Today, Voters' Choice Isn't All About the Economy

Date : 01/20/2020 @ 3:29PM
Source : Dow Jones News

Today, Voters' Choice Isn't All About the Economy

By Gerald F. Seib 

James Carville, the mastermind behind Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign, famously drilled home to those around him a simple message on what the race was all about: "It's the economy, stupid."

In 2020, it isn't the economy, stupid -- or, at least, not only the economy.

Traditionally, the nation's economic performance is the most important factor driving a presidential election. Today, the economy overall, and certainly the stock market hovering over it, are strong. As President Trump is buffeted by the winds of the Senate impeachment trial under way this week, the economy represents a big safety net for him.

Yet the effects of the good economic news don't cut evenly or neatly across the land, and political effects simply aren't what analysts traditionally would have expected.

Some of those benefiting most from the Trump economy reside in urban areas on the coasts. Yet their hatred of the president burns hot despite the economic benefits they feel.

Conversely, some of those who are still struggling in the Trump economy actually reside in the Trump strongholds of rural America and the working-class neighborhoods of the Rust Belt. Yet their support of the president seems as staunch as ever.

As that suggests, in the polarized politics of 2020, other factors now loom large in voters' thinking and preferences. Cultural values and class are big, if not bigger, factors than is the economy in determining political attitudes. Trump supporters are supporters as much because of the president's anti-elite rhetoric, his fight against undocumented immigrants and what they see as defense of traditional values as any substantive achievement; the reverse is true for Trump haters.

And both sides are locked in. By and large, they don't seem moved by something as large as impeachment, so they aren't likely to be moved by marginal economic changes between now and the election. A deep economic slide would be a different story, of course, but that doesn't seem imminent.

Parsing some economic and political data helps tell this unusual tale. Broadly speaking, some of the strongest economic growth during the Trump term has been seen in large, urban counties that are Democratic strongholds -- and generally hostile to the president. Data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by the Economic Innovation Group show that jobs grew by 1.9% in big-city counties between mid-2017 and mid-2019, and by 1.3% in urban suburbs.

Conversely, jobs actually shrank in farmland counties that are home to an older set of Americans, and grew by just 0.4% in working-class counties. Those places are the backbone of Trump Country.

Similarly, the economic pain of the president's trade fights with China has been felt disproportionately in rural areas friendly to him. The Farm Bureau reports that farm bankruptcies rose 24% in the 12-month period ending in September 2019. The bureau estimates that farm income rose to $88 billion in 2019 -- yet 40% of that income came from government assistance and insurance payments, much of it to offset losses in the trade wars. Farm debt is estimated at a record high of $416 billion.

Yet support for the president remains rock solid in small-county and rural America. In aggregate Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling through 2019, the president's job-approval rating was 44% among all Americans -- but a whopping 70% in working-class counties, and 80% in farmlands counties.

And how about in those more prosperous big-city counties and close-in urban suburbs? His job-approval rating was 30% and 35%, respectively.

Obviously, some parts of Trump Country are doing quite nicely, which is easier to see when zooming out from the county level to the state level. In the third quarter of 2019, for example, seven of the top 10 states ranked by economic growth levels were states Mr. Trump carried in 2016, according to data from the government's Bureau of Economic Analysis. Texas and Utah were at the top.

Yet some of the strongest Trump states politically also fell near the bottom of the economic-growth list: West Virginia ranked 48th, North Dakota 45th and Kentucky 40th.

The statewide growth figures suggest one particular concern for the president. The key upper Midwest swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio fell 43rd, 39th and 36th, respectively, in third-quarter economic growth. Overall, growth rates in the Trump-unfriendly Pacific coast region easily outstripped the rates in the Trump-friendly plains.

The question is how much this matters. Trump supporters love the president because they believe he hears their grievances and is fighting for them, and they have demonstrated both patience and long-term faith in him. Similarly, Trump bashers think the president is damaging the country in ways more important than short-term economic readings.

In short, people are far more set in their views than they were in the Bill Clinton era. "In 1992," says Mr. Carville, "partisanship was much more elastic than it is now."

Write to Gerald F. Seib at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 20, 2020 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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