There’s this meme going around that Howard County Republicans fared badly because Howard County has so many government workers, and they all vote for Democrats because they have an interest in growing the size of government. For example, from an Columbia Flier story quoting Joan Becker of the Howard County Republican Party:

The Republican message of smaller government didn’t play well in Maryland, the home of hundreds of government agencies and contractors, Becker said.

“You can’t run on a campaign of less government when 30 percent of the people work for the government,” she said.

More recently in response to a HoCo Rising post commenter Glewis upped the ante, claiming that

50 percent (or more) of Howard County works for the government. The same is true in Montgomery and Prince Georges. Government workers always vote Democratic.

Fifty per cent of Howard County sounds like a lot of people, even leaving out kids and the retired. So I couldn’t help wondering whether there were any authoritative sources of data on how many people in Howard County (or other Maryland counties) are government workers, whether at the Federal, state, and local level.

As it turns out, the American Community Survey data from the Bureau of the Census contains annual estimates of the size of the civilian work force in each US county, along with whether they work for private industry or various branches of government. The following table (based on the 2009 ACS data) gives the percentage of the work force employed by local, state, or Federal governments in each of various Maryland counties, along with two counties in Virginia for comparison.

CountyCivilians employedGovernment workers% Government workers
Prince Georges434,699128,87329.6%
Anne Arundel260,83061,77323.7%

Note that these figures do not include people who work for government contractors, so the number of people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on government spending is significantly higher than the percentages above might indicate. I can easily believe, for example, that 30% of Howard County workers work for the government or for government contractors; it might even be 40 or 50% if we assume that government contractors outnumber government employees (which is somewhat plausible).

However, does this factor in and of itself explain the relative lack of success of Howard County Republicans in electing county executive and county council candidates and in getting out the vote for Robert Ehrlich? Note from the above table that both Anne Arundel and Harford County have higher percentages of government workers than Howard. Yet both Anne Arundel and Harford just (re)elected Republican county executives (John Leopold and David Craig respectively). Harford County in particular tilts so far Republican that Ehrlich got over 64% of the vote to less than 33% for O’Malley (as noted recently by HoCo Rising), and Democrats couldn’t even find candidates to run against David Craig or to make up full slates for the county council and local state legislative districts.

Note also that Fairfax County in Virginia has a higher percentage of government workers than either Howard County or Montgomery County, but from what I can tell Fairfax County Republicans are doing reasonably well considering. For example, there are three Republicans on the ten-person Fairfax Board of Supervisors, almost a third of the total. Compare the one Republican out of five county council members in Howard, or no Republicans (that’s right, zero) on the Montgomery County Council.

Even without the benefit of the above statistics HoCo Rising felt justified in dismissing local Republican complaints about the voting patterns of government workers:

[The] funny thing is that Maryland didn’t just move in next to DC. Our state has always had federal workers, Howard County has always had federal workers, and Virginia, which has its own significant Federal Worker population, votes more conservative than Maryland.

If Republicans want to throw in the hat because of the feds, so be it. But I think this is a lame excuse for failure.

As it happens I think HCR was being just a tad harsh. I think there are in fact structural reasons why Republicans have problems in Howard County as opposed to Harford County and in Maryland as opposed to Virginia, probably due to the way voters sort themselves in choosing their preferred places to live. But I do agree that this idea that government workers in Howard County automatically vote Democratic in order to build “socialism in one county” is a crock, and the sooner we bury it the better. But I do agree that this idea that Republican woes are due primarily to our having more government workers is a crock, and the sooner we bury it the better.

UPDATE: I changed the last sentence to better reflect the conclusion I came to based on the evidence. (I think the original sentence is true too, but that’s just my opinion.)

wildelakemike ( - 2010-11-09 11:51

Frank, another great post! And, I must agree with Howard County Rising and you that the Republicans are only going to bury themselves deeper if continue to blame the make up of the electorate for their losses. Sounds a bit Jimmy Carterish to blame the losses on the malaise of the people! Instead, Howard County Republicans need to fashion a better message based on good government and competence. Some have expressed the opinion that many Democrats voted this time around to vote against the Tea Party! Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn’t. But, the Republican Party cannot be defined by its wings. A message that scares most people is not bound to make a party very popular. As a Republican by birth, I have been dismayed over the past decade or two that the Republicans have allowed themselves to be defined as the Religious Right, the Party of No, the Tea Party, So, and the War Hawks, among other names. Ronald Reagan had the ability to make us all proud to be Americans while, at the same time, generally ran a competent government. Recall that during Jimmy Carter’s term in office, many people thought the office was just too big for one person. Reagan reclaimed the office and, overall, stood for good government and competence. So, the Republicans in Howard County need to pull together, get rid of all factionalism that apparently exists, develop a more universal message, and find good candidates. Or, they can just blame everyone else. Which plan will really work?

Sarah - 2010-11-09 12:03

This is great. I’ll toss in that I am continually surprised at just how many government contractors in my limited field of work are Republican, but obviously that’s anecdotal.

hecker - 2010-11-09 14:43

wildelakemake: Thanks as always for your comprehensive comments – you’re sure you don’t want to be a blogger? :-) It’s not my job to revitalize the Republican party, but I do find it interesting that the GOP seems to be evolving into basically a socially conservative populist party – sort of what the Democratic party was in the late 19th century. It’s almost as if many of today’s Republicans have more in common with William Jennings Bryan than they do with William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Thursday Bram - 2010-11-09 20:37

I think the break down might be even more interesting if we could look at a break down of which of those government employees and contractors work for the Department of Defense. Considering the location of Ft. Meade, I wouldn’t be surprised if Howard County’s share of government employees are more likely to be involved with the DOD than you might find in other counties or states. It’s been my experience from living next door to some military base or another for my entire life that military and DOD employees tend towards the right. Of course, there’s no hard numbers there, but there’s definitely some interesting implications.

Truemoderate ( - 2010-11-10 22:00

Frank, Howard County went incumbent. But the United States by in large went GOP, do you care to analyze that? As a disgruntled former Dem, why don’t we turn the lense on how the Democratic party failed there moderate base and had the biggest “shelllacking” since the 1930’s. Regards, TM

hecker - 2010-11-11 02:31

I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about the national results that hasn’t been said by others. If I had to guess, I’d guess that the problem basically comes down to traditional midterm reversals + a horrendous economy + uncertainty about health care reform (especially one including Medicare cuts) in an electorate with proportionally more seniors than in 2008 + lingering populist anger at the bailout of banks.