While studying the connections between social capital and health I stumbled across something rather odd. States with high social capital—strong connections between people and their communities—tend to vote democratic.

Harvard researcher, Ichiro Kawachi, one of the leading lights on social capital and health, has performed several studies that make state-by-state comparisons; and he’s shown that, on average, states with higher social capital also have better health outcomes. But as I was peering over some of his charts I couldn’t help but notice that states with higher social capital also tended to be "blue" states—they voted for John Kerry in the last presidential election.

Unfortunately, Kawachi reports the results for only 36 states (the others did not have sufficient data to support his study) so my little "finding" here refers only to those states, though they do include all the big ones. That’s just one of the limitations, but I still think it’s interesting that 6 of the 10 states with the highest social capital voted for Kerry in the 2004 elections. Meanwhile, 8 of the 10 states with the lowest social capital voted for George Bush in ’04. Don’t believe me? Here’s the rank-ordered list….

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  • (In keeping with prevailing media norms, republican-voting states are coded red; democrat-voting ones are blue.)

    1 North Dakota
    2 Iowa
    3 Washington
    4 Minnesota
    5 New Hampshire
    6 Rhode Island
    7 Utah
    8 Wisconsin
    9 Oregon
    10 Wyoming
    11 Ohio
    12 Colorado
    13 New Jersey
    14 Indiana
    15 Michigan
    16 Illinois
    17 Massachussets
    18 Kansas
    19 Pennsylvannia
    20 California
    21 Missouri
    22 Arizona
    23 Connecticut
    24 Texas
    25 Kentucky
    26 South Carolina
    27 Alabama
    28 New York
    29 Maryland
    30 Georgia
    31 Arkansas
    32 Mississippi
    33 North Carolina
    34 Tennesse
    35 Oklahoma
    36 Louisiana

    As the list here shows, the relationship is certainly not comprehensive—there’s a lot of muddle in the middle—but on the extremes there does appear to be a correlation between low social capital and voting for Bush.

    While Kawachi never mentions the voting comparison, in a separate study he offers a plausible explanation in the context of health outcomes. He suggests that high social capital leads to more civic engagement and, in turn, to more investment of resources, money, and concern into the community at large. For Kawachi, that investment is a partial explanation for better health outcomes—places with high social capital care more about the welfare of others.

    So I wonder whether—to the extent that democratic voters favor more public investment in the community and republicans less—that Kawachi’s explanation fits. Places with higher social capital reflect their preference for community in their voting habits. In other words, good communities foster democratic voting.

    Just a thought.

    A couple of notes and caveats are in order…

    *** Kawachi’s measurement of social capital is, in this instance, a shorthand. It’s the percent of people responding "yes" when asked whether most people would take advantage of them if given the chance. Most researchers think this is a reasonable, if abbreviated, way to assess social capital.

    *** My list is extrapolated (read: eyeballed) from Howard Frumkin et al., Urban Sprawl and Public Health (Island Press: Washington, DC: 2004), p 167.