By JONATHAN V. LAST
In 2005, Steve Sailer wrote a cover story for the American Conservative theorizing that the divide between red and blue states was driven in large part by the cost of family formation. Sailer dubbed this the “Dirt Gap” (referring to the price of homes with yards), and his general thesis was that affordable family formation—and the attendant bourgeois life which it enabled—was the source of our political divisions.
In February, George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Houston, decided to test Sailer’s theory. In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Party Politics, Hawley built a model which ought to be studied by every Republican political operative in the country. Because it shows not only that Sailer was correct—lower median home values are closely linked to Republican voting—but that one of the key factors linking home values and Republican voting is marriage.
Hawley’s model has an elegant simplicity. He focused on the 2000 presidential election because (1) it was very close and, more important, (2) it coincided with a census. The two data sets, voting and demography, were captured almost simultaneously, lending more certainty to the findings.
Hawley didn’t just plop the election results on top of the census data and look for patterns. He instituted a number of controls in order to isolate the effects of different variables. For instance, home prices are driven to a large degree by a locality’s median income—so Hawley created a control for that. He also controlled for a county’s median age and for the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics. He controlled for rural living and college education and poverty. His goal in all of this was to isolate the effect of two factors: median home price and marriage rate.
That second variable, however, presented a problem. The census reports the median age at first marriage for states, but doesn’t break it down by county. So Hawley created a nifty little proxy. He took the “ever-married rate”—that is, the percentage who have ever been married, even if they are now separated, widowed, or divorced—for just one cohort: women aged 25 to 30. The higher the ever-married numbers for women in this group, the lower the average age of first marriage will be. And vice versa. It was an inspired bit of analysis.
And so, with his model complete, Hawley set his computer to crunching the numbers.
It turns out that, as Sailer proposed, the cost of housing does influence vote-choice. Hawley found that every $10,000 increase in median home value in a county resulted in a 0.3 percentage point decline of the vote for George W. Bush. Peering into the data, he noticed something else interesting: Even though median income and median home value are highly correlated, those two variables have opposite effects on voting. Higher house prices made people less likely to vote for Bush, but higher incomes made them more likely to vote for him.
The really eye-popping results, however, came when Hawley ran the model looking at ever-married 25- to 30-year-old women. It turned out that the marriage rate for these women was a greater influence on vote choice than any other variable Hawley measured. For every 1 percentage point rise in the ever-married rate, Bush gained 0.2 percentage points of the vote. In counties where the ever-married rate was far above the average (two standard deviations, for any stat-nerds keeping score at home), Bush’s share of the vote shot up a whopping 5.5 percentage points.
The average age at first marriage (which is what Hawley was indirectly measuring) was such a powerful driver of voting that it overwhelmed all sorts of other characteristics. For instance, it has long been assumed that the further people go up the education scale, the more likely they are to vote for Democrats. But in Hawley’s model the marriage rate almost completely eliminated this “education effect.” Which suggests that it is less the “education” that drives vote preference than the effect of higher education in pushing up the age of marriage for young adults. Once Hawley took marriage into account, education ceased to have any statistical significance in predicting votes.
Marriage even dramatically lessened the very robust effect of median home prices. But it didn’t eliminate it altogether, which suggests that housing price has an effect on voting independent of marriage rates.
In Hawley’s final pass through the model, he looked at how median home price and the marriage rate interact with one another. And here he found another powerful relationship: Every $10,000 increase in median home value causes a 0.3 percent decrease in the marriage rate of the 25- to 30-year-old cohort. Which suggests that, all else being equal, increasing home prices delays marriage.
Hawley’s research might seem esoteric, but it carries with it an extraordinary amount of practical political guidance for Republicans.
For instance, the GOP is rightly committed to increasing economic prosperity. But Hawley notes that rising incomes don’t actually produce any political benefit for Republicans if they require increasing educational attainment and are accompanied by rising land costs. So Republican economic policy should probably be somewhat more populist-minded.
And about those land costs. Whether or not Democrats have intuited that higher housing prices help them, liberal urban planning shibboleths—fealty to mass transit combined with a dogmatic commitment to increasing population density—have the effect of making homes more expensive. Republicans ought to be just as interested in measures which contain housing costs, such as building highways and removing land-use restrictions. In other words, Republicans ought to be every bit as committed to the suburban project as Democrats are to urbanization.
Geography has long proved resistant to policy initiatives, and land costs are malleable only to a point. Sociology, however, is more promising. The Republican party can’t lower the cost of real estate in Manhattan but it could plausibly encourage more Americans to get married. In the same way no politician ever misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of college, Republicans should insistently be making the case for marriage.
This isn’t a heavy lift. There’s an enormous amount of research demonstrating that marriage makes people happier, healthier, and wealthier. The most recent addition to the literature came just a few weeks ago in the form of a report titled Knot Yet, by Kay Hymowitz, Brad Wilcox, Jason Carroll, and Kelleen Kaye, which examined the same delayed-marriage phenomenon that Hawley was studying in his model.
The Knot Yet authors have put together a list of policy ideas that could help Americans get to marriage earlier. For starters, Republicans could champion nontraditional degrees and vocational training instead of robotically pushing the universal four-year degree, which these days too often comes with a crushing load of debt. When Republicans talk about reforming the tax code they ought to advocate measures that will make family formation more affordable—like increased child tax credits—and be wary of plans—like removing the mortgage-interest deduction—which could make it more difficult.
Other ideas abound. Lately some Republicans have become obsessed with trying to outbid Democrats on issues, such as immigration and same-sex marriage, which do not offer any obvious political advantages. If they’re going to get into bidding wars, why not do it over a suite of issues that could actually bear electoral fruit? For instance, today Democrats are the only ones promoting family-friendly workplace policies. Hawley’s research suggests that Republicans ought to be competing in this space, too, helping to mitigate the professional costs young men and women incur by entering marriage and family life, and thus encouraging more of them to take the plunge.
As the party of commerce and free markets, Republicans are constitutionally disposed toward prizing economic growth, job creation, and lower taxes, which is fine, so far as these things go. But regaining the White House and becoming a majority party again will require more than that. Instead of flitting from one political fad to the next, the GOP ought to be fixating on the foundational questions that most influence voting behavior: encouraging young men and women to get hitched and lowering the financial barriers for those ready to tie the knot.
Sociologists have long acknowledged the good societal outcomes of such behavior. George Hawley has demonstrated in no uncertain terms the good political outcomes. If the Republican strategists don’t take note, they’ll deserve to keep losing elections.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter).