How the Creative Class Is Reshaping America's Electoral Map

Educated professionals are anchoring a new kind of voting coalition.

American politics is in the throes of a powerful "class inversion," according to a sweeping analysis of creative class voting patterns by Ronald Brownstein, political columnist and editorial director of our sister publication National Journal. He writes:

It wasn’t a stretch for the Mad Men writers to put Don Draper and his advertising-agency colleagues to work in the 1960 presidential campaign for dour Richard Nixon, not dynamic John F. Kennedy. In those days, most professionals—like the hard-drinking, chain-smoking executives at the fictional Sterling Cooper—voted reliably Republican. But like the mores of Madison Avenue, the politics of professionals have changed. Today, college-educated professionals (especially women) are central to the modern Democratic electoral coalition.

Brownstein's team of political analysts joined forces with Kevin Stolarick and my Martin Prosperity Institute team of economic and demographic researchers to track the voting patterns of the creative class (which includes 40 million workers in science and technology, arts, culture and entertainment — roughly a third of the workforce) across America's 3,000-plus counties in every presidential election since 1988. The maps below (from National Journal) show the pattern for the 2008 election.  

Maps courtesy of National Journal

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama won nearly two-thirds of the vote in the top 100 counties with the highest percentages of creative class workers, compared to just 40 percent in the bottom 100 counties with the smallest creative class shares. As Brownstein points out:

Obama in 2008 ran best by far in the counties whose share of creative-class workers ranks in the top third. In those counties, many of them hugging the coasts, Obama captured 57 percent of the two-party vote, compared with McCain’s 43 percent. (The GOP nominee did best in some lightly populated Plains counties that score well on Florida’s definition of the creative class but might not qualify in a classification limited to college-educated professionals.) Obama’s share of the vote dropped to just 46 percent in the middle band of counties. And in the tier with the smallest shares of creative-class workers, McCain flipped Obama’s margin (58 percent to 42 percent) from the top tier. McCain won more than four-fifths of these heartland-heavy counties.

Our joint analysis also tracked the pattern of creative class voting in every presidential election since 1988. The table below summarizes the key results. The vote differential has grown steadily from just 6 percent in 1988 to more than 20 percent in 2008. The 2000 election saw a big jump and the trend has only continued since that time.

This is in line with the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis originally advanced by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who argued that the Democratic party was developing a powerful new voting bloc among the members of the new professional class centered in post-industrial urban "ideopolises."

Creative Class, 1988-2008

Democratic Candidate Top 100 Creative Class Counties Share of Votes Bottom 100 Creative Class Counties Share of Votes Vote Differential
Dukakis 1988 50.8% 44.6% 6.1%
Clinton 1992 59.2% 54.1% 5.2%
Clinton 1996 60.9% 53.3% 7.6%
Gore 2000 59.0% 41.8% 17.3%
Kerry 2004 58.9% 39.0% 19.9%
Obama 2008 63.6% 39.9% 23.7%

Table courtesy of National Journal and MPI

Writing in Forbes earlier this month, pollster John Zogby also highlighted the rise of the creative class in Democratic politics:

There were a number of key groups in the coalition that helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. But when I look particularly at some key Red States which had voted for George W. Bush but turned Blue last election, there is almost a direct correlation between the development and expansion of its creative class and its increased support for Obama over 2004 Democratic Party nominee Senator John Kerry. New Hampshire was Red by only 7,000 votes, but it has a substantial cluster of creatives in the south as a part of the “Route 128″ technology development linked to Boston. So, too with the fast-growing suburbs of Washington, D.C. in northeast Virginia. The Research Triangle and banking centers of Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte linked up with the solid African American and small but growing Hispanic communities in North Carolina. Miami/Dade and Broward counties played a critical in turning Florida Blue as did Santa Fe, New Mexico and Denver and Boulder, Colorado.

And he adds that his own recent polling finds that: "President Obama leads former Governor Mitt Romney 46 percent to 41 percent among all voters and his lead is a healthy 52 percent to 36 percent among creative class voters, with 12 percent undecided."

Brownstein zeroes in on the importance of the creative class to Obama in this November.

Given Obama’s struggles among the white working class, holding these creative-class voters will be indispensable. In 2008, continuing a “class inversion” that has reshaped politics since the 1980s, Obama ran 7 points better among white voters with a college education than among those without. To win this year, Obama will probably need to widen that gap. (Two national surveys last week in fact showed it stretching to 8 percentage points.)

Photo credit: Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here