American voters don't all share the same economy

Aside from diehard believers in the “eight-year itch,” most pundits believe that the strength of the economy will be a key predictor of whether the Democratic Party can win the White House for a third straight term in 2016. But can Americans agree on how strong the economy is, or even how to measure it?

Last Sunday on “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd talked about an “economic divide” that resembles the red/blue political divide, referring to polling data that shows Democratic counties (mostly big cities and nearby suburbs) are significantly more optimistic about the economy than Republican counties (more rural areas). “These numbers,” Mr. Todd concluded, “can help explain why Democrats and Republicans view this presidential race so differently. If you’re a Democrat, you're happy with the economy, you’re probably not very likely to want to see a change in leadership. If you’re a Republican in a more depressed part of the country, you’re more depressed about the economy and this may be one more reason you’re eager to see a change at the top.”

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This does not mean you can predict the Electoral College results by looking at economic data. In October 2012, the states with the highest unemployment rates were Nevada, Rhode Island and California, and they all voted decisively to keep the Democrats in the White House. In contrast, Nebraska and the Dakotas had the lowest jobless rates, and those states were more than eager to get rid of President Obama.

But there may be something to the idea that both real and perceived economic differences are creating parallel presidential campaigns that never seem to touch—a Clinton campaign in a recovering, if far from perfect, America and a Trump campaign in a nation desperately trying to reverse a steep decline.

This theory is supported by Philip Longman’s recent piece in the Atlantic on the “growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.” Mr. Longman writes that per-capita income among different regions “converged” from the 1840s all the way through the late 20th century, as the rest of the country gradually caught up to the prosperous Northeast. For example, per-capita income in Mississippi was less than a quarter of that found in Connecticut as late as 1940, but by 1980 that figure was up to 58 percent.

But “starting in the early 1980s,” Mr. Longman writes, “the long trend toward regional equality abruptly switched. Since then, geography has come roaring back as a determinant of economic fortune, as a few elite cities have surged ahead of the rest of the country in their wealth and income.” Those elite cities include New York, San Francisco and Washington, regions that now form Democratic strongholds. (In 2012, the Northeast Corridor and the West Coast gave President Obama 197 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.) Mr. Longman’s favored theory for this switch is that the federal government has abandoned its goal of using public policy to “check the tendency of a few dominant cities to monopolize power over the rest of the country.”

The per-capita income of Washington, D.C., in 1980, writes Mr. Longman, “was 29 percent above the average for Americans as a whole; by 2013 it had risen to 68 percent above.” You can see why Republican candidates like to say the nation’s capital is not really part of America. Visitors from the Heartland, already suspicious of the power of the federal government, are likely even more alienated by the conspicuous wealth in Washington and its suburbs.

Another shift, writes Mr. Longman, is that Americans no longer move to places with high wages. Instead, they’re moving away from places like New York to “booming” metro areas like Atlanta and Houston (both heavily Republican) that are actually falling farther behind the elite cities in terms of average income.

Mr. Longman doesn’t really address why people move to areas with sluggish income growth, but I suspect lower housing costs have a lot to do with it. The elite cities, or the ones where downtown living is again cool, tend to have regulations that keep housing production far below demand, sending rents and mortgages higher and higher. The NIMBYist, pull-up-the-ladder attitudes of places like San Francisco make them perfect foils for Sun Belt Republicans, especially when those cities also make a show of welcoming Syrian refugees and other immigrants.

(Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and presidential candidate, deftly played on this resentment in his support of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. On his website, he asked, “For every politician—Democrat and Republican—who is tut-tutting that Davis must resign, they are defending a hypocritical standard. Where is the call for the mayor of San Francisco to resign for creating a sanctuary city—resulting in the murder of American citizens by criminal illegal aliens welcomed by his lawlessness?”)

Not buying an economic recovery

The economic divide may help explain why the American electorate is so uneasy, even when much of the data point to a recovery. In late September, the American Communities Project used Gallup polling data to show that majorities in only two of its 15 types of communities (Big Cities and Urban Suburbs) felt that the economy is “getting better.” In Working Class Country, which is mostly rural and almost all white, 64 percent felt the economy was getting worse.

Ben Casselman of 538.com went to Iowa, where the economy is comparatively strong by conventional measures (low unemployment, high income growth), and found great skepticism among voters:

Relatively few people had immediate financial problems, although some said they knew people who did. But many had concerns about longer-run pressures—student debt, inadequate retirement savings—and even more expressed deeper, existential worries about the future of the American dream.

This unease seems stronger among GOP voters—Mr. Casselman cites a Loras College poll showing 41 percent of Republicans feeling the state of the economy is “poor,” compared with only 11 percent of Democrats—so it’s not surprising that the candidates seeking their votes are dealing in more apocalyptic language. This includes Donald Trump saying, “Middle-income people are being decimated” and “the American Dream is dead.” In contrast to GOP proposals for dramatically changing the tax code and sharply limiting immigration, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton mostly talks about tinkering with the economic system to make it a bit more equitable, and spending a modest amount of money on things like infrastructure improvement. (It’s worth noting that the most Democratic part of Iowa is Johnson County, which hosts the University of Iowa and floats above the rest of the state as part of the coveted “eds and meds” economy.)

The Week’s Paul Waldman, writing about “The Dark Depths of Conservative Despair,” puts more emphasis on social issues, “where conservatives have been watching the country pass them by.” He argues that cultural conservatives, egged on by partisan media and right-leaning interest groups, “have taken those developments and turned them into a story of their victimhood, one in which they’re an oppressed minority constantly besieged by a culture that has not only rejected their values but actively seeks to oppress them.” It’s undeniable that changes in social mores, along with demographic changes are making America more urban and less white, have something to do with the discontent that Mr. Trump seems to be taking advantage of. But the less savory aspects of what Mr. Waldman calls “victimhood” politics, including some objectively racist statements from Mr. Trump and others, should not cloud the real economic concerns of voters who don’t live in elite cities.  

This past week has brought a spate of stories on “panic” among top Republicans that Mr. Trump might win their party’s nomination and even beat Hillary Clinton for the presidency (thus making him the face of the GOP for at least four years). I’m still skeptical: Mr. Trump has too many problems with evangelical voters and college-educated suburbanites to reach 50 percent of the Republican primary vote, and I can’t see him peeling enough Obama voters away from Ms. Clinton to overturn the 2012 vote. Still, the way to empower Mr. Trump is to insist that the economy is just fine, and that only the illiterate and the paranoid could declare otherwise.

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