Looking Back at the Election: It’s the Rust Belt, Stupid
The Rust Belt's role in the presidential election may be larger than we thought...
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The decline of the Rust Belt is not a breaking news story. Since the 1970s, manufacturing jobs have increasingly been outsourced to cheaper sources of labor worldwide, and the US has transitioned to a services-based economy.
So why was the Rust Belt so influential in this year’s election? Why is every news outlet attributing Clinton’s loss to her indifference towards the key “white working class” voting segment? Most importantly, why did Donald Trump win so heavily in the Rust Belt?
These questions could be answered by analyzing policy and looking at tedious electoral trends. However, I want to provide a visual perspective through a couple of choropleths that I made using R. These graphs will provide a much more intuitive understanding of Trump’s success in the Rust Belt. To understand the data, it is necessary to recognize that the national unemployment rate in the United States is approximately 4.6%. With that in mind, here is the first graph, which shows unemployment by each county in the United States:
The darker the shade of blue, the higher the unemployment rate. Now, there are some trends that are quite apparent in this graph. California has a lot of dark blue, indicating high unemployment. However, California consistently leans Democratic, so it will be more beneficial to analyze battleground states in the Rust Belt, and certain counties in those states that voted heavily for Trump. So, below is a “zoomed-in” version of the first graph, which shows unemployment rates by county for the Rust Belt, with a little more optimization to make the colors seem stronger:
Now, an interesting question is how Donald Trump fared in counties with high unemployment rates. The answer is pretty unsurprising. Below are the election results by county from Ohio and Michigan in 2016. Compare the dark blue counties in the graph above with the red counties in the election results. Notice anything interesting?
Counties which went dark red were also dark blue on the unemployment rate graph, proving that Donald Trump’s economic message struck a deep chord with these white working class voters. Trump’s promises of restricting outsourcing and requiring companies to manufacture domestically made these voters optimistic about a possible Rust Belt economic resurgence. Ultimately, the question of whether Trump achieves these lofty goals is overshadowed by the fact that his campaign strategy of appealing to Rust Belt voters was extremely effective from a statistical standpoint. Out of the 15-20 dark blue unemployment counties in Michigan and Ohio, Trump won all but 3 or 4 of them, demonstrating the efficacy of his “ground game” and electoral rhetoric.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Trump’s policies, it would be ignorant to discount his Rust Belt efforts. It may even be said that Trump turned Bill Clinton’s famous phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” on its head, convincing voters to back him in a grossly underestimated region, the Rust Belt.