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How You Think We Should Be Tracking Trump

How should we evaluate whether President Trump is succeeding? Last week, we announced that FiveThirtyEight plans to track his progress — not just at meeting specific campaign promises, but at achieving his broader goals — and we asked for your help figuring out what metrics we should use.

Boy, did you come through.

We got nearly 400 suggestions through the form we set up, plus dozens more on Facebook and Twitter and via email. Some of the responses were predictably snarky (“Will he manage to stay out of prison?”) or fatalistic (“How will we know if Trump is succeeding? When he’s ‘elected’ a third time.”). Others presumed that Trump will fail (“how many days into his presidency will he be impeached.”). But most readers who took the time to write in put real thought into the assignment.1 We got dozens of serious, thoughtful suggestions, many of which we hadn’t previously considered. Several of you also wrote in with detailed suggestions about methodology — how we should compare Trump to his predecessors and how we should set benchmarks for his success.

We’ll be rolling out our official list of Trump metrics in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, we thought it’d be fun to take a quick tour through your suggestions. And if you have an idea that you haven’t submitted yet, it’s not too late! You can send in your ideas using this form.

CATEGORY TOTAL SUGGESTIONS
Immigration 86
The economy 73
Health care 28
Terrorism/ISIS 18
Foreign policy 16
Drain the swamp (lobbying/corruption) 15
Infrastructure 13
Military 11
American pride/attitude 10
Opioids/drug policy 10
Top categories for Trump-tracking suggestions from readers

As the table above makes clear, a large share of suggestions fell into two broad categories: immigration and the economy. Neither one is a surprise — those were Trump’s signature issues on the campaign trail and will be central to any effort to evaluating his success.2

Immigration metrics, as many readers pointed out, were notably absent from the preliminary list we published last week. That wasn’t precisely a mistake — we knew we’d have to track immigration policy somehow. But it turns out to be a surprisingly difficult thing to measure. Take one popular suggestion: the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. We have a pretty decent estimate of that number, via the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. But Pew releases its estimates only once a year and at a significant lag — we won’t get an update on how the undocumented population is changing under Trump until late 2018 at the earliest.

Another metric comes out more frequently: the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border. The U.S. Border Patrol releases that data monthly. But it’s hard to know how to interpret those numbers. If apprehensions rise, does that mean Trump is succeeding (because authorities are catching more people) or failing (because more people are trying to cross)? We’ll continue to work with experts to identify reliable immigration metrics.

The second-largest category of reader suggestions, economics, poses the opposite problem: There’s so much good data that it’s hard to know where to begin. Four of our seven initial metrics were economics-related, and readers had lots more suggestions: the poverty rate, the labor force participation rate, various measures of incomes and wages, among others. Many readers (19, in total) highlighted Trump’s promise to boost the growth rate of U.S. gross domestic product to 3 percent or even 4 percent annually (he has set different benchmarks at different times). Several readers also suggested looking at the economic progress (or lack thereof) made by specific groups or in particular parts of the country that Trump has emphasized: in rural America, for example, or among young African-Americans in inner cities.

Many readers pointed out another hole in our initial list: foreign policy. Perhaps even more so than immigration, foreign policy is tough to evaluate quantitatively. But readers had some good suggestions, such as the number of nuclear tests conducted by North Korea or foreign contributions to NATO. Other readers focused specifically on the military, such as Trump’s promise to boost military spending and expand the size of the armed forces. And several readers suggested that we evaluate Trump’s commitment to improving services for veterans.

Beyond specific issues, Trump’s campaign tapped into a more general sense among some Americans that the U.S. is in decline. That theme showed up in many reader suggestions for how to evaluate Trump’s success. Several people suggested tracking “deaths of despair,” a reference to recent research finding an increase in suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related deaths among middle-aged white Americans. Other readers suggested focusing on opioid-related deaths specifically. And various readers suggested trying to evaluate more amorphous concepts: confidence, pride in America, or a sense that the U.S. is “winning” again. (Fifteen readers referenced some version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in their submissions.) “Trump isn’t referring to the next World Cup, he’s talking about a mood,” one reader wrote, “a sense of American pride or dominance.”

Footnotes

  1. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the signal-to-noise ratio was much higher in suggestions submitted through the form (which were private) than in those submitted on social media.

  2. The table above is based only on suggestions submitted through the form. Submissions were assigned to only one category, which means that categorizations are somewhat subjective — does “track crimes committed by undocumented immigrants” fall under “crime” or “immigration”? Some readers submitted multiple suggestions at once; we based our categorization on whichever suggestion was listed first. All suggestions labeled “drain the swamp” used that phrase or a variant. (Several other readers submitted suggestions tied to governance or conflicts of interest more generally.)

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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