Mitt Romney’s recent threat to eliminate the NEA, along with other useless government programs like Amtrak, PBS, and Obama’s healthcare reform, got me thinking: is threatening to cut the NEA, with its measly $155 million budget, actually a good political move? Why does America seem to hate its artists?
One clue lies in the political groups that would be affected by such a cut. To figure out whether the funding on the block would have gone to red states or blue states, I broke down the grants the NEA has awarded through 2012 so far by state, and compared them to both census data and poll projections from FiveThirtyEight, the election metrics blog run by statistician Nate Silver that successfully called every state but one (Indiana) in the 2008 election.
Some of the results are unsurprising. First, states that lean Democrat (those that poll below 47% for Mitt Romney) got the bulk of NEA grants, averaging about $0.44 per capita annually (compared to a national average of $0.34). We probably could have guessed that, since art tends to live in urban centers, and urban centers vote Democrat. Eliminating the NEA, then, would disproportionately affect Romney’s enemies, which is just good politics.
There are also a few kinda-surprising results, like the fact that big rural states in the Mountain West and Great Plains, which have been shown to take more money in general from the government than they pay in taxes, are also relatively overfunded in the arts: Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana all sit above $1.00 per capita for the year so far; Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska are well above the national average.
The real good news for Romney, though, is that swing states—which I’m defining as states FiveThirtyEight projects as between 47% and 53% in favor of Romney—receive, on average, less funding than either red or blue states. The average swing state has received just $0.25 per capita in grants this year, and some of the least-funded states are also the most important politically: Florida, under noted funding-refuser Rick Scott, is second-to-last in the nation at $0.11 a head, and Ohio is right behind it at $0.14. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, and North Carolina get short shrift, too. For Romney, that means threatening to cut the NEA has little effect on the voters that matter, who don’t see its benefits anyway, while giving him a nifty talking point for the any-government-is-bad-government crowd he’s trying to rally. For the rest of us, that means the voters potentially deciding the fate of arts funding in this country have probably never seen arts funding in this country, and have every excuse to believe it’s useless.
That raises the question: why isn’t expanding arts funding a goal for the Democrats? If artists generally vote blue, it should be politically advantageous to attract artists to electorally important states like Florida and Ohio. It wouldn’t even need to be so obvious; simply expanding the provisions for per-capita spending-equality between the states, which are already built into the NEA’s structure, would accomplish much of the work of bringing these underserved states up to the national average. In Florida, the national average would mean three times as much arts funding. And shouldn’t more grantees mean more voters with a good reason to support the NEA?
Unfortunately, it seems like it doesn’t quite work that way. Paul DiMaggio and Becky Pettit, two sociologists at Princeton, conducted a study in the late 90s that brought together much of the information we have about people’s opinions on the arts. They found—and subsequent studies confirmed—that while the majority of Americans support the arts, they aren’t as motivated as a hard core of “fifteen to twenty percent of the public” who really, really don’t:
But Americans' attitudes toward government arts programs are considerably more ambivalent. Support for some form of public spending on the arts is substantial—about two thirds of U.S. adults—and has been remarkably stable throughout sharp fluctuations in the NEA's political fortunes. But evidence also suggests that people are somewhat more supportive of local or state than of federal programs and of aid to museums and libraries than of assistance for artists. Moreover, whereas support for federal government aid to the arts is broad but shallow, about fifteen to twenty percent of the public have opposed federal arts programs with fierce conviction. Over the past decade, by attacking the NEA at its most vulnerable points, the right has created a powerful, if small, coalition of Christian conservatives and Republican partisans committed to ending thirty years of federal support for the arts. What the Endowment's enemies have been unable to win in the court of public opinion, they have won (in large measure) in the stadium of political strategy.
The problem is that most voters, while generally supportive of the idea of having some arts funding around, don’t rank federal funding for the arts as a major issue on the same scale as, say, social security, immigration, or the economy. And who could blame them? I wouldn’t care much about 34 cents a head, either. But now that Mitt Romney has made those thirty-four cents a talking point, why shouldn’t the president continue to differentiate himself? He’s unlikely to convert any of the small-government true believers by equivocating, and the states most in need of funding increases are also the states most crucial for a win in November.
Pundits on both the left and the right agree that the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate turned this election into a referendum on the proper size of government. But for the arts, it’s an uneven threat: you can vote Romney and get drastic cuts, or vote Obama and get the status quo. Hey, Barack: throw us a bone! It might even help you out.