John Austin is the former president of the Michigan State Board of Education. He directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution.
There is little confusion about what drove Donald Trump’s surprising 2016 victories in the industrial Midwest: A bad regional economy was his best friend.
In my home state of Michigan, there were 13 counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went decisively for Donald Trump four years later. And three other counties almost flipped, like Genesee County, home to Flint, which for years was a union-heavy, working-class white and black Democratic voter stronghold. Nearly every one of those counties had an average household income that ranged from 7 to 39 points lower than the state average. It’s not hard to see how Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back would be so appealing to voters there.Story Continued Below
As the field of Democratic presidential candidates prepare for their debates in Detroit this week, there is much discussion about how their party will recapture those once reliable voters. Some observers have speculated that voters will abandon Trump if they feel that despite his self-congratulation on the nation’s overall economy he hasn’t delivered on his promise of new jobs for them.
It’s not hard to see why people might think that. Colleagues of mine at the Brookings Institution have noted some of the counties where Trump did well are actually doing worse economically since his election. The picture seems to get even bleaker as you pull back to look at the whole Midwest. A recent report by the Economic Innovation Group showed the 207 counties across the Midwest that “flipped” from Obama to Trump are doing worse relative to other regions on a host of metrics.
But if you look at the Trump-voting districts that flipped to Democrats in the 2018 midterms, it starts to look like the conventional wisdom is wrong. Contrary to the perception that a rebounding economy will work to the president’s benefit, there is growing evidence in Michigan and throughout the Rust Belt that metro areas that are bouncing back—and there are a bunch—are turning blue again. Indeed, communities that continue to flounder—and unfortunately there are still many of those, too—are likely to double down on Trumpism.
Why do I believe this? Just look at what’s happened to two of Michigan’s most crucial Congressional districts, the 8th and the 11th , which voted for Trump and Republican Congressmen in 2016 but swung back to the Democrats in the last cycle. There are a lot of factors at play in 2018—the unpopularity of Trump, the strength of female candidates like Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, among other things—but one of the factors that didn’t get as much attention as it should is the economic trajectory of those communities.
The 8th district is made up of all of Livingston County, a once rural, now fast-growing string of white, bedroom communities on the cusp of the Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit marketplaces. There, residents are 50 percent wealthier than elsewhere in the state. The district also has a big slice of the prosperous Detroit suburbs of Oakland County, and all of Ingham County which, while less prosperous overall, is home to the state capital and Michigan State University. From 2014 to 2017, the district’s median household income grew by nearly 12.6 percent compared to the state average of 7.3 over the same period. The 11th district, a perennial Republican seat Stevens reclaimed for the Democrats, is anchored by three-quarters of Oakland County (including Troy, home to the largest share of immigrants of any community in Michigan) and parts of suburban Detroit. The 11th’s economic picture over that same period, just like the 8th’s, is also comfortably out-performing the state. No district that was below the statewide median income flipped—in either direction.
This pattern of economic prosperity and Democratic wins repeated itself in 2018 across the Midwest. Eight of the 13 districts that turned blue in Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Iowa have income growth rates that exceed their state averages. Those districts fall within the orbits of thriving metro areas like Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Des Moines. Median household income in those eight districts exceeds the statewide median income by a range of 2 to 62 percentage points. And of the five “flippers’ doing worse than their state income average, three were in Pennsylvania, where an end to partisan gerrymandering was more likely the explanation for the switch.
So what explains this correlation between economic vitality and the blue wave?
Let’s start with the places that went to Trump after years of Democratic support. As I first explored after the 2016 election (in which I myself was “Trumped” from statewide office by 6,000 votes out of 2 million cast), for voters in and around the Midwest’s older industrial cities, their economic prospects, social attitudes and reactions to a changing culture are profoundly intertwined. In communities that aren’t what they used to be, with grim job prospects and battered community pride, voters may continue to respond to someone who talks tough to America’s adversaries, promises to bring back the good old days when these communities were (at least, in nostalgic hindsight) working class utopias, and pins blame on immigrants for problems.
But there are many communities in the Rust Belt that have found ways to transition away from the single-industry model, be it cars or steel, that sustained them for so much of the 20th century. No longer is Minneapolis the Flour City, Pittsburgh the Steel City, or Cincinnati “Porkopolis” (a nod to its history as a slaughterhouse center)—but diverse, dynamic urban entrepots. Among smaller cities, Akron, Ohio lost its title as “Rubber Capital of the World” but has found purchase with a revitalized downtown and growth in emerging polymers/plastics, advanced manufacturing industries, and as a transportation/logistics cross-roads.
What these communities have in common, aside from better job prospects, is a generally more forward-looking view that is less responsive to Trump’s economic nostalgia. They also tend to be younger (thanks to colleges and universities and their ability to draw newcomers), as well as more ethnically diverse. These voters are more focused on basic kitchen table issues (good schools, affordable higher education, health care, decent roads) and less inclined to reward nativism and economic nationalism.
This clearly was the case in my state even in 2016—a year when Hilary Clinton did not inspire much Democratic turnout. (Though Trump was no Republican turnout machine either—netting fewer votes here than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney). Of the eight counties (out of 83) that stayed Democratic, most were communities that had higher incomes and higher education attainment levels, including once struggling Kalamazoo County – where a smart economic development strategy kept some of the top bioscience talent in town after pharma giants Upjohn and Pfizer closed; remade a newly walkable downtown with entertainment, arts and craft beer; and most famously extended free higher education to all high school graduates through the Kalamazoo Promise program, marking the community as a talent magnet and reversing trends of urban exodus.
And there’s already evidence based on what happened in November that this trend will continue into 2020. I expect some historically Republican counties like Kent (home of Grand Rapids) in west Michigan to turn blue as it experiences an economic rebound. One of the nation’s hardest hit by the Great Recession, “Furniture City” lost 12 percent of its jobs and almost 5 percent of its population. Since 2010 Grand Rapids has staged an impressive comeback on the strength of multiple identities—a growing medical sector, a reanimated, artsy downtown, a reworked riverfront, and a new reputation as the nation’s “greenest” mid-size city. Most important, its job count has grown faster than any other metro area in the Midwest.
Macomb County, a mostly white bellwether outside Detroit, was one of the 13 counties that flipped to Trump in 2016 (after voting twice for Obama), giving him nearly 54 percent of the vote. But Macomb was in the minority among those counties because it has a household income 10 percent above the state average. Interestingly, one recent poll commissioned by End Citizens United, a progressive campaign finance reform group, showed a generic Democratic candidate beating Trump by a slim two points.
Other nearby West Michigan counties are among the state’s fastest growing in populations and incomes. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer won Kent in 2018—the first time in 32 years a Democratic governor had taken the county—and she came close in several other Republican strongholds in western Michigan. Clearly Republican Congressman Fred Upton, who represents that part of the state, understands these dynamics. He joined newly independent Michigan Congressman Justin Amash and a small handful of other Republicans in chastising the president for attacking the four progressive Congresswomen of color who make up “the Squad.”
Looking ahead to 2020, turnout of Democrats (who outnumber Republicans in Michigan if they vote) is likely to be much higher than in 2016. But I wouldn’t expect those Democratic votes to come from counties that flipped for Trump—unless, that is, things are getting better, not worse for local residents. While Trump hasn’t “delivered” here his nativist nostalgia may still resonate in the Midwest’s left behind places. But there are more people in Rust Belt communities that have turned an economic corner and aren’t responding to the president’s rhetoric.
Jack Farrell of the Michigan Economic Center at the University of Michigan contributed research.
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