Measuring the Small Differences between Democrats and Republicans in the White House since 1980

UPDATED the Conlcusions to this post on November 1, 2012

Rebecca Solnit wrote in the UK Guardian that

“If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly.”

She added that “there’s something to be said for actually examining the differences” as opposed to dismissing them as insignificant.

I made a few attempts to actually measure the impact of those small differences on the most vulnerable US citizens. Perhaps the often acrimonious debate I observe among US progressives during the interminably long presidential campaigns would be less bitter if they tried to quantify what those small differences are.

Below is a table showing what has happened to the gap between life expectancy (LE) between black and white men in the USA under Republican and Democrat presidents since 1980.


Black Male LE White Male LE gains relative to whites
increase per year increase per year per year (males only)
1970-1980 0.35 0.25 0.10
Reagan 1981-1988 -0.01 0.14 -0.15
Bush Sr.1989-1992 0.18 0.18 0.00
Clinton 1993-2000 0.45 0.20 0.25
W Bush 2001-2008 0.31 0.14 0.17 


As of 2008, the most recent data I could find, life expectancy for black men in the USA was 70.9 years compared to 75.9 for white males –  a gap of 5 years. In 1980 the gap was 6.9 years. You’d expect the rate of progress in life expectancy to eventually slow down no matter how good or bad public policy is. You’d expect it to slow down the soonest and the most for the longest living (most privileged) people as the easiest to fix causes of early death become less prevalent. However, countries like Norway, where both men and women live longer than white men and women in the USA, have also seen significantly faster rates of improvement in LE in recent years.

Between 1970-1980, black males had been gaining ground on whites at a rate of 0.10 years per year (third column in table). The Reagan years coincided with markedly decreased progress for white men  and disaster for black men who lost ground relative to whites at a rate of 0.15 years per year. The Bush Senior years appear to have halted the downward spiral as black males held ground relative to whites under his administration. During the Clinton years, black males made faster progress relative to whites than in any of the periods considered – 0.25 years per year. However, the second best era by this measure was the “W” Bush era that followed Clinton.

The data for black female LE compared to white female LE is far less flattering to the Clinton period. However, there is no disputing that the Reagan era was a disaster.

Black Female LE White Female LE gains relative to whites
increase per year increase per year per year (females only)
1970-1980 0.38 0.23 0.15
Reagan 1981-1988 0.00 0.06 -0.06
Bush Sr.1989-1992 0.15 0.15 0.00
Clinton 1993-2000 0.17 0.05 0.12
W Bush 2001-2008 0.28 0.11 0.16 

The next table summarizes how the proportion of unionized workers has changed.

Change in Share Change in Share
of unionized workforce of unionized workforce
percentage POINTS per year by percentage per year
1973-1980 -0.13 -0.5
Reagan 1981-1988 -0.61 -2.6
Bush Sr.1989-1992 -0.18 -0.9
Clinton 1993-2000 -0.35 -2.0
W Bush 2001-2008 -0.14 -0.9
Obama (2009-2011) -0.20 -1.5

Source:   (click link to data on “union coverage”)

Between 1973 to 1980 the share of unionized workers eroded by 0.5% per year. Under Reagan the deline sped up drastically to 2.6% per year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the next two worst periods for unions in terms of rate of decline were under Clinton and Obama. Perhaps this shows that organized labor fights harder when labor leaders are not tied to the sitting president. That said, slowing down the rate of union decline is nothing to brag about.  This trend needs to reverse for major reform to ever take place in the USA.

A look at how the richest 1% have done under Democrat and Republican presidents since 1980 shows a trend simlar to the one for unions. The election of Reagan brought in a huge acceleration in the rate of increse of the income share captured by the richest 1%. The rate slowed down under Bush Sr. then greatly accelerated again under Clinton. It slowed under “W” Bush but (at least for the 2 years for which I found data) accelerated again under Obama.

Income Share of Top 1%
Avg. Rate of Increase
% per year
1970-1980 1.0
Reagan 1981-1988 6.8
Bush Sr.1989-1992 0.3
Clinton 1993-2000 6.4
W Bush 2001-2008 1.9
Obama 2009-2010 4.6

SOURCE (clink “income shares” link)

Below is the data used to calculate the rate of increase numbers in the table above:

Income Share of Richest 1%
includes Capital Gains
1970 9.03
1980 10.02
1981 10.02
1988 15.49
1989 14.49
1992 14.67
1993 14.24
2000 21.52
2001 18.22
2008 20.95
2009 18.12
2010 19.77


If there was ever an election where it appeared to matter the most that the Republican candidate be defeated in order to prevent horrible outcomes in the USA, then that was clearly the 1980 election that brought in Reagan. However the election of Reagan was part of shift in the elite consensus that included the Democratic Party and its powerful backers. It should be recalled that the Democrats had a majority in the House of Represenatives throughout the Reagan years. Some may remember Jimmy Carter’s cheerleading for NAFTA while Clinton was in office – an assault on US workers Carter would never have proposed while he was in office. As this important study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found, 1980 marked the beginning of greatly diminished progress in numerous economic indicators in countries around the world over the following two decades.

The data above doesn’t justify indifference towards which party wins the White House. However it also doesn’t justify fear mongering that suggests the first priority of all decent people in the USA should be to defeat the Republican presidential candidate.

Matt Stoller’s fine piece on the case for voting against Obama generated considerable outrage in some circles as Glenn Greenwald remarks here. One thing I really like about Stoller’s piece is that he acknowledges uncertainty about his conclusions: “I don’t think the case against voting for Obama is airtight”.

Stoller pointed this piece out to me by Lane Kenworthy that reaches conclusions similar to mine by looking at economic data since 1980.

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