Many Roads Led to Trump, but Look to the Swing States

Rust Belt Economic Decline

On the night of November 9, 2016, a new political quiz emerged.  It’s both revealing and simple, consisting of a single question:  “why did Trump win?”  Common responses include racism, economic anxiety, misogyny, progressive overreach, the prevalence of self-contained “bubbles” on the left and right, and Russian interference.   Whatever your preferred answer is, it tells a lot about what you think is today’s most significant social issue.

Most moderates would agree that “all of the above probably played some role, to greater or lesser degrees.”  This is correct and should be the foundation for further analysis, but it’s also a bit of a bland truism.  It bears passing mention here as, sadly, it is not always a widely-held notion among ideologues.  This is demonstrated by the shrill and polemical character of many explanatory pieces, like this ludicrously self-assured piece by Mr. Monomania, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So the correct follow-up is:  okay, all the above factors may have played some role, but is there one that’s weightier than the others?  I admit I’m most partial to economic anxiety.  Here’s why and what it says about folks like me.

Unlike the agitprop of Mr. Coates, I admit my explanation has its weaknesses .   The most glaring is that people with an income of $50,000 were more  likely to vote for Clinton.    There isn’t any way to entirely explain this fact away.  It clearly does suggest that the relationship between having a low income at the time of the election and voting for Trump is at best muddied.

However, there is also much more to the data than just that point.  As was observed elsewhere, Trump’s victory hinged on a very small number of votes.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, the “election was effectively decided by 107,000 people” in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  These three states also voted very decisively for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 .    The decisive swing-state of Ohio, which likewise voted Obama in 2008 and 2012, went Trump in 2016.  Given that the traditionally Republican states voted along party-lines as always (90% of Republicans voted Trump), the kingmakers were in fact the voters in these swing-areas.

What do these states have in common?  Are they particular hotbeds of racist activity in ways they were not in 2008 and 2012?  That strains credulity.  Ockham’s razor tells us the simplest answer based on these states’ commonality:  that the Rust Belt has been hit especially hard by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump’s message of bringing back manufacturing jobs, though likely a con and a fantasy, had particular resonance with these voters as evidenced by this key switch in allegiance in 2016.  Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden certainly thought that this issue was of prime importance and blamed the Democrats defeat on it. 

Other factors are also worth considering to explain Clinton’s support among those earning less than $50,000.  Clinton voters were also much younger, including for the 18-29 demographic (55-37) and the 30-44 group (50-42).  This is significant as younger people are more likely to have a lower income, but still enjoy prospects for future income growth.

None of this is to say that other factors didn’t play a role.  White identity politics assuredly motivated some Americans to support the man whom Pat Buchanan called “the Great White Hope”  and the message of voting Trump to prevent the appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices was also a common refrain during the campaign.  However, based on where the election was actually decided, these explanations ultimately lack the explanatory power of Bill Clinton’s 1992 observation “it’s the economy, stupid.”  After all, not only did these same swing states vote Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump also captured more Latino voters than Romney did in 2012.

What does it say about you if you believe that economics was the key factor behind Trump’s election?  It may mean that you think that it is economic inequality that is giving rise to our most serious challenges.  It probably means that you’re critical of Republican’s simultaneous worship of big business and offshoring on the one hand, while offering little of substance to those left behind.  It could potentially mean that you’re likewise critical of the Democrats’ neglect of economic concerns relative to the weight progressive causes receive.   Finally, there’s a good chance you feel both parties are adrift.

Trump’s exploitation of the economic issue was the key that allowed him to overthrow the Republican Party establishment (which did not appear to be giving the issue much importance) and then capture the Rust Belt swing votes necessary to defeat Clinton.  But sadly, Trump’s voters have been taken in by a conman driven by ego whose economic playbook seems to be the cribbed notes of a tired, Regan-era ideology.   Whether out of his desire to be accepted by the wealthiest elite or out of some other concern, he has also filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alum, a prime bête noir during his campaign and the very symbol of offshoring, shareholder value, and plutocratic disinterest in the working person.

The reality, of course, is that the complex nature of technological change and the global economy make promises of restoring the manufacturing prosperity of 1964 a wistful fantasy.  Though many have pinned their economic hopes on him, Rust Belt voters may have a while to wait before “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” delivers.