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Stop Saying Trump’s Win Had Nothing To Do With Economics

This is In Real Terms, a regular column analyzing the latest economic news. Comments? Criticisms? Ideas for future columns? Email me, or drop a note in the comments.


In the months leading up to Election Day, a heated debate broke out among political commentators over the source of Donald Trump’s support. Was it driven primarily by economic anxiety, as the early conventional wisdom often argued, or more by racism and other cultural factors?

The debate has continued in the weeks since Trump’s win, and lately the anxiety skeptics seem to be gaining the upper hand. Numerous writers, including some on this website, have noted that obvious measures of economic struggle such as poverty and unemployment were poor predictors of Trump support; indeed, exit polls show that Hillary Clinton won handily among poorer Americans. And whereas in 2012 Mitt Romney won among voters who considered the economy their top issue, Trump lost such voters. Measures of racism and sexism, and markers of social status such as a college degree, did a much better job predicting whom voters would support.

Correctly assessing the forces that led to Trump’s victory is more than an academic exercise. It’s central to figuring out what happens next — what Trump’s supporters expect him to do, what Democratic counter-measures would be effective, what metrics we should use to gauge his success. But the recent debate has missed an important distinction: Economic anxiety is not the same thing as economic hardship. And the evidence suggests that anxiety did play a key role in Trump’s victory, though it was by no means the only factor.

What’s the difference between hardship and anxiety? Hardship, as I’m using it here, refers to a person’s present-day economic struggles: poverty, joblessness, falling wages, foreclosure, bankruptcy. Anxiety is all about what lies ahead — concerns about saving for retirement or college, worry of a potential layoff, fears that your children’s prospects aren’t as bright as your own were.

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.

This debate isn’t merely an academic curiosity. The role of economics in the election matters politically: for Trump, because voters may turn on him if he doesn’t deliver on his economic promises, and for Democrats, because they will struggle to win back the White House if they don’t find ways to speak convincingly on these issues. And it matters in terms of policy: Trump’s economic plans may not make much sense, but the problems identified by his supporters are real. Manufacturing jobs really have disappeared, and we haven’t yet found a source of similarly stable, well-paying jobs to take their place. Wages really have stagnated for much of the past 15 years, and economic mobility, at least by some definitions, really has fallen. College costs really have risen, and our retirement system really is broken. Until politicians and policymakers find ways to address those issues, economic anxiety — and its political consequences — isn’t likely to go away.

Still waiting for a CEA chair

Trump has announced nominations for nearly all the top posts in his administration. One of the last vacancies: chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, traditionally (though not always) one of the president’s most influential consultants on economic issues.

A few weeks back, it looked like Trump was poised to name CNBC talking-head Larry Kudlow to the post. The rumor drew lots of attention because of Kudlow’s unusual background for the position (he doesn’t have a degree in economics, for one). But Kudlow would also have been notable because of his strong advocacy for “supply-side economics,” which argues that lower taxes and reduced regulation are the best ways to promote economic growth. That’s hardly unusual for a Republican; supply-side theory, in one form or another, has dominated conservative economic policy since the Reagan administration. But Trump’s campaign featured an unusual (some might say awkward) blend of supply-side economics and populism — Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric is a distinct departure from supply-side orthodoxy. Observers have been watching Trump’s Cabinet picks closely to see which set of policies would have the upper hand in his administration.

With less than two weeks to go before he is sworn in, Trump has yet to name a clear supply-sider to a senior economic policy position in his administration. Wilbur Ross Jr., his pick for Commerce secretary, and Peter Navarro, who Trump has named to a newly created post overseeing trade policy, are both avowed skeptics of free trade, at least as it has been practiced in recent decades. His nominee for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said little about his views on economic policy.

Kudlow would represent by far the administration’s strongest advocate for supply-side policies. But the delay in filling the CEA role suggests that Kudlow doesn’t yet have the job sewn up. What Trump ultimately decides could be a key hint of where the balance of power will lie in his administration.

The week ahead

Speaking of Trump’s administration, this week brings the first wave of confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees. Of particular note will be Thursday’s hearing for Ross, who is widely believed to be one of Trump’s closest advisers on the economy. Ross, a billionaire investor, will probably face some tough questions about potential conflicts of interest, and Democrats are sure to press him on some of his past business dealings. But so far, there is little sign of organized opposition to Ross’s nomination. Those looking for drama might have to wait until next week, when Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary, faces senators. Puzder, an outspoken critic of recent minimum wage-increases, is drawing protests from labor groups. That isn’t likely to stop his confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate, but it could lead to some heated moments in the hearing room.

Last week at FiveThirtyEight

The new year brought pay raises to millions of low-wage workers. It also begins a large-scale experiment on the impact of minimum wages above $10 an hour.

The final jobs report of Obama’s presidency showed the U.S. adding 156,000 jobs in December. That’s a stark difference from Obama’s first jobs report, which showed the loss of nearly 600,000 jobs.

As Obamacare faces possible repeal, Anna Maria Barry-Jester looked at the law’s legacy and found that its degree of success depends heavily on which metric you choose to evaluate it.

What will a Trump presidency mean for economic data and other government statistics? We discussed the issue on FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast.

Elsewhere

A shortage of child care in many parts of the country is making it hard for new parents to return to work. NPR’s Jessica Deahl looked at the consequences of the broken market for child care.

As the U.S. economy becomes increasingly dominated by the service sector, many men remain reluctant to take jobs in fields traditionally dominated by women, Claire Cain Miller wrote in The Upshot section of the The New York Times.

Millions of Americans — many of them black men — can’t find jobs because they have criminal records. That’s bad for them, but also for the broader economy, argued Matt Phillips and Kathleen Caulderwood of Vice News.

In the mid-20th century, most televisions sold in the U.S. were also made here. Today, almost none are. But according to Quartz’s Ana Campoy, what might sound like a tale of the dangers of globalization is in fact an object lesson in the risks of ignoring it.

Footnotes

  1. Some analyses have focused on Trump’s absolute success — his share of the vote versus Clinton’s. But in understanding the election, it makes more sense to focus on his relative success — how he fared compared with Mitt Romney four years earlier. A Republican who drew support from 40 percent of African-American voters, for example, would have “lost” the black vote in absolute terms, but that would still represent a huge — and electorally significant — victory compared with past elections.
  2. “Where more men have stopped working” refers to the change since 2000 in the share of men ages 25 to 54 who are employed, according to data from the American Community Survey.
  3. Voting results are from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and ABC News. Credit scores and subprime loan data are from the Urban Institute. Economic and demographic data are from various government sources, primarily the U.S. Census Bureau. All claims about the predictive power of various variables are based on linear regressions with the swing in the two-party vote share as the dependent variable. To make sure my findings weren’t only picking up Trump’s strong support in rural areas, I also ran a version of the regressions with a control for population density (thanks to Kolko for that data). All results are significant at p < .05 using both population-weighted and unweighted county-level regressions.

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

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