LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Whatever you want to call it - income inequality, the concentration of wealth - it's a defining issue in the Democratic presidential race. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has talked about the issue from the first day of his campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: In America, we now have more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on earth. And the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So here's the surprise. The states with the highest levels of inequality have been backing Hillary Clinton and not Sanders. NPR's political reporter, Danielle Kurtzleben, joins us now to talk about this. Hi.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hello.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is going on there?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, what we have here is a pattern. But as we all know, of course, correlation is not causation. But the pattern looks like this. Using one measure of inequality, a broadly used measure called the Gini index, states that are more unequal, like New York, tend to - Hillary Clinton tends to win those, whereas states that are more equal, like Alaska, New Hampshire - Bernie Sanders tends to win those. So like I said, there is correlation but not necessarily causation. So why this is happening - these are going to be educated guesses. But we don't know exactly what's going on. I mean, one possibility is just that the factors that contribute to equality also tend to cause people to vote for Bernie Sanders. So two possibilities that I've come up with - and once again, just possibilities - are urbanization and race.
So places that are more urban also tend to be a bit more unequal. And that makes sense when you think about it, right? New York is where wealthy CEOs live. That's going to be more unequal. Other big cities as well. Rural areas, you don't quite have all of those super rich people living there. And likewise, those places that ended up voting for Bernie Sanders, several of them - once again, places like Alaska and New Hampshire - have a lot of rural people. So that's one thing. Then you have race, where Hillary Clinton of course has been winning a lot of those Southern states. Those Southern states have very large black populations. We also know that for a variety of reasons, on many levels, there's a big economic disparity between black and white Americans. So that could play into this as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, well, I'm curious. Is there a similar pattern on the Republican side?
KURTZLEBEN: Kind of. It's a bit less pronounced because Trump is just so dominant. What we have seen is that Trump tends to win in less equal states, and that his opponents, mainly Ted Cruz...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Tend to win in more equal states. And as far as why that is - once again, just guesses - but one thing is that Donald Trump tends to do really well among voters who have less education and lower incomes. So maybe, just maybe, in places with higher inequality, those people are more - they gravitate more towards Donald Trump's populism.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, this seems so counterintuitive to me. You know, what should we make of all this? Economists have been saying the country is less equal than it's been in close to 100 years.
KURTZLEBEN: Right, and I mean, to be honest, I want to know more too. I mean, I spotted this pattern, but I couldn't tell you - I clearly can't tell you exactly why it's happening. I wish I could. I hope someone can. I mean, there is a connection between political polarization and economic inequality. At least one recent study from the Dallas Fed found that the two feed into each other. And if that's true, maybe that has something to do with how voting patterns are changing. So there's evidence the two are connected. But - and of course, Sanders and Trump are certainly polarizing to many of the electorate. So that's one potential thing that's feeding in here. But honestly, as to what's going on, I'm not quite sure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Intriguing. NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks so much for joining us.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.