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Thursday, November 23, 2017


Mixed messages

by Tom Sullivan

2016 electoral map via 270 to Win.

As you run off, stay in, or run around for your Thanksgiving celebration, ponder two maps that I find "sticky." I can't get the mixed signals out of my head.

Axios this morning presents 10 things to ponder about America's political polarization. Number 9 considers the large parts of America left behind by the economy, whatever that means. Outside evangelical eschatology, "left behind" refers to communities that last November helped elect to the White House a chief executive with zero experience in government. The press believes economic distress was a major factor. (Axios calls it a "major election theme.") But we'll come back to that.

First, a conversation I overheard this week between two tech professionals. One shook his head and railed against a seminar he'd heard of meant to teach pointy-headed executives they need not have a technical background to successfully manage a tech firm. Guess who he voted for to manage the country?

With that logical consistency in mind, consider the map Axios presents to demonstrate the geographical distribution of economic inequality across the country. The map is based on data from the 2017 Distressed Communities Index produced by the Economic Innovation Group, a centrist think-tank in Washington.

After breaking down the demographics, the economics, and breaking down the breakdown, EIG concludes (emphasis mine):

It is also worth noting where economic and demographic factors intersect. For example, minority groups formed a majority of the population in 92 percent of the distressed counties carried by Clinton, while whites formed a majority of the population in 92 percent of distressed counties won by Trump. And 99 percent of the prosperous counties won by Trump were majority-white, compared to only 84 percent of those carried by Clinton.

These important distinctions about how different groups of people or places broke on the margins should not obscure the fact that both candidates assembled economically diverse bases of over 60 million voters apiece. President Trump may have won the largest shares of voters [in] struggling locales, but the largest proportion of his overall votes came from prosperous counties. Similarly, large shares of Americans in distressed and otherwise lagging counties voted for Clinton.
Economic distress may have been a major election narrative, but the data suggests it is more narrative than law of nature. We prefer stories with identifiable heroes and villains, but nature keeps flinging ambiguity and nuance our way.

Distressed communities index map via Axios.

The top map is organized by counties, and counties tend to be larger but less populous in the Plains and Mountain states. But if economic distress was a governing factor in the presidential election, just looking at the maps, what was the difference that made the electoral difference in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota? Or in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio? Or between Wyoming and New Mexico?

I don't know, of course, but the economic distress narrative seems more lazy than explanatory. And unhelpful for explaining the guy who thinks you need a tech background to run a tech company, but not a government background to run a government.

That's not say progressives should throw up their hands and write off red states and distressed communities that voted PLUTOCRAT in 2016. There are good reasons not to that have less to do with the presidency than with control of the next redistricting, state legislatures, and Congress.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.