During the election, as it became clear that Donald Trump was going to win the GOP Presidential nomination and as he remained close to Hillary Clinton a debate broke out between political analysts. What was driving Trump’s support? Was it economic factors? Or was it primarily related to cultural changes roiling the nation?
After Trump’s victory the debate has continued. As more data has rolled in and as polls have been dissected it seems the proponents of the culture theory have gained the upper hand. Trump’s wins in culturally conservative and traditionalistic Appalachia and Middle America only reaffirm this theory. Additionally, Clinton won in the most educated counties in America (ie. the places most comfortable with change).
Exit polls indicate Clinton won among voters who ranked the economy the most important issue. Clinton also won handily among the poorest Americans (though lost poor whites). Indeed, race and education were closely correlated with Presidential results than anything else.
The above debate misses a clear distinction. Economic concerns can encompass many areas and include both economic hardship and economic anxiety. What do I mean by these terms?
Economic hardship refers to present day concerns. Poverty, unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, are all economic hardships. But, economic anxiety refers to worries over the future. This can include worries over making mortgage payments, saving for college, saving for retirement, getting a raise, a potential layoff, etc. These worries can also extend to what are the prospects for many parents children.
A close examination of the election finds that economic hardship did not significantly impact the election. For example, Clinton won many poor, minority areas but she also won affluent, former Romney and GOP territory. These areas are full of growing fields in bio technology, advertising and engineering.
No, where Trump won was in many, many places where a large or solid majority of jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing. Geographically, this stretched along the Mississippi River all the way through to Western Maine.
There is no perfect way to measure economic anxiety. However, there are proxies such as the number of individuals in a county without a college degree. Or the dominant type of industry in the county. In any case, Trump won counties with slower job growth and he dominated in counties with a majority of non college educated whites.
The connection between Trump’s support and economic anxiety becomes even clearer as you control for race. Blacks and Hispanics tend to be poorer than whites (and Asians). They also had strong non-economic reasons to oppose Trump due to his policy positions on policing and immigration (just to name a few). Clinton won these two groups by over 80 points and 40 points respectively. Take them out of the equation and Trump’s support nationally and on a county by county basis becomes even clearer.
Personally, I was struck by an article a friend sent me about the housing market and Trump support. Counties that went to Trump were not necessarily devastated nor left behind by the housing boom and bust but rather their market growth was less dynamic. These were places that were not ranked as highly desirable for people to move to.
The same pattern basically follows for other factors that correlate with Trump support. More subprime loans? More Trump support. More individuals receiving disability payments? More Trump support. More low wage full-time jobs? More Trump support. In essence, as Fivethirtyeight described, Trump Country “Isn’t the part of America where people are in the worst financial shape; it’s the part of America where their economic prospects are on the steepest decline.“
Of course, looking at this from a nationwide, purely numbers can be tricky and can miss the forest for the trees. So it might be illustrative to look a couple examples.
Prior, I noted how a small county in Iowa, Dubuque County, voted for Trump (a Republican) for the first time since Eisenhower. The county had a 2.6 percent unemployment rate on Election Day and its employment rate has grown about 1 percent between June and November 2016. On the surface this county’s economic looks healthy.
This is exactly the type of place where Trump did well. Stories done by CNN and Fox on the county found residents were not exactly worried about their current situation but when talk turned to the future the pessimism shined through.
The story was similar in nearby Scott County. In November its unemployment rate was 4.3 percent. But growth was meh at best and worries over the future were involved in many residents interviews. Clinton ended up winning the county by 2 percent. Obama won it by over 14 percent a mere four years earlier.
The worries these voters have are well-founded. Many of the long-time residents of these counties and others when they were younger could find a good job out of high school or get on the job training for a manufacturing job. Those days are gone and with them concerns have grown over the future of their lives and their kids.
Economic anxiety is not the only reason Trump won. Academics are busy spitting out articles about how racism and sexism fed into Trump’s victory (they conveniently forget how much race and partisanship are tied together down south) Cooler heads have noted how trade, worries over globalization and how many residents feel like the government is trying to mandate their values played big roles in Trump’s victory.
The debate whether economic or cultural factors mattered more in November is not just an academic debate. It impacts policy. Because, if Trump does not deliver on the economy voters may turn on him. Likewise, if he becomes a culture warrior and that is not what his supporters want the same thing could happen.
From the perspective of economic hardship Trump’s economic policies may make sense. Limiting immigration to tighten the labor force, punishing companies that leave the US for cheaper shores, and promoting manufacturing jobs, all may be what his supporters want.
The concerns his supporters voice over the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, a broken entitlement system, rising college tuition and a gridlocked government are all valid. Thus, it would behoove politicians to direct policy to solve these issues.
Trump campaigned on solving these issues as a pragmatic, non-ideological problem solver and it worked. Leaders in Congress and the states would be wise to work with the President-Elect to solve these issues leading to economic anxiety. Or suffer the political consequences!