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Something for Nothing: State Debt and the 2008 Presidential Vote


CNN, together with Moody’s Investor Services, published a map of the U.S. showing per capita state debt.

This debt map brought to mind another map, this one the Electoral College map from the 2008 election. President Obama won 28 states and the District of Columbia totaling 365 Electoral College votes, to McCain’s 22 states totaling 173 Electoral College votes.

state debt new

Now, compare the high-debt states to the states shown in blue that voted for Obama–the linkage between debt and voting behavior is visually clear.

According to Moody’s, the average state per capita debt of the 28 Obama states is $1,728 while the average debt in the 22 McCain states is less than half, at $749. This information alone says a lot about voters and their attitude towards government and debt. Voters with a propensity to elect politicians who burden future generations who can’t yet vote with huge debts voted for Obama while fiscally responsible voters generally voted for McCain.

This trend gets starker when you look at the debt in the states that voted overwhelmingly for one candidate. The six states where Obama received the highest percentage of the vote were: Hawaii, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland. McCain received his highest percentage of votes in Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Alabama and Alaska. The strongest Obama states had a per capita debt high of $4,606 for Massachusetts and a low of $709 for Vermont–remember, the average per capita debt in the McCain states was only $749, barely above the debt level in Vermont, with its “less is more” ethic. Per capita debt in the strong McCain states ranged from a high of $1,345 in oil-rich Alaska to a low of $77 in coal-rich Wyoming. The average per capita debt state debt in the strong Obama states: $2,697, almost $1,000 greater than the average debt in the 28 states he won. McCain’s six strongest states tell the opposite tale with a per capita state debt of $713, a little more than a quarter of the debt load racked up in the states that most enthusiastically went for Obama.

Looking at the states with the narrowest margin of victory or loss for either candidate more than confirms the trend. The five states with the narrowest margin of victory for Obama were: North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, with a per capita average state debt load of $842, only a third of the debt average for the strong Obama states and barely above the winning McCain state average of $749. Meanwhile, the five weakest McCain states, Missouri, Montana, Georgia, South Dakota, and Arizona (!) registered an average per capita state debt of: $626, not much more frugal than the five states Obama barely carried. (For another very revealing way of looking at this data set, see the state debt graphs assembled by Justin Hart.)

mccain debt

Another thing comes to stark light with this study in mind: it makes absolute Chicago-style reward your friends and punish your enemies political sense that President Obama and his Democratic allies would use Federal dollars, our dollars, to bail-out profligate spending, pro-Obama states such as New York and California at the expense of frugal red states such as Wyoming and Oklahoma. The Stimulus and its proposed follow-ons are as much about this as they are about the jobs that weren’t really created.

obama debt

This study is useful, if depressing, as America comes to grips with the alarmingly higher federal debt levels being incurred by President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. Useful, because it shows the linkage between voters accustomed to getting something for nothing by sending their bill for their high-spending ways to their children and grandchildren. The study’s depressing side: generationally selfish voters won’t easily change their voting habits.

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