Working From Home and Polarization

Yet another thing driving Americans apart.

from PxHere

In his essay “Winners and Losers of the Work-From-Home Revolution,” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson offers little that surprises me. That it’s more beneficial for people like me— well-educated, tech-savvy introverts who live in the suburbs—has long been obvious. And I’ve certainly seen various folks speculating about the decline of downtown office space. But I’ve never quite made this connection before:

College is already the most important dividing line in politics. It’s also the most important dividing line in remote work. More than half of graduate-degree earners can work from home, compared with less than 25 percent of people with just a high-school degree, according to Bloom. The remote-work revolution, therefore, is principally a revolution for the colleged class, which is disproportionately a Democratic cohort.

If the college-graduate workforce evolves toward a certain kind of work that is off-limits to most noncollege grads, the cultural divide between graduates and nongraduates may widen even further, pulling apart a country that is already split by a diploma gap. In 2004, the journalist Bill Bishop coined the term the big sort to describe how Americans moving into like-minded communities were driving political polarization. I’ve recently been wondering what that might look like online. Well, it might look like white-collar workers migrating to remote work; in perpetual contact with virtual networks of similar workers, they will create a set of online norms and attitudes that pulls them even further away from the rest of the country.

Even as remote work makes far-flung colleagues feel closer, then, it could widen the gap between college and noncollege Americans, who are already rapidly sorting into the two major parties.

The college educated=Democrat still seems odd to me, given that we’ve long associated the GOP with affluent voters, who are more likely to have college and even professional degrees. But as a recent Pew survey shows, that has gradually changed:

Over the past 25 years, there’s been a fundamental shift in the relationship between level of educational attainment and partisanship. The Democratic Party has made significant gains among voters with a college degree or more education – a group that leaned toward the GOP 25 years ago. At the same time, the GOP now runs about even with the Democratic Party among voters without a college degree after trailing among this group at the end of the George W. Bush administration. And the GOP has made clear gains in recent years among voters with the lowest level of formal education, those with no more than a high school diploma.

A majority of registered voters with at least a four-year college degree (57%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 37% associate with the GOP. The Democratic Party’s advantage with more highly educated voters has grown over the past decade and is wider than it was in both 2016 and 2012. In 1994, a greater share of those with at least a college degree identified with or leaned toward the GOP than the Democratic Party (50% vs. 42%).

Among voters who do not have a four-year college degree, 47% say they identify with or lean toward the GOP compared with 45% who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. The GOP has gradually made gains among non-college voters since an ebb for the standing of their party in 2007 and 2008.

[…]

Voters with some postgraduate experience, in addition to a four-year college degree, are especially likely to associate with the Democratic Party. About six-in-ten voters with postgraduate experience (61%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 33% associate with the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party’s advantage over the GOP is somewhat less pronounced among voters with a four-year college degree and no postgraduate experience (53% to 40%). However, both college graduates and postgraduates have seen comparable shifts toward the Democratic Party over the past 25 years.

There’s more detail and some graphical information at the link but you get the idea. It’s a weird shift, in that Republicans tend to enact policies that benefit high earners and Democrats tend to enact policies that favor the poor. But politics is often more about culture than policy.

It makes sense that the working-from-home trend would exacerbate the trend, further isolating the sort of folks who can take advantage. Indeed, while my gradual shift away from the Republican Party was overdetermined, the amount of time I was already spending online here and in my curated Twitter community certainly contributed.

Beyond that, though, I think this will be another point of resentment. While Donald Trump and the conservative infotainment industry were the key driving factors in Republicans tending to take COVID-19 less seriously and to be more skeptical of lockdowns, masking, and vaccinations the fact that more of them were hurt by the lockdowns was surely a factor. It’s simply easier to endure a lockdown if you can continue earning a full salary while saving money on commuting, lunches out, dry cleaning and the like.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, 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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    It’s a weird shift, in that Republicans tend to enact policies that benefit high earners and Democrats tend to enact policies that favor the poor. But politics is often more about culture than policy.

    You are no doubt correct on this, but I have to hope that at least part of the shift comes from the shift of the Republicans towards “voodoo” beliefs. This started with the Reagan administration with economic policy but has since metastasized to all manner of different areas. Republicans start with their “Truth” and are totally indifferent to facts and evidence. They continue to pursue the same shibboleths regardless of effectiveness or outcomes. It would be a good thing that if people trained in critical thinking, i.e. college graduates, find that unappealing.

    5
  2. JKB says:

    college educated=Democrat

    You mean “college credentialed=Democrat”
    Matriculation, even graduation from, a college does not make one educated. There was a time, that the “college experience” would increase the likelihood of someone becoming educated, but that is long in the past. Increasingly, college is indoctrinating in the manner of North Korea or the old Soviet Union. Conformity and fear reign often without the student aware of what it means to be free. And the modern college humanities department certainly isn’t going to inform them of the freedoms and liberties in the Western Canon.

    So it is not surprising that the college credentialed lean Democrat. They’ve been trained that way by their professors in the same manner that the German professors “imbued their disciples with a hysterical hatred of capitalism, and preached the war of “liberation” against the capitalistic West.” (von Mises, Ludwig (1947). Planned Chaos)

    The thing about the work-from-home crowd is that they could hole up and be driven by the fear coming from their social media. On the other hand, the “essential” workers had to evaluate objectively and manage the risks, discover the hype and still do their jobs. Covid was just another risk, like getting electrocuted, crushed, etc. and you manage risks not by reacting to every hysterical comment, but by evaluating the worth of the statements regardless of the credentials of the experts.

    That will be the big difference that arises from more work-from-home. There will be those who are skilled at disciplining their minds, controlling their emotions and using principles to evaluate risks and there will be those who are emotionally driven by their screens.

    2
  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s fascinating to watch people embrace work from home. I’ve been doing it since 1992 or thereabouts, but people I’ve talked to are often resistant to the idea that it’s preferable. What’s happened is people were forced to try it and discovered they liked it. Sort of like oysters: they don’t seem like a great idea, then you try them.

    One thing that’s changed is that because of the internet the bosses can now track productivity of their home workers. The hierarchy retains its grip, can still issue orders and see results in a way that was not the case in 1992.

    In theory an editor could insist I write in Google docs and could follow me word by word. Not a fuckin chance I’d allow that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already the case with newspaper writers if not novelists. So in my era (Cretaceous) work from home meant a total absence of bosses, but now work from home comes with bosses looking over your shoulder. How long til some bosses insist on having a Ring camera inside your home office to watch you? How long til a worker from home has to ask permission to go to the bathroom?

    2
  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Who won the free and fair 2020 presidential election? If you can’t answer that honestly then you’re nothing but a liar and your words are without meaning.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    It’s a weird shift, in that Republicans tend to enact policies that benefit high earners and Democrats tend to enact policies that favor the poor. But politics is often more about culture than policy.

    Politics is, indeed, more about culture than policy. But Republicans enact policies that benefit the top 1%. Maybe the people between the 90th percentile and the 99th are figuring out they’re really middle class and are also getting screwed.

    1
  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think this is the reason why someone like Trump has to lead the GOP or they are sunk. The college-educated have leaned away from the GOP because of climate change and a general anti-science stance in the GOP. This was driven, in part, by corporate interests. But they need the votes, so they get it by ginning up culture war stuff about how colleges are communist and hate America. But a guy like Paul Ryan just can’t lead that charge.

    Trouble is, Trump says things (which his base likes) about how Social Security is good, and “they” had better keep their hands off it. Which he had to, to pull in those working class votes.
    Because the non-college-educated like SS and Medicare. The GOP is a walking contradiction these days.

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  7. Kathy says:

    I’m totally serious when I say next we’ll see clean air and clean water polarization.

    2
  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    The GOP is a walking contradiction these days.

    I seem lately to often be reminded that Naziism was a constantly changing, confused muddle that made no sense. That millions were willing to die for.

    However, the consistent enemy was the Jews. Jews were less than 1% of the German population. About a third of Americans hold a bachelors. I’m not sure making an enemy of a third of the population is a good long term plan for the GOPs.

    1
  9. drj says:

    @JKB:

    Increasingly, college is indoctrinating in the manner of North Korea or the old Soviet Union.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve asked this before, but aren’t you embarrassed about being so obsequious and weak-minded that you buy this evident nonsense?

    Where is your pride?

    Don’t you feel bad about being so servile that you swallow everything the friendly talking head on television says?

    (The same talking head who then needs to argue in court that his “news” program is for entertainment purposes only.)

    FFS, grow a pair, you emasculated toady.

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  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy:

    I’m totally serious when I say next we’ll see clean air and clean water polarization.

    We have for a long time. AGW, fracking, XL pipeline, Flint water supply, etc.

    3
  11. gVOR08 says:

    @JKB: has the beginning of a point, although I’m at something of a loss to identify the indoctrinating content of my engineering courses. Degreed =/= educated. Before we moved I had a friend who was a stereotypical country club Republican. I’m afraid I used him as a bit of a guinea pig trying to understand how someone well educated could believe the utter nonsense he believed. Part of the answer was that a Masters in Accounting doesn’t teach much except accounting. He knew next to nothing about history, literature, even economics.

    But, the primary tool for recognizing bullshit is whether it fits with everything else you know. And the more you know of the world, the better that works. Someone with a degree knows more of the world than he would without, and hence has at least a little better BS detector. Hence less of a tendency to be a Republican.

    2
  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    @gVOR08: So “indoctrination” here means, “poking holes in your prized misconceptions”? Which happened a lot to me in college, it’s true.

    Honestly, one of the most valuable things that happened in college was that I knew less, not more.

    Well, ok, calculus and data structures came in really handy. Not much indoctrination there, though. People have attempted things like “critical math theory”, but it’s usually an abject failure.

    There is something worth looking at: In the 50’s and 60’s the people who wrote programs for computers were primarily women. For instance, Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton. Somewhere along the way, programming became a male thing. That’s worth looking at how that happened, and it’s not something I particularly enjoy or want.

    I’ve read Margaret Hamilton’s code. It’s on Github. (I love the times we live in!). It’s really solid, good work. We need more Margaret Hamiltons.

    2
  13. Scott says:

    @JKB: I love it when someone just ups and pontificates on what is REALLY going on in whatever they are pontificating upon. Do you go to a University or College? Do you have children or grandchildren currently attending a University or College? If you are several degrees of freedom from such an attendance event, then I would suggest that probably you don’t have a clue about what you are banging on about.

    Same goes with public schools BTW.

    5
  14. inhumans99 says:

    gVOR08, I am not sure that anyone who cannot answer what is basically a Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb question by Michael Reynolds deserves the benefit of the doubt (which I want to give to JKB, but he makes it so hard to do so).

    Also, isn’t it a bit rich being lectured about institutions that “indoctrinate” folks by someone who gets his news primarily (entirely?) from sites that spew anti-Democratic propaganda like Fox News, OANN, Brietbart, Lucianne, Gateway, infowars, etc..

    Please note that I am not just saying that these sites are against folks who call themselves Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, whatever, I am saying that they disseminate information that is against the very notion of Democracy in America and definitely would like it better if we were more like Russia.

    The sad thing is that the folks wearing the I would rather be Russian than a Democrat shirts have no clue how grimy their life would be if they lived in Mother Russia, even the most God-fearing, anti abortion, and anti-Gay Southerner would quickly beg me to knock their heads against a wall to rattle some sense into them if they lived in Russia as a citizen (vs visiting Russia as a tourist).

    My mother always says that most Americans have no clue what it is like to live in a place where your freedoms are actually curtailed by the government (places where citizens have learned to just treat these restraints on their freedom as just part of the normal background of day to day life), and the repercussions in your life if you do not adhere to the general rules that society is expected to abide by. Considering she grew up in Turkey and my Aunt has been in Turkey all her life she knows of what she speaks-of. I have also worked with folks who came to America but were living in places like Nicaragua, so they also know what it is like to live in a place where you really are under the heavy thumb of the state/nation’s rulers.

    In Turkey, not listening when you are told not go out during certain times of the day during the pandemic can get you a citation, or arrested (at the extreme end of penalties for violating the rules), so you adhere to the rules knowing the State/City leaders in Turkey are not screwing around, in Michigan your Governor asks you to wear a mask and it leads to City Hall being stormed and threats to law makers lives, if only some of these yahoos spent some time in Russia, but Putin wants these yahoos in his country as much as I want another hole in my head, that is, not at all! Lol!! Putin is no fool, he finds these chumps easy to rile up but does not have to actually be around these fools in his country.

    5
  15. Scott says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I just had a “say what?” moment. Margaret Hamilton? The Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton? Was she another Hedy Lamarr that I hadn’t heard of?

    So looked her up. I learned something today. Thanks!

    Coding in those days was tough. Had to be incredibly efficient code to work with the hardware they had.

    1
  16. just nutha says:

    @JKB: @MarkedMan: The shift isn’t really all that surprising. The shift in Republican policy positions from more conservative, accompanied by the shift in conservatism in general from dog-whistle preservation of white privilege to bat shit crazy, has been going on my whole adult life. That educated (or credentialed if you prefer–potayto, dog whistle) people who would prefer a functioning social order have moved to supporting Democrats more is just a no-brainer, not a surprise. That JKB stands stalwartly at the beachhead pleading for the tide to halt and roll back is equally addled.

  17. just nutha says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I would go not so much that critical math theory is a dismal failure as that the reality is constructed around immutables and so less flexible and subjective.

  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    We have decades of research showing that open plan offices reduce productivity and make workers unhappy. Yet companies keep building them anyways. Why?

    I think we’re going to find working in an office similarly “sticky”. It doesn’t matter if WFH is preferred by the workers, or if it’s more productive.

    Managers think that they only way stuff gets done is if they can see everything their workers are doing, and they’ll insist most workers return to the office because they want “visibility”.

    2
  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    @just nutha: I think that critical theory, in general, could have a lot to say about science and how it is conducted. Even in physics or computing. And probably mathematics too, but it works differently there, I expect. And yet the critical theorists say things that are basically lunatic – things like “the Theory of Relativity is oppressive”.

    Facts don’t stop being facts. But there are other facts, and other methods, and other principles that are rendered invisible by structures that favor the status quo.

    1
  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    We have decades of research showing that open plan offices reduce productivity and make workers unhappy. Yet companies keep building them anyways. Why?

    I’ve been part of the decision team on several office constructions and I can think of two reasons. First is cost, and that may be sufficient in and of itself. The cost of building soundproof offices for everyone is multiples of the open office layout. And the second is not as obvious. Most people really, really want natural light in their working space, but it is really hard to give everyone a window. There are only so many meeting rooms, stairwells and toilets you can put in the interior. And by the way, the people who spend a lot of time in those meeting rooms want them to be light and airy.

    The way we did it in the one time where the budget constraints weren’t crushing was to have all walls made out of glass, with portions frosted. The glass was not cheap because it had to be unbreakable and sound deadening. We were able to put more more offices in, and the meeting rooms, break rooms and so forth all had plenty of natural light. Some of the labs, the toilets, stairwells, elevators, storage rooms, etc did not have as much, but overall it was an inviting and warm space. That same space as a maze of tiny offices would have been soulless and a real inhibition to collaboration.

    3
  21. Kari Q says:

    While I agree that work from home is likely to be a cultural dividing line, I wonder if there will be an offsetting benefit? Many tech workers are moving to areas that do not have tech economies. I know of several who have moved from Seattle or the San Francisco area to places like Kansas, Idaho, or Montana. Even more have moved to the “red” areas of California or Washington. Perhaps, if work from home truly becomes accepted, it will reverse some of the sorting?

    2
  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Beyond that, though, I think this will be another point of resentment.

    When I was still working, my wife was able to work from home a day or 2 every week, sometimes more. I would complain to her that it was blatant discrimination that she got to work from home where as I, a union carpenter was never able to work from home.

    God has a wicked sense of humor.

    Some people need to grow the F up, but they won’t because they’d far prefer to be aggrieved.

    3
  23. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    It doesn’t matter if WFH is preferred by the workers, or if it’s more productive.

    I’ve been dealing with this for the past year. One of the reasons that people think it’s more productive is because they’re seeing themselves getting more stuff done. How many of those people are seeing the productivity of the business as a whole?

    We’re just now bringing everyone back into the office. What they haven’t been seeing is that their “boost in productivity” is because they haven’t had to do all the little things that need to be done. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t being done.

    I’ve been the one doing them. For everyone.

    Perfect example from yesterday. Tech needs a sample taken to shipping. She’s WFH, so she sends a quick e-mail. 30 seconds and it’s done!

    And now I have to print out the shipping docs, walk to the other side of the factory, pick up the sample, walk to another side of the building to drop off the sample, and then get back to my desk to do my job. 5 minutes out of my day to do her job–now multiply that by dozens of people.

    I’m scanning checks into the bank software so that AR can work from home. That’s up to 2 hours of my day. Every day. Of course they are “more productive”. That’s probably 8 hours of work per week that they’re not doing. But it’s still being done.

    I spend half my day just walking from “one little task” to the next (9,100 steps so far today).

    Meanwhile, I don’t have the bandwidth to do the big tasks that are waiting–and I’m one of the few available people with the skills to do them.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to walk halfway across the factory to do “one little task”.

    5
  24. just nutha says:

    @Jay L Gischer: “Theory of Relativity is oppressive” is just loony (or maybe luny, depending), but I’d have wanted to read an essay explaining the idea when I was teaching comp. The rationale driving the speech is always a key component in discourse. That so much public political lacks such driving rationale is a major problem in contemporary American public discourse. Even worse, such discourse drives others to further content-free blather.

    ETA and @ Mu: I suppose that its possible that they merely perceive themselves as more productive, though. 😉

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Managers can insist what they want, but if a sufficient number of “essential workers” say “if I can’t work from home, I quit!” I think you’ll see them backing off.

  26. Mu Yixiao says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Managers can insist what they want, but if a sufficient number of “essential workers” say “if I can’t work from home, I quit!” I think you’ll see them backing off.

    I think you’re going to see a lot of those “essential” workers finding out that they’re not as “essential” as they thought, and having the managers accept their resignations.

    Do that with a few of the first ones, send out an e-mail explaining the situation, and anyone who’s not dead-sure they can get another job will think twice.

    6
  27. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao: That could just lead to a resorting of what tasks get attached to what job.

    If the tech’s salary is higher than the office gopher’s salary, a smart business could have two gophers serving 8 techs, and get a 25% boost of tech productivity, at a savings of 2 * (tech – gopher).

    1
  28. Gustopher says:

    @JKB:

    That will be the big difference that arises from more work-from-home. There will be those who are skilled at disciplining their minds, controlling their emotions and using principles to evaluate risks and there will be those who are emotionally driven by their screens.

    And which would you be?

    How many Transgender Antifa Marxist Fascist SJW’s have you actually met? There are lots of them on your screens, and you seem quite frightened of them.

    3
  29. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    I think you’re going to see a lot of those “essential” workers finding out that they’re not as “essential” as they thought, and having the managers accept their resignations.

    There’s 7.7 billion people on this planet, so even if you’re a literal one-in-a-million level talent, there’s more than seven thousand people out there who can do the job just as well as you can.

    1
  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    How many Transgender Antifa Marxist Fascist SJW’s have you actually met? There are lots of them on your screens, and you seem quite frightened of them.

    FOX BREAKING NEWS: a new study shows that nearly 100% of people who work from home are being forced to use gender-neutral bathrooms on the clock. Is WFH all part of the radical LGBT agenda? /sarc

    7
  31. Lounsbury says:

    @JKB: this brings to mind the phrase in another thread. Queerly tediously pedantic. As well as wrong-headed posturing.

    Really kind of the photo negative of the Lefty version.

    @Michael Reynolds: I on the other hand am having staff go back to office.

    On a purely corporate level – we are an investment firm – the sort of interpersonal version of the political effect of polarization is rather evident. Work clans and intra-team frictions have really accelerated in the purely online interaction. We need to re-introduce cross team in person contact to mitigate.

    1
  32. Slugger says:

    Will work from home wind up exporting jobs. There are lots of smart people in Mumbai and other places. I have a friend who works from home; he teaches the American version of English to Koreans and says that some of his students sound just like a guy from Long Island which is what he is. People who WFH are going to have incomes in the mid range of the planet.
    Youngsters, get a career where they need your physical presence. In the future a hairdresser in America will make more money than a code-writer who works from home.

  33. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Depends on the industry and whether any of those 7,000 want to work for you, and how many are available.

    The unemployment rate for software engineers is really, really low. I’m waiting to see how the back-to-the-office plans shake out before leaving my current job, but I expect till find some remote to near-remote options. There will be trade-offs, I’m sure, but likely doable.

  34. de stijl says:

    Joyner’s reaction was naive. Almost childish.

    Why would beat-down folks reject change given the choice?

  35. de stijl says:

    @Lounsbury:

    La di dah. Your concern only works if you get staff to execute. Were I them I would not. You seem like a total fucking dick. Why should I?

    Fuck off.

  36. de stijl says:

    Oi.

    Y’all are idiots. What you consider hard is easy. Really easy. Expel the idiots.

    What you deem easy is really freaking hard.

    Got it bass-ackwards.

  37. KM says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    And now I have to print out the shipping docs, walk to the other side of the factory, pick up the sample, walk to another side of the building to drop off the sample, and then get back to my desk to do my job.

    Why isn’t there a printer over where the sample is that prints out the shipping docs as they are sent? This sounds inefficient as that should have been in place before the pandemic to reduce back and forth. Ideally, the request would go to whomever had to prepare it with a CC to the tech / you so that you could group your pickups and reduce travel time, possibly even schedule it (every hour or so?) to max out your time. Not really seeing this as the tech’s fault here. From your description, a human was going to need to transport this sample across the building at least once. Unless the tech was situated right there, they’d also have to get up and crisscross the building delivering the sample. Somebody was going to have to do the walking and it seems you appear to be miffed that somebody is now you.

    I don’t know your job title but I do know that the higher ups at my own office were angry they were being expected to do the scut work since they were present. Something about “a human needs to physically do this” and “I’m the only human in the building because I’m the division leader” never seemed to equate to “well, guess what I’m gonna have to do” in their minds. Yes, you have to go get what FedEx delivered and lock up the building at night since there’s no night crew janitors. Yes it still has to be done and no, it’s not underneath them or work risking more people’s health because it affects their productivity or is beneath their job title. This isn’t a jab at you @Mu, mind – more a reminder for all of us that basic physical tasks gets shuffled off to lower-paid “essential workers” so when they’re not there, life gets more complicated and frustrating.

  38. Lounsbury says:

    @de stijl: Oh my someone seems to need a nap, so cranky with lefty knee-jerking.

    Of course as I own the company and as people do clamour to work for in this space, well they have to follow orders or they get replaced. And have done so for snowflakes.

  39. The college educated=Democrat still seems odd to me, given that we’ve long associated the GOP with affluent voters, who are more likely to have college and even professional degrees.

    Correlations are not transitive; “college educated voters are more likely to be Democrat” and “affluent voters are more likely to have college degrees” does not means “affluent voters are more likely to be Democrat”