era in the 1930s and 1940s but recently have appealed more to Southern and rural voters, who often have lower incomes.
Key demographic findings:
- Education Democrats represent the top 10 and bottom 10 districts ranked by the percentage of people holding advanced degrees.
- Health insurance. Democrats represent the 10 districts with the highest levels of health coverage and nine of the 10 with the lowest.