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.)
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 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.
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.
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.