January 9, 2017


Stop Saying Trump's Win Had Nothing To Do With Economics (Ben Casselman, Jan. 9th, 2017, 538)

Economic hardship doesn't explain Trump's support. In fact, quite the opposite: Clinton easily won most low-income areas. But anxiety is a different story. Trump, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Jed Kolko noted immediately after the election, won most counties -- and improved on Romney's performance -- where a large share of jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. And while there is no standard measure of economic anxiety, a wide range of other plausible proxies shows the same pattern. According to my own analysis of voting data, for example, the slower a county's job growth has been since 2007, the more it shifted toward Trump.1 (The same is true looking back to 2000.) And of course Trump performed especially strongly among voters without a college degree -- an important indicator of social status but also of economic prospects, given the shrinking share of jobs (and especially well-paying jobs) available to workers without a bachelor's degree.

The role of economic anxiety becomes even clearer in the data once you control for race. Black and Hispanic Americans tend both to be poorer and to face worse economic prospects than non-Hispanic whites, but they also had strong non-economic reasons to vote against Trump, who had a history of making racist comments. Factoring in the strong opposition to Trump among most racial and ethnic minorities, Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.2

The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support. "Trump Country," as my colleague Andrew Flowers described it shortly after the election, 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.3

Teasing out cause and effect, of course, can be tricky, especially given that issues of race, economic status, education and social standing are so tightly linked in American society. But the economic anxiety explanation is consistent with what Trump supporters have been saying all along. More than a year ago, I visited Scott County, Iowa, where the unemployment rate was then 4.3 percent (it was an even lower 4.1 percent on Election Day). Nearly all the people I spoke to there were satisfied with their immediate economic situation. But when the conversation turned to the future, they were far more pessimistic.

"This is a county that 40 years ago, you could go to college and you'd be set for life, or you could come out of high school and get a job at Deere or Case or wherever and also be set for life with a solid, middle-class lifestyle," Jason Gordon, a local alderman, told me at the time. "That doesn't exist here anymore, and I don't think it exists anywhere anymore."

Scott County ended up voting for Clinton, but barely -- she won by less than 2 percentage points. Obama won it by nearly 14 points four years earlier.

None of this is to say that economic issues are the only, or even the primary, explanation for Trump's success. A recent paper from researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that racism and sexism predicted support for Trump better than economic dissatisfaction. But even that paper found that economic dissatisfaction was an important factor. In other words, the "economics or culture" argument is a false dichotomy. There's no reason that both forces couldn't matter; in fact, both did.

Posted by at January 9, 2017 6:06 AM