Voting behavior

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(Host) An article on charitable giving provides an insight into this year’s elections, says commentator Allen Gilbert.

(Gilbert) In late September, before the election, I spoke about an article in the New Yorker magazine that examined why voters vote the way they do.

The single most important point was that most voters don’t care what position a candidate takes on specific issues. Only about 10 percent of voters have an established “political belief system.”

I’ve gone back and re-read the article since the election. It’s been part of my effort to answer the somewhat insulting question that appeared on the front page of a British tabloid on November 3rd: “How can so many Americans be so dumb?”

Well, the other week another article — this one on charitable giving — caught my eye. I think it’s related to the election results, and it seems to reflect theories on voting patterns in a way that I find intriguing.

The article was about an annual survey showing which states’ residents give the most to charity. The data come from federal tax returns.

First on the list, for the eighth straight year, was Mississippi. Next in order of generosity were Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee.

Last on the list was New Hampshire. Next in order of parsimony were Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut.

The generous states are all in the Bible Belt. Many churchgoers tithe, or give 10 percent of their income to the church. That alone would put them above the national charity average of 7.5 percent.

It’s always important to distinguish between cause-and-effect relationships, and simple correlations. But the charitable giving statistics show the depth of commitment that large blocks of people in the South and West feel towards their churches.

Church commitment was one of George Bush’s high cards. Bible Belt churchgoers seemed to perceive that George Bush was one of them. They voted for him in droves.

Now, the New Yorker article DID also say that most people vote according to self-interest, and whether times are good or bad. In spite of Kerry’s charges to the contrary, Bush was apparently able to convince voters that he had their best interests at heart, and that times aren’t so bad.

But, interest rates are trending up. They’ll shoot higher and higher as federal deficits build and the government competes for borrowed money. And if you watch international financial markets, you know that there is evidence of the problems of deficit spending — the U.S. dollar is slipping to historic lows against the Euro, and the Canadian dollar is inching towards parity with the U.S. dollar. Some financial experts are warning that foreign investors aren’t anxious to hold lots of U.S. stock or other securities; they worry that the falling dollar could cause their portfolios to plummet.

Charitable giving may be about to get a lot harder for many Americans — even in the Bible Belt. And if hard times put moral values to the test, even red state voters could find themselves feeling a bit more blue.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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