At the same time that lifestyle and consumption habits of the affluent diverge from those of the middle and working class, wealthy voters are becoming increasingly Democratic, often motivated by their culturally liberal views. A comparison of exit poll data from 1984 and 1988 to data from the 2008 and 2012 elections reveals the changing partisan makeup of the top quintile.
In the 1980s, voters in the top ranks of the income ladder lined up in favor of Republican presidential candidates by 2-1. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush crushed Michael Dukakis among voters making $100,000 or more by an impressive 34 points, 67-33.
Move forward to 2008 and 2012. In 2008, voters from families making $100,000 to $200,000 split their votes 51-48 in favor of John McCain, while those making in excess of $200,000 cast a slight 52-46 majority for Barack Obama
In his first term, Obama raised taxes on the rich and criticized excessive C.E.O. pay. As a result, he lost ground among the well-to-do, but still performed far better than earlier Democrats had done, losing among voters making $100,000 or more by nine points, 45-54.
The “truly advantaged” wing of the Democratic Party — a phrase coined in this newspaper by Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard — has provided the Democratic Party with crucial margins of victory where its candidates have prevailed. These upscale Democrats have helped fill the gap left by the departure of white working class voters to the Republican Party.
At the same time, the priorities of the truly advantaged wing — voters with annual incomes in the top quintile, who now make up an estimated 26 percent of the Democratic general election vote — are focused on social and environmental issues: the protection and advancement of women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change, and less on redistributive economic issues.
Bernie Sanders has tried to capitalize on this built-in tension within the Democratic primary electorate, but Hillary Clinton has so far been able to skate over intraparty conflicts. In the New York primary, for example, she did better among voters making $100,000 or more than among the less affluent, while simultaneously carrying African-Americans and moderate Democrats of all races by decisive margins.