Why the rich voted for Obama against their own economic interest.

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 10 2008 12:11 PM

What's the Matter With Greenwich?

Why the rich voted for Obama against their own economic interest.

Rich man. Click image to expand.
The rich voted for Obama against their own economic interest

For several years, I've been writing about Bushenfreude, the phenomenon of angry yuppies who've hugely benefited from President Bush's tax cuts funding angry, populist Democratic campaigns. I've theorized that people who work in financial services and related fields have become so outraged and alienated by the incompetence, crass social conservatism, and repeated insults to the nation's intelligence of the Bush-era Republican Party that they're voting with their hearts and heads instead of their wallets.

Last week's election was perhaps Bushenfreude's grandest day. As the campaign entered its final weeks, Barack Obama, who pledged to unite the country, singled out one group of people for ridicule: those making more than $250,000. At his rallies, he would ask for a show of hands of those making less than one-quarter of $1 million per year. Then he'd look around, laugh, and note that those in the virtuous majority would get their taxes cut, while the rich among them would be hit with a tax increase. And yet the exit polls show, the rich—and yes, if you make $250,000 or more you're rich—went for Obama by bigger margins than did the merely well-off. If the exit polls are to be believed, those making $200,000 or more (6 percent of the electorate) voted for Obama 52-46, while McCain won the merely well-off ($100,000 to $150,000 by a 51-48 margin and $150,000 to $200,000 by a 50-48 margin).

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Right-wingers tend to dismiss such numbers as the voting behavior of trust funders or gazillionaires—people who have so much money that they just don't care about taxes. That may explain a portion of Bushenfreude. But there just aren't that many trust funders out there. Rather, it's clear that the nation's mass affluent—Steve the lawyer, Colby the financial services executive, Ari the highly paid media big shot—are trending Democratic, especially on the coasts. Indeed, Bushenfreude is not necessarily a nationwide phenomenon. As Andrew Gelman notes in the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, the rich in poor states are likely to stick with the Republicans.

But in the ground zero of Bushenfreude, Fairfield County, Conn., it was practically an epidemic last week. Bushenfreude's most prominent victim was Rep. Chris Shays, the last Republican congressman east of the Hudson River. For the past several cycles, Shays, who played a moderate in his home district but was mainly an enabler of the Bush-DeLay Republicans in Washington, fended off well-financed challengers with relative ease. Last week, he fell victim to Jim Himes. Himes, as this New York Times profile shows, is the ultimate self-made pissed-off yuppie: a member of Harvard's crew team, a Rhodes Scholar, a former Goldman Sachs banker, and a resident of Greenwich.

Shays claims he was done in by a Democratic tsunami in Fairfield County and the state. And Connecticut's county results show Obama ran up a huge 59-41 margin in the county, which includes Bridgeport and Norwalk, densely populated cities with large poor, minority, and working-class populations. But an examination of the presidential votes in several of Fairfield County's wealthier districts (here are Connecticut's votes by town) shows the yuppies came out in the thousands to vote for a candidate who pledged to raise their taxes. In the fall of 2003, I first detected Bushenfreude in Westport (No. 5 on Money's list of 25 wealthiest American towns). The telltale symptom: Howard Dean signs stacked in the back of a brand-new BMW. The signs of an outbreak were legion this year. On our route to school, my kids would count the number of yard signs for Obama and McCain (the results: 6-to-1). On the Saturday morning before the election, I stopped by the Westport Republican headquarters to pick up some McCain-Palin buttons, only to find it locked. On Election Day, Westport voters went for Obama by a 65-35 margin. (That's bigger than the 60-40 margin Kerry won here in 2004.) Bushenfreude spread from Westport to neighboring towns. In Wilton, just to the north, which Bush carried comfortably in 2004, Obama won 54 percent of the vote.

Perhaps most surprising was the result from Greenwich, Conn. The Versailles of the tri-state metro area, the most golden of the region's gilded suburbs, the childhood home of George H.W. Bush, went for Obama by a 54-46 margin—the first time Greenwich went Democratic since 1964. Who knew the back-country estates and shoreline mansions were populated with so many traitors to their class? (In the 2004 cage match of New England-born, Yalie aristocrats, George W. Bush beat Kerry 53-47 in Greenwich.) Some towns in Fairfield County were clearly inoculated from Bushenfreude. In New Canaan and Darien, which ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in Money'slist of 25 wealthiest towns, McCain-Palin won by decent majorities. (In both towns, however, the Republican margins were down significantly from 2004.) What's the difference between these towns and these neighbors? Well, New Canaan and Darien are wealthier than their sister towns in Fairfield County. (In both, the median income is well more than $200,000.) So perhaps the concern about taxes is more acute there. Another possible explanation is that these towns differ demographically from places like Greenwich and Westport, in that they are less Jewish, and Jews voted heavily for Obama.

While there has been job loss and economic anxiety throughout Fairfield County, I don't think that economic problems alone explain the big Democratic gains in the region. In Greenwich, economic stress for many people means flying commercial or selling the ski house (while maintaining the summer house on Nantucket). There's something deeper going on when a town that is home to corporate CEOs, professional athletes, hedge-fund managers, and private-equity barons, the people who gained the most financially under the Bush years and who would seem to have the most to lose financially under an Obama administration, flips into the Democratic column. Somewhere in the back country, in a 14,000-square-foot writer's garret, an erstwhile hedge-fund manager is dictating a book proposal to his assistant, a former senior editor at Fortune who just took a buyout, that explains why many of the wealthy choose to vote for a Democrat, in plain violation of their economic self-interest. Working title: What's the Matter With Greenwich?

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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