DC Elites Different!

Affluent, educated people in the DC policy community hold different views than the larger American public.

A new Politico poll shows wide gaps between “DC elites” and regular Americans.

In their opinions on policy and politicians ranging from President Barack Obama to Sarah Palin, elites in Washington have a strikingly divergent outlook from the rest of the nation, according to a new POLITICO poll released Monday.

Obama is far more popular while Palin, the former Alaska governor, is considerably less so. To the vast majority of D.C. elites, the tea party movement is a fad. The rest of the nation is less certain, however, with many viewing it as a potentially viable third party in the future.

The survey also reveals to a surprising degree how those involved in the policymaking and the political process tend to have a much rosier view of the economy than does the rest of the nation — and, in some cases, dramatically different impressions of leading officeholders, political forces and priorities for governing.

So, what is a “DC elite,” anyway?

To qualify as a Washington elite for the poll, respondents must live within the D.C. metro area, earn more than $75,000 per year, have at least a college degree and be involved in the political process or work on key political issues or policy decisions.

Depending on how they’re defining that last part, then, my wife and I are both DC elites.   She’s an executive with a political polling firm, although her role is mostly administrative rather than political.  I work at a foreign policy think tank, mostly writing for a living.  So, she’s at least tangentially “involved in the political process” and I at least tangentially “work on key political issues.”

Washington elites seem conscious of the fact that they have a different point of view than the rest of the country, as 74 percent said they have felt the current economic downturn less than most Americans.

Well, that’s almost definitionally true. If you’re employed and making at least $75k, you’re probably doing okay.

Sixty-five percent of the general population views Social Security as “very important,” compared with only 41 percent of Washington elites. The same goes for immigration — 53 percent of the general public says it’s very important, compared with 36 percent of Washington elites — and family values — 62 percent versus 23 percent, respectively.


Taxes are another issue where Washington does not appear to have its finger on the pulse of the country. Fifty-three percent of the general public ranked taxes as a “very important” issue, while 37 percent of elites said the same.


Sixty-eight percent of Washington elites said the anti-tax tea party movement is a “fad” and that it will “go away soon.” Only 26 percent of the rest of the country agreed. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of the Washington elites believe the tea party will “become a viable third party in American politics.” Twenty-four percent of the rest of the country said the same.

In addition, Washington elites have a much higher opinion of those in power than the general public. Among the elites, Obama has a 66 percent favorability rating, while 34 percent view him unfavorably. Outside of Washington, only 48 percent of respondents view the president favorably, compared with 47 percent who view him unfavorably. In prospective 2012 matchups, Obama never falls below 60 percent support among the D.C. elites. Yet among the general population, the president doesn’t win more than 48 percent support in any of the pairings.

On the question of the 2012 presidential election, the general public gave a generic Republican candidate a 5-percentage-point edge over Obama, 42 percent to 37 percent, while among Washington elites, the president would cruise to reelection by a 2-to-1 ratio — 56 percent to 28 percent.

If one looks at the actual numbers, though, most of the different between the “DC elites” and the general public comes down to party affiliation:

The “DC elite” pool is 51 percent Democrats and leaners, 26 percent Republicans and leaners, and 22 percent Independent or unidentified.    Presumably, that’s a function of a predominance of liberals and progressives in the large non-profit and civil service sectors as well as the fact that Democrats control the two elected branches of government and thus the patronage positions.

The relative affluence that’s used as a selection criteria for the group also matters on some questions.  Social Security is much less “important” if your retirement portfolio consists mostly of private investments.

On other issues, the difference is that between an In group and an Out group.   By definition, “DC elites” in this sample are well educated on policy matters; that’s not the case for the mass public, who have jobs requiring specialization in something else.   And that’s going to matter:

Sarah Palin:  Aside from the very young operative types, almost all Republicans I know think she’s not a serious leader.   Policy wonks value credentials, expertise, and professional bearing.  Palin lacks these things.   Which makes her appealing those looking for “someone who cares about people like me” who want “regular folks” in charge.

Tea Party:   There are multiple factors at work here.   In addition to the same instincts that make us disdain Palin, those who work in and around the system value the system, which the Tea Party movement is not only outside but against.  Moreover, we’ve seen mass “third party” movements before and understand that the chances are nearly 100 percent that this one will have its core issues adopted by one or both of the major parties and the movement will thus wither away.

Immigration:  Aside from being skewed by an over-representation of Democrats,  DC elites don’t share a border with Mexico and aren’t competing with illegal immigrants for jobs or having their wages pulled down by them.  Indeed, we benefit from a large Hispanic — mostly Central American — population who perform jobs in the service sector at good prices.

Family Values:   Again, the sample is much more Democratic than the population as a whole.   Moreover, educated, affluent people living in large Metro areas — not just DC — tend to be less religious and more tolerant of homosexuality.   Beyond that, policy wonks get tired of rhetoric that doesn’t translate into policy.

Right Track/Wrong Track:   Policy wonks have more faith in statistical data than normal people.   Most folks judge the economy by their own circle of friends and family, not numbers reported by the government.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Gerry W. says:

    Well, they have no idea what is going on in the country. I hear Palin talk of “free market principles” and you have Carlos Guiterrez, former Bush Commerce Secretary saying dynamics have not been changed. But dynamics have changed and it is 2 billion people in the world that is dictating our jobs and wages. We are losing the middle class and they just don’t get it. Small towns will be the most distressed areas.

    Economist Veronique De Rugy of George Mason Univ., was on C-span and at 30 minutes into the talk she said it was okay to lose our jobs to China and that we are making more jobs at WalMart.


    What has our country come to? I don’t get it. I am mad. Why destroy the middle class? And whether or not we have agreements, the fact remains is that 2 billion people will control our lives. It means less in jobs and wages. Now that is what is happening and where is our politicians? And republicans only sit with their tax cuts and do nothing else. No wonder people think they are the party for the rich.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    There’s a story in this morning’s NYT’s about web based news operations in general, and Politico in particular, and the pressure that comes from the focus on measurement of page viewings. The consequence of this is a relentless search for headlines and “stories” that will capture attention. This “poll” seems to fit the bill exactly. It’s largely meaningless but will get a lot of blogosphere types, many of whom live in Washington, excited. To take a couple of examples.

    “Yet among the general population, the president doesn’t win more than 48 percent support in any of the pairings.”

    48% is about where the president is in all these poll averages, a bit higher if you take out Rasmussen. So this this Politico number is a surprise?

    “Meanwhile, only 11 percent of the Washington elites believe the tea party will “become a viable third party in American politics.” Twenty-four percent of the rest of the country said the same.”

    24% is the hard core base of the Republican party. So it’s a surprise they think the tea party
    has a future?

  3. Pete says:

    And what do Democrats do, Gerry W? The DC elites are definitely out of touch with middle America. Their world consists of credentialism, self congratulation, policy delusion and social snobbery. As the country sinks further into malaise and unrest, the DC elite are basically saying, “Let them eat cake.”

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    Pete says:
    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 08:34
    “the DC elite are basically saying, “Let them eat cake.”

    Does giving the wealthiest more tax cuts and cutting off unemployment payments qualify as “eating cake?”

  5. grampagravy says:

    I can’t think of a couple of better headlines for this article:

    D.C. Elites Woefully Out of Touch!
    D.C. Dances In A Heaven of Stupid While America Suffers!

  6. sam says:

    “Sixty-eight percent of Washington elites said the anti-tax tea party movement is a “fad” and that it will “go away soon.” Only 26 percent of the rest of the country agreed. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of the Washington elites believe the tea party will “become a viable third party in American politics.” Twenty-four percent of the rest of the country said the same.”

    I suspect, given history, that the Tea Party, being nothing more than a highly energized segment the Republican base, will suffer the same fate as the religious right: After a lot of lip service directed at it by the Republican establishment in Congress, it’ll get stiffed.

  7. wr says:

    Gerry W — Why destroy the middle class? Because they’ve already stolen pretty much all there is to steal from the poor, so the only assets left to transfer to the super-rich are those of the middle class. The plutocrats in this country envision a paradise like those in Central and South America, where the wealthy live in gated communities with full-time bodyguards, and everyone else squats in favelas. And of course the idiot Tea Partiers cheer them on in the name of “freedom.”

  8. grampagravy says:

    “Why destroy the middle class?”
    It is called “capitalism.”
    Anyone whose ever made it all the way through a game of Monopoly knows that sooner or later one player owns it all and everyone else has nothing. The bright side is that once the middle class has been totally destroyed it will no longer serve as a buffer between the rich and the poor, leading, of course, to a brand new Bastille Day!

  9. Pete says:

    Brummagem Joe, the answer is yes.

  10. mannning says:

    Fortunately, there is another, more vast part of the nation, often looked on as flyover country, that holds the key to elections, not DC. Hubris, self-satisfaction, and my-job-is-safe-in-the government (or for the government) tend to rule the attitudes in DC, which usually suffers very little in downturns. Amassing literally hundreds of new agencies or other organizations to manage the nation’s czars, health system, finances and economy doesn’t make for job insecurity in DC, and I speak from decades of experience there. Not so in the hinterlands.

    There has always been a plus or minus 10% or so yearly shift in employment in the DC area linked to the changes of administrations, military posting changes, job shifts out of the area to accomodate a senator’s whims, and government contractor changes up and down, most of which are high paying jobs that fit the minimalistic designation here of “elite”. Which is not to measure here what the true movers and shakers in DC believe at all, but merely the more or less well-off at the moment.