The conventional wisdom about the key dynamics of 2020 holds that the performance of the economy is Donald Trump’s best asset. The corollary is that if the man could just talk about the economy (or let the numbers do the talking for him) and lay off the racism and misogyny and other unpleasantness he so enjoys, he’d have a much better chance of reelection.
But now comes Tom Edsall with some contrary analysis suggesting that good economic times may not be so great for Trump, at least in the pivotal Midwest region:
John C. Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, has explored the politics of the Midwest from a different vantage point. He examined income and other economic trends in 15 Midwestern congressional districts, including Pennsylvania, that went from Republican to Democrat [in 2018]. In the July 27 issue of Politico Magazine, Austin made a point of saying that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Contrary to the perception that a rebounding economy will work to the president’s benefit, there is growing evidence in Michigan and throughout the Rust Belt that metro areas that are bouncing back — and there are a bunch — are turning blue again. Austin noted that 10 of the 15 districts that flipped from Republican to Democratic in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Iowa “have income growth rates that exceed their state averages.”
Of the remaining five flipped districts, in which growth was below the state average, three were in Pennsylvania, where Democratic victories resulted from a state Supreme Court decision ordering the replacement of the Republican gerrymander of congressional districts, making those districts much more favorable to Democratic candidates.
Why would people apparently benefiting from “Trump’s economy” vote Democratic more often? Perhaps they are simply less resentful:
In an email, Austin argued that when the local economy improves, the tendency of voters to blame people they perceive as outsiders — racial minorities and immigrants — diminishes, to the advantage of Democrats and to the disadvantage of Republicans.
It’s also possible that the demographic groups benefiting most from “Trump’s economy” are more likely to lean Democratic to begin with than those in low-growth or struggling small towns and rural areas. In any event, the phenomenon Edsall notes was not limited to the Midwest in 2018:
The Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that studies regional inequality, ranked all 435 congressional districts into five groups based on their economic condition: the prosperous, the comfortable, the mid-tier, the at risk, and the distressed.
An examination by the group of all of the congressional districts across the nation that flipped in 2018 from red to blue produced intriguing results.
Of the 43 congressional districts that shifted from Republican to Democratic control, 23, more than half, were ranked as prosperous, and seven, or 16.3 percent, were ranked as comfortable. Altogether, almost 70 percent of the districts that switched from Republican to Democratic were ranked in the top-two economic categories.
This kind of data suggests that since relatively good economic times didn’t help Trump’s party last year, they may not next year, either. And it may help explain why Trump has lately been opening the spigots on a fresh effusion of filthy racist invective: Maybe he really does need it to build the resentment toward “outsiders” that stimulates his base, whether by distracting them from their economic misery or offsetting the pacific effects of economic growth.
Edsall also notes that a major noneconomic trend is working in Trump’s favor as he tries to replicate his 2016 Midwestern success: The region’s population continues to age.
In five states — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — the number of 18-to-35-year-olds, the most liberal age group, grew by 56,448 between 2016 and 2018, according to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings.
That growth pales in comparison with the rising number of people 65 and older, a core of Republican support, which grew by 685,005 — an advantage of better than 12 old people for each young person.
The underlying reality may be that Trump is far more dependent on grumpy old men living outside thriving metropolitan areas than on the diverse populations living in them. If so, we can expect him to keep the hatefest going and to ignore the advice of “experts” telling him that his theme song should be “Happy Days Are Here Again.”