I began this post hoping to find some information to help me fathom these election results—and then present what I’ve learned to you in the hope that you’ll respond with your insights.
How can we explain Donald Trump’s vote total in the midst of the pandemic—among other things?
But along the way, the picture got considerably murkier. So I’m going to present some of what I’ve seen to date, along with my tentative sense that maybe it’s too soon for this exploration—or maybe the topic is way more complex than a blog post can bear (which admittedly hasn’t stopped me before)—or some variation of an old joke: how many economists does it take to interpret which data to help us figure out what’s really going on? I don’t even quote all the ones I’ve just come across.
Thomas Frank published “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” in 2004. He was grappling with the reasons that his native state, which toward the end of the 19th century had been a “hotbed” of left-wing populism, had become so conservative.
Frank saw the shift from an emphasis on economic equality to a focus on abortion, gay marriage, and the demonization of those termed the “liberal elites.” Not incidentally, fiscal conservatism had won the day. The result, Frank concluded, was that Kansans voted for politicians whose support of economic policies was against their own interests.
“What’s the Matter With America?”
When Frank’s book was published in England and Australia, it bore the title: “What’s the Matter With America?”
I thought of all this when I read a Washington Post article bearing the headline: “Biden won places that are thriving. Trump won ones that are hurting.”
The sub headline reads: “In a trend that’s been unfolding since 2000, Democrats continue to gain votes in prosperous, highly educated urban areas. Republicans are gaining in small cities and rural communities.”
I remain enormously grateful for the Biden-Harris win, which was substantial. I’m especially grateful to the Black women and other people of color who made it possible—and it’s well past time that we finally and fully address their legitimate grievances, which should at last be viewed as America’s grievances. Of course those voters ranged widely in their socioeconomic status: they don’t neatly fit into the picture the Post has described.
But I also think we need to examine the divergent voting trends closely if we have any hope of forging enough of a governing coalition to last us for years and allow us to accomplish the critical work of economic and social justice—even after the pandemic is at last under control.
The Post article points out that the election results flipped the usual assumption:
“Are you better off than you were four years ago? That question has been at the heart of presidential campaigns since President Ronald Reagan first asked it in 1980. The general thinking has been that voters who are doing well would vote to reelect a sitting president.
“That’s not what happened in 2020.
“This time around, those who were better off voted for a change in the White House.
“The parts of America that have seen strong job, population and economic growth in the past four years voted for Joe Biden, economic researchers found. In contrast, President Trump garnered his highest vote shares in counties that had some of the most sluggish job, population and economic growth during his term.”
We knew that Trump would attract more of the rural vote and those who were less educated. It’s still hard for many of us, myself included, to comprehend how anyone other than his most rabid cultists could vote for a man whom we see as a racist, corrupt, inept demagogue who came close to destroying our democracy—and bears considerable responsibility for the deaths of several hundred thousand people.
Exit polls did indicate that education and race were the strongest indicators of how people voted, but closely behind was a county’s economic status. Those findings were also offered by economist James Chung of StratoDem Analytics. Based on these data, the Post asserts that those votes didn’t follow good economic performance.
Sure looks like folks were voting against their own self-interest. And the fact that many are hurting economically and are less well-educated probably makes them more likely to be bitter and angry. These are the people who depend upon manufacturing, construction, and energy, the Post points out.
A Quickening National Trend
The Post observes that these results are the continuation of a trend since the turn of the century (which, I note, fits in with Thomas Frank’s findings about Kansas).
Since 2000, Democrats have made election gains in densely populated and affluent urban areas, while Republicans prevailed in rural areas and smaller cities.
But the pace seems to be quickening. George Bush in 2000 won 2,417 counties, amounting to 45% of the US economy; Al Gore won 666 counties comprising 55%—not a vast split.
In contrast, according to a Brookings Institution analysis this year, Biden won 490 counties holding 70% of the US economy, while Trump won 2,534 counties—slightly less than 30% of the entire economy. (By comparison, Hillary Clinton won counties accounting for about 64% of the US economy.)
Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution told the Post: “This is not a scenario for economic consensus.”
According to the Post,
“The United States is transforming into a knowledge and digital economy, and the political map appears to be shifting with it. Some call it the urban versus rural divide, but it is also a digital versus blue-collar split.”
Another View—Also True…
All this appears true, but today’s New York Times has a different take: “Counties for Biden Had Higher Job Losses.” The Times writer observes that
“After the worst of the downturn in April, many of the most affected red counties recovered far more swiftly than blue counties did. By September, as unemployment fell nearly everywhere, blue counties were more likely to have higher unemployment rates.”
This article seems intuitively right, as we know that Black, brown, and indigenous people have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic in terms of both their personal and economic health. And service jobs in blue areas have suffered greatly, some to extinction.
As the pandemic spreads, in a few months we may see those red state areas that haven’t yet been badly affected economically find themselves in more dire conditions.
I’m not tempted to conclude that Democrats voted against their economic interests. They seem to have had concerns other than the economy on their minds—say, the pandemic and racial justice. (I say that with full awareness of my biases…)
A Few More Brush Strokes to Add to the Picture
Here are two more interesting ideas to add to the mix. Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist, offered “A Simple Theory of Why Trump Did Well.”
He says, “It’s the Money, Stupid.”
Trump signed the Cares Act and, in a clever marketing ploy befitting an egomaniac (my description, not Bouie’s), had his Sharpie signature writ large on those checks.
Lost on those voters was the fact that the legislation originated with the House Democrats, who fought for it against Republican opposition, including Trump’s.
The voters just knew they’d gotten real money in their pockets. (Bouie’s piece is also worth reading for his assessments of other “perceived wisdoms” about the election.)
Another interesting fact is found in a Politico article by Jack Herrera that explains how carefully Trump targeted certain groups of Latino voters, which helped him win Florida and hold Texas.
Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate in 100 years to win Zapata County, Texas—and that county is more than 90% Latino or Hispanic.
Reading my mind, Herrera states:
“To many outsiders, these results were confounding: How could Trump, one of the most virulently anti-immigrant leaders, make inroads with so many Latinos, and along the Mexican border, no less?”
The answer: the Latino vote is not monolithic. As the chair of the Starr County Republican Party in Texas says, “Here, people don’t say we’re Mexican American. We say we’re Tejanos.”
They see themselves as red blooded Americans whose concerns include the oil and gas industry, gun rights, and even abortion. Thus, attempts by Democrats to woo Latino or Hispanic voters without recognizing the particular concerns of the specific community are doomed to failure.
How Do We Proceed?
I recognize that these articles simplify the voters and circumstances on both sides. In addition to the hard core Trump idolators who are probably lost to the Democrats forever (fine!), those 71+ million include the very wealthy who don’t want taxes/regulation, the fence-sitters who were frightened by the disinformation about Biden’s alleged socialism, etc.
I think it’s important that we continue to try to peel away the parts of that 71+ million who are “gettable.” And a big chunk of them are in rural America.
“Democrats need to figure out what their positive and inclusive vision is that speaks to rural America,” said Kenan Fikri, research director of the Economic Innovation Group. “Democrats really didn’t make inroads into rural America this time around.”
Biden is doing the right thing, I believe, by stressing jobs in rural communities and among laborers who are hurting. Concerns about the closings of rural hospitals and lack of access to broadband are also the kind of issues with appeal.
All this will be possible with a Democratic Senatorial majority, so we must continue to hope for that (and donate, write postcards, make phone calls, do whatever we can to help Ossoff and Warnock in Georgia.) Otherwise, it becomes much more difficult.
I’m not suggesting that we slack off one whit in engaging more young people, Black and brown people, and others who’ve voted rarely or not at all. We must do both–and continue fighting against voter suppression and gerrymandering.
I’m going to defer to Biden’s oft-stated conviction that he gets along with people because though he questions their positions, he never questions their motives. (Before you start yelling at me, I’m simply saying I think it’s good he can do that!)
The numbers in the articles I’ve cited may present a confusing picture, but regardless, they suggest to me that if the Biden administration is to succeed—and grow its mandate in 2022—it must find ways to win over more of those who voted for Trump and the Republicans.
I don’t think we can have a secure democracy if we don’t.
What do you think?