Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A piece of the puzzle?

How did this happen?

Just in terms of the math, from what I understand, Clinton did pretty well in turn out among demographic groups favorable to her, but Trump simply crushed it with his base. Nate Cohn (cited by Josh Marshall) referred to what he described as the white working class voters, who make up more than 40% of the electorate.

Note: the previous paragraph was based on my impression Wednesday morning when I was writing this. It turns out that turnout was down, and particularly in states that Clinton won. According to 538, it was highest in competitive states, and Trump won most of those, so the underlying point of the first paragraph likely stands: the demographic favorable to Clinton didn't turn out to the extent as did the demographic favorable to Trump.

In county after county that is white rural or white working class, Trump solidly outperformed Mitt Romney's results from 2012, and the turnout in those places was higher than in 2012.

That added up to a series of losses—some small, but still losses—in state after state that Clinton couldn’t afford to lose.

Most people who were pro-Clinton, or at least anti-Trump, will have their own explanation as to why this demographic came out in such numbers and went so strongly for Trump.

In presenting the numbers below, I don’t claim to be discounting other explanations—racial resentment, fear of cultural change, …—I don’t even claim to be right. I’m just putting this out there for reflection.

First, turn to the World Wealth and Income Database, set up by Thomas Piketty and colleagues. The site has compiled data on shares of income going to different slices of the population (e.g., the wealthiest 0.01%, the wealthiest 10%), and average incomes for people in those same slices.

Here’s the story for the shares of income in the U.S. (Note that the orange line for the top 10% is graphed on the right axis, while the other two slices are on the left.)
Starting roughly around 1980, shares for the upper slices of the income stack started rising—slowly at first, then an odd jump in the late 1980s, and continued strong growth after that.

More concretely, the top 10% went from 32.7% in 1981 to 47.8% in 2015. Note that this has been a bipartisan phenomenon. It got going under Reagan and continued under George H.W. Bush, but it continued right on through the Clinton presidency, pausing at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration for the recession of 2001, then continuing through the rest of his time in office and all of Obama’s.

In other words, for the last 35 years, while the average incomes has gone up, the share earned by the poorest 90% has fallen from 67.3% to 52.8%.

The next question is how that plays out in actual incomes. The chart below shows average incomes for the top 0.01%, the top 0.1%, the top 10%, and the bottom 90% of the income scale. They're given in 2015 dollars—in other words, this is showing actual purchasing power, after adjusting for inflation.
The two top groups saw essentially no change in their income from the end of World War II through 1981. Since then, the economy has been very good to them.

The income of the lower two groups is so small in comparison that you can’t really see what’s happening with them. So we remove the top two groups from the chart to get a better view of what’s happening further down the income scale.
The top 10% taken as a whole have done consistently well since 1933, with a hiatus in the late 1970s and another in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Everyone else—the 90%—didn’t do quite so well, but it’s still a little hard to see them in detail, so strip off the top 10% and look at the average income of the lower 90% by itself.

From the bottom of the Great Depression in 1933 to the first oil shock in 1973, the average income of the poorer 90% of the population did really well, rising from $7,000 to $35,000, with just a pause in the first few years after World War II.

Since then, the great bulk of the American public has seen stagnating incomes.

The two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979-81 knocked average incomes down to $32,000. The Clinton years were good ones, with incomes surpassing their old peak, rising all the way to $37,000 in the year 2000, Clinton’s last full year in office.

The recession at the beginning of the G.W. Bush administration stripped away a chunk of those gains. They had almost been recovered in 2007 when the Great Recession sent us back to the lowest level since 1966.

A modest recovery after 2011, but by 2015 incomes were still lower than at any time during the G.W. Bush presidency, or the second Clinton term.

And this is the whole bottom 90%. It is likely that the lower half of this 90% group have had a worse experience than the upper half of it.

So the working class went into this election with 42 years of income stagnation under its belt, while their TV’s showed them the wealthiest 10% getting steadily richer, and the wealthiest 0.01% moving up to incomprehensible levels of wealth.

But the working class is more than whites. Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans all voted strongly for Hillary Clinton—so strongly that the Clinton vote from these demographic groups had to include significant numbers of people who have also experienced income stagnation. Why didn’t they pull the lever for Trump?

One obvious reason is the role of white nationalism (white supremacism) in the Trump campaign, but there were some likely economic factors as well.

The chart below shows the employment-population ratio. It’s tempting to think of this as sort of the reverse of the unemployment rate, but it’s not quite that.

When you lose your job, the unemployment rate goes up (gets worse). If you’ve been out of work for a year and give up looking for work, you drop out of the unemployment figures altogether and the unemployment rate goes down (gets better).

The employment-population ratio doesn’t make that mistake. If you lose your job, this ratio goes down (gets worse), and it stays down as long as you don’t have a job, regardless of your reason for not having one.

Here’s the overall employment-population ratio.

You can see the overall decline during the G.W. Bush presidency, culminating in the first year of the Great Recession, and continuing on to the beginning of 2010. After that, there’s modest recovery. The unemployment rate these days is around 5%, as good as before the Great Recession hit. The employment-population ratio is still very much in the hole.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also provides breakdowns by ethnicity.

African Americans have pretty much recovered by this measure. (They’re a little lower than they were before the Great Recession, but that’s a small enough difference that it might just be the aging of the population and therefore more people being in retirement, rather than more people having trouble finding work.)

Latinos haven’t done as well as African Americans, but still better than average.

It’s a different story for whites.

Note that the level of employment for whites is still slightly better than for Latinos, and noticeably better than for African Americans. But in terms of where each group started before the Great Recession, whites have seen less recovery.

As I said, I don’t think this excludes other explanations, but if you’re wondering why working-class and rural whites turned out in numbers so much higher than in the past, this may be a piece of it.

I talked to a Trump voter today. "I don't support everything he stands for," but she felt like he would make a good change from the way things have been going.

I showed her these charts and walked her through them, explaining what they were showing. The recognition was instant. "That's what we see around us every day."

Obviously a part of Trump's support is from people who are thrilled at how he's unleashing racial resentment. The official endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan is based on their hope that he'll restore whites to what they see as their (our) rightful place, and I doubt they're alone in that hope.

But that's not this friend. She voted Trump despite his bad traits, not because of them. Consider how much she was willing to overlook in order to express her view that we just can't go on like we've been going.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said,
Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
The graphs above are an antiseptic window into countless places in America where factories are empty, Main Streets are ghost-ridden, and people feel left behind. That reality didn't just happen, it was shaped by policies. Those policies aren't criminal on the scale of slavery, but they have been unwise and unjust.

And now we have elected a man who promises the moon and panders to racial resentments, in part because people felt like he spoke to their reality.

After 45 years of letting much of our population stagnate, the bill has apparently come due. Tragically, the people who are likely to feel the first consequences are not the ones who advocated the hollowing out of the country.


  1. Good analysis, but I disagree with your characterization of "state after state that Clinton couldn’t afford to lose." It was really just three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Those three states & Clinton would be the president-elect. Wisconsin, of course, seemed to be Clinton's, so much so that Trump's aides cancelled a rally there at the last minute (there may have also been some voter suppression with their id laws). Michigan remains un-called. It was again supposed to be relatively easy for Clinton, and Pennsylvania of course polls tilted Clinton throughout. But again--those three states and it would be Clinton. Now, she could have done the same thing by winning Florida + North Carolina, but those were always see-saw battlegrounds, unlike those three.

  2. Good point. I guess it would be more accurate to say, "state after state that polling showed her winning." Each one chipped away at the roughly 320 EV's that were being forecast in the morning, and at some point some two or three of them became states she needed to win.

    1. I would even disagree more with that re-phrasing. With the exception of WI, MI, PA, Clinton did win all the states the polls showed her winning. The two exceptions were NC and FL, but the polls on those were always either super-tight or contradictory.

  3. Fascinating charts, Karl, especially the last ones. Thanks you.
    To me it looks like Hillary lost because she misunderstood that a critical segment of her base (the working class in the rust belt and Florida who tend to be independent and mostly supported Obama)was furious with her. They voted "not Hillary" and not so much "for Trump." Those votes carried disproportionate weight both because they were switchers (worth twice as much as new voters because they subtract one from her and add one to him) and because they live in pivotal states (whereas a lost and/or gained vote in NY or CA does nothing for her, for example.)
    As absentee votes are tallied it is expected that Hillary's popular vote margin will grow and probably approach 2%. So it looks like on the whole she did successfully turn out the vote,it's just that she failed to get the ones that mattered most. There has also been speculation that her get out the vote effort in the rust belt actually benefited Trump because her campaign was motivating switchers and they didn't know it. Strange times.
    I had a very bad feeling early on when I saw her campaign slogan. "I'm with Her" was disastrously tone deaf--if you know you don't have people's trust, then you can't ask them to put up bumper stickers and yard signs that tell the whole world they do. It turns your supporters into dupes and fools. When party allegiance was stronger, Bill could tack toward the middle and the base went along. But in this election the working class basically said fool me once, fool me twice.

  4. This is unrelated to Clinton/Trump but will you be looking at India and their new stance on currency? Curious what your thoughts are....