There’s been a lot of talk about whether Trump’s success in the primaries reflected genuine economic distress on the part of voters or mere racism and xenophobia.
It’s a complicated question, and my own tendency is to see Trump as the result of general cultural disruption and change—Coming Apart/End of the Bourgeois Era stuff, which is connected to economic changes within and between families as well as cultural changes around race but not exactly the same as economic distress per se. A Gallup study of Trump voters found that:
According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.
But I did remember this map of upward economic mobility among whites from Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity project and how much it looked, with some exceptions, like a map of Trump’s vote share of the GOP primary.
So I downloaded some of the descriptive statistics Chetty got from IRS data and while there’s a lot of state-to-state variation, if you just look at county-level (within state) variation, there’s a pretty consistent story you can tell with just three economic variables, that explains most of the variation (see fixed effects regression below.)
- In a county where kids who grew up in the 80s and early 90s at the 25th percentile of the national income distribution were doing better at age 26, Trump did worse. (This is more-or-less the variable that the map above shows.)
- On average, for each $2000 more kids like this are making at age 26, Trump got about 1% less of the vote.
- In a county where kids who grew up in the 80s and early 90s at the 75th percentile of the national income distribution were doing better at age 26, Trump did better.
- On average, for each $6000 more kids like this are making at age 26, Trump got about 1% more of the vote.
- In a county where parents were making more money in the 80s and 90s (the average household income of the parents of the cohort Chetty followed was higher), Trump did worse.
- One average, for each $5500 more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) parents like this were making in the 80s and early 90s, Trump got about 1% less of the vote.
So you can tell a story based on this. Places where working class kids are doing pretty well are places Trump did comparatively badly. Places where middle and upper-middle class kids are doing well are places where Trump did well. Places that are and have been well-off for decades are places that Trump did badly.
Is Trump’s rise the result, in part, of working class parents who are not themselves badly off seeing their kids fall behind the kids of more well off parents? It doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Note: You can reproduce the regression using Chetty’s data here (I rescaled the variables to be a bit more intuitive, but you just use kid_fam_inc_p25, kid_fam_inc_p75, and par_fam_inc_mean). I took the county-level results from the 2016 primaries from Kaggle (you have to make a Kaggle account to download.)
areg trumpperc Kidfrom25thPercentile Kidfrom75thPercentile ParentIncome, absorb(state_abb)
Linear regression, absorbing indicators Number of obs = 2,389
F( 3, 2342) = 298.93
Prob > F = 0.0000
R-squared = 0.8700
Adj R-squared = 0.8674
Root MSE = 5.6040
trumpperc | Coef. Std. Err. t P>|t| [95% Conf. Interval]
Kidfrom25thPercentile | -.5429087 .0552855 -9.82 0.000 -.6513223 -.434495
Kidfrom75thPercentile | .1623044 .0262649 6.18 0.000 .1107995 .2138094
ParentIncome | -.1790755 .0076783 -23.32 0.000 -.1941325 -.1640184
_cons | 56.72411 .9796469 57.90 0.000 54.80305 58.64518
state_abbreviation | F(43, 2342) = 346.872 0.000 (44 categories)