Trump Voters Are Not Angry About the Economy. Really.


I’ve been periodically making the case that Americans aren’t really all that angry about the economy, which naturally implies that the economy isn’t the reason for Donald Trump’s success. This argument has taken several forms. First, in objective terms, the economy is in decent shape. Second, the number of people affected by globalization (lost jobs, reduced wages) isn’t that large in absolute terms. Third, polls indicate that concern about the economy isn’t especially high by historical standards. And fourth, polls also indicate that overall personal financial comfort is fairly strong.

Over at National Review, Scott Winship makes yet another argument: exit polls don’t suggest that Trump is winning an outsize share of voters who say the economy is their #1 issue:

Trump performed no better in states where the economy was the biggest issue than in other states….His average margin of victory was 7.8 points in states where the economy ranked second but just 6.9 points in states where the economy was the top issue….Trump also did worse among voters for whom the economy was a top issue than among other voters. He won voters who chose the economy as their top issue in 10 of 15 states, worse than his showing among voters over all, which he carried in 12 of 15.

Interesting! But there’s another way of looking at this: How did Trump do among “economy” voters compared to his overall performance in each state? If economic anxiety is really driving Trump’s ascent, you’d expect these voters to support him in large numbers. Here’s how that turned out:

Trump actually does slightly worse with voters who are concerned with the economy than he does overall. This is yet more evidence that economic anxiety just isn’t a big factor driving Trump’s success. The bigger factor, by far, is immigration, and Winship argues persuasively that this is not primarily an economic concern. It’s a cultural concern:

For many, it is about national security, as reflected in the draconian suggestion that Muslims be barred from coming to the United States. For others, immigration is simply about the rule of law….For a non-negligible subset of Trump voters, anti-immigration sentiment is about racism and nativism, plain and simple. Many more are uneasy about rapid cultural change….People value ways of life for understandable reasons; when their permanence is thrown in question, it is reasonable for them to be anxious about change.

The rest of Winship’s piece is an argument about cultural traditionalists vs. “cultural cosmopolitans,” and your mileage may vary. I don’t really buy it, myself: culture-war issues have been front and center for a long time, and it’s not clear to me that cultural anxieties among conservatives are any more pronounced this year than in the past.

Generally speaking, I don’t think any of the issues that pundits talk about are any more pronounced this year than in any other. People aren’t more angry, or more bigoted, or more scared than usual. It’s just that we didn’t have a guy like Trump fanning these flames quite so crudely in past elections. This year we do.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest