Friday, November 18, 2016

White votes mattered.

The Tweet: White working class voters, who supported Obama twice, turned their back on Hillary. She was the candidate of the status quo, and the status quo has not been good to them. 

Donald Trump's victory on Election Day did not shock me. That is not to say that I predicted it; I didn't. But less educated white voters--Trump's core demographic--historically turn out to vote at less than half the rate of more educated voters, and turnout by demographic group is one of the many assumptions embedded in most polling models. If turnout among those voters turned out to be higher--which seemed likely given their enthusiasm in supporting Trump's candidacy--then higher than expected turnout could make for an election day surprise.

As it turned out, rural voters--generally older, whiter and less educated--turned out in force for Donald Trump. Cries by Hillary supporters--and the candidate herself--that the results smacked of racism are not convincing when one looks at the election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and sees the number of largely white, rural counties that were won by our first African American president in 2008 and 2012, but chose Donald Trump this time around.

As New York Times election polling guru Nate Cohn observed last week, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran on a platform of change and as the champions of the aggrieved working class against the establishment, and each won almost half of the primary votes in their respective parties. The Clinton campaign knew from the outset that one of the challenges that she faced was that 2016 was viewed to be a year when voters wanted "change" vs. the status quo. This was understood both because the American electorate rarely gives a two-term ruling party another bite at the apple--the most recent exceptions to the rule being George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Rutherford Hayes in 1876--and because of the slow pace of economic recovery from the 2008 financial collapse. Despite Bill Clinton's somewhat strained efforts at the Democratic National Convention to describe Hillary as a "change maker," she could never shake her positioning as the candidate of the status quo.

For much of the Democratic coalition, the status quo has not been so bad. The American Dream remains alive for more recently arrived, and growing, demographic groups. For Latinos and Asian Americans, as well as for large segments of the African American community, upward mobility remains an attainable goal and the prospect of younger generations being better off than earlier generations remains a reality. For more educated whites, the American Dream remains alive as well. Each generation within that demographic may not necessarily surpass their parents in terms of incomes, but for those Americans advanced education, contribution to society and other goals related to self-actualization have become part of the metrics of individual success, rather than financial well-being alone. For less educated whites, however, the status quo has become, literally, intolerable.

Educational attainment has emerged over the past several decades--and most starkly since the 2008 financial collapse--as the most important factor in the financial security and prospects of American families. While much attention has been paid to the fact that median wages for American workers have been flat in real terms for almost 40 years, less attention has focused on the disaggregation of that data and the correlation of educational attainment with family incomes and unemployment rates. Simply stated, median incomes for households with a householder with a high school degree or less declined modestly in real terms over the course of the two decades from 1991 to when the financial collapse hit in 2008. From the post-2008 recession through last year--the Obama years--incomes for that cohort declined a further 10% in real terms. In contrast, households with a householder with a college degree or more saw real incomes rise steadily from 1991 through 2008, and in the years since then, after a brief decline during the recession, those incomes have been restored to pre-collapse levels.

In a similar vein, historical data on unemployment rates illustrate the impact of educational attainment on individual economic security. As shown here, Americans with a Bachelor's degree or more experienced an unemployment rate in the 2% range in the years leading up to the 2008 collapse. That rate jumped up to 5% at its highest point during the post-2008 recession, but have since returned to the 2-3% range. In contrast, unemployment rates for workers with a high school degree or less were in the 7-8% range before 2008. The unemployment rate jumped to over 15% for those workers during the post-2008 recession, and have since returned to the 8-9% levels.

Workers with less education have been hit both ways by the evolution of globalization, trade and technology over the past several decades. Those who have jobs are likely to have seen their real incomes decline steadily. They are more likely to lose their jobs, and when they do, they are more likely to have difficulty finding work--and this data does not reflect the numbers of workers who simply dropped out of the labor force in the face of deteriorating economic prospects.

It is not an overstatement to suggest that for many less educated whites the status quo has become, literally, intolerable. A seminal moment in the run-up to the 2016 election came in September 2015 with the publication by two Princeton economists of a paper with the less than eye-catching title Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. The paper documented the rising death rate among less educated, white, working class Americans in their 40s and 50s, primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

The picture painted by that paper was quite stark. In contrast with all other demographic groups studied in the U.S. and in other industrialized countries, which demonstrated a consistent pattern of declining death rates, the cohort of less-educated whites (USW) showed steadily rising death rates--they were literally killing themselves off, primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Over the period studied--as shown in the graph--from 1999 to 2013, the number of deaths were almost 100,000 higher than would have been the case had mortality rate held constant. Had the rate continued to decline, the authors of the study point out, as it had during the prior decade--and as it did in other countries as shown here--a half a million deaths would have been avoided. This is comparable to the number of Americans who died due to the AIDS epidemic.

The combination of the household income data and this mortality data suggested that the situation of economic, psychological and spiritual depression facing less-educated white Americans was and remains dire. It was a demographic that Bill Clinton spoke to directly, that supported Barack Obama across the Rust Belt, but that this time around supported Donald Trump by more than two to one.

This graphic, prepared by Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, illustrates the correlation of educational attainment data by state and the election results. It presents the election results in stark terms as a split between those states with higher levels of education--and therefore a higher degree of household financial security and resilience--and those with less of each. While much was written over the course of the campaign season about the plight of the working class, the Clinton campaign--much to the chagrin of Bill Clinton--paid little heed to the existential plight of white working class voters. Her callous disregard for the plight of coal miners, to say nothing of her infamous basket of deplorables comment, only deepened the divide between her campaign and those voters, notwithstanding their long history of supporting Democratic candidates.

Hillary was not alone in her disdain for the plight of less educated white voters. Establishment Republicans have long dismissed the economic travails of their compatriots, as Jeb Bush did before the Trump campaign got rolling: “We have people that mope around thinking ‘my life is bad, my children will not have the same opportunities that I had.’ What a horrible notion in America, the most optimistic of places." If anything, Mitt Romney was worse, when in his 2012 campaign against Barack Obama he foreshadowed Clinton's rhetoric as he lumped those voters into his famous 47% basket of the undeserving, suggesting that as president, it would not be his job "to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." 

For old school Republicans--as mirrored in Jeb's and Mitt's comments--the message to Americans traditionally has been Don't like your lot in life? Do something about it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But this time around, Donald Trump tossed aside the old time GOP religion and sang instead a song that could have been cribbed from the IWW Songbook--or the Bernie Sanders campaign--the system is rigged, and you deserve better. That used to be the Democrat message, but this time Hillary didn't deliver it, Donald Trump did. He declared his love for "poorly educated" voters, and they loved him back.

It is easy to look at this election and say, well, it was close... a few votes here and there... James Comey... the glass ceiling... But it is also reasonable to suggest that this race should have been a blow-out. As James Carville taught Bill Clinton years ago, It's the economy, stupid, and it almost always is. This time around, the problem wasn't that the message never got through to the voters, it never got through to the candidate. As a result, a large swath of voters who had no business voting for Donald Trump--including a large share of the 60% or so of the electorate who believed him not to be unqualified to be president--voted for him anyway, because at least--as Bill Clinton once did--he felt their pain.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

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