Understanding Trump voters will be key to rebuilding party and electorate after divisive election
Posted October 27, 2016
The edge of steep cliffs pinched against a unruly river is an odd place to build a town. But that's where you'll find Grundy, Virginia, sharing its precarious foothold with a railroad track and two state highways.
The picturesque mountains mask a hard life. Household income is less than half the state median, population is steadily declining, and fewer than 10 percent of residents have college degrees, compared to over 30 percent statewide. Coal, the only viable industry, is in free fall.
Grundy is the county seat of Buchanan County, the sharp horn of Virginia's western edge, the very heart of Appalachia, jutting upward to form Virginia's mountainous border with both Kentucky and West Virginia.
Buchanan is also the most pro-Trump county in America. In March, Trump won 35 percent of the GOP vote in Virginia, splitting shares with several candidates. But in Buchanan County, he won a whopping 69 percent.
As Americans brace for the November choice between two unpopular candidates, a quiet consensus is building that reconstructing a shattered GOP and healing the national body politic after this bitter election must begin with a hard look at the Buchanan Counties of America and people there who vaulted Trump to the nomination.
In a survey released last January, the RAND Corporation, a major nonpartisan think tank, found that voters who felt that “people like me don’t have a say” were 86 percent more likely to choose Trump in the primary.
And recent research now shows that the whites with high school degrees or less who comprise the county’s populace veer toward high economic anxiety, poor mental and physical health, and even a dramatic increase in mortality rates.
"We need to get a better feel of what drives these voters beyond the headlines of immigration and trade," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "There's a disconnect in these communities, a sense that there is something going on in society they are not a part of."
It’s not as though Trump’s alienated base was invisible before this campaign began.
At a fundraiser in San Francisco in 2008 during the primary race against Hillary Clinton, then-Sen. Barack Obama rather inartfully described the voters who he could not reach:
"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and," Obama said, "like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not."
"And it's not surprising then they get bitter," Obama concluded, "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Obama's comment drew fire from his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was then angling for what would in 2016 become the Trump vote.
Clinton told USA Today that "Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again" and "whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
But that was so 2008. Eight years later, Bill Clinton describes those same voters as “standard rednecks” and "coal people" who "don't like us much anymore." Certainly, they were not amused when Hillary told a town-hall audience in March, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
And in a widely noted television interview Hillary called “half” of Trump voters a “basket of deplorables.”
On a precipice
Grundy literally sits on a precipice.
In the early 2000s, the flood-damaged old town was razed and a new taxpayer-subsidized, three-story Wal-Mart was squeezed in between the river and the mountain. It sits on stilts, looming over a flood-proof parking garage.
The Wal-Mart creates some jobs, but it also is putting a pinch on local businesses, including Fife's TV and Appliance.
John Fife, 68, has lived in Grundy for 54 years and watches Grundy's economy closely. His business depends on it. Most of his electronics business went over to Wal-Mart, he says, but he's held his own by selling appliances and furniture.
Fife says Grundy's other main employment attractions are a pharmacy school, which is doing well, and a law school, the Appalachian School of Law, which isn't. Founded in 1997 to help breathe life into the economy, the law school is now by any measure one of the worst law schools in the nation, with plunging enrollment.
But the economy is coal, and the recent wave of environmental regulations have been devastating. Mining permits work on two- or three-year cycles. "In 2010 and 2011, we knew it was coming in 2013," Fife said.
Other pieces of life include a long-term plan to stimulate some tourism, including hunting. Local officials have been importing elk from Kentucky, Fife says, a plan that is still "three or four years out."
The only other bright spot, Fife said, is Poplar Gap. This is a "mountain top" development, a recreation area and business park built on land reclaimed after coal extraction. It's sounds a bit odd to an outsider, but the terrain here is so steep and unwieldy that flattening a mountain is the only way to create any growth.
So far the big employer in Poplar Gap is a call center that employs a couple of hundred people. But swapping good union coal jobs for low-paying hourly call center work, Fife knows, is not calculated for community rebirth.
Not all Trump voters are displaced workers. In May, Nate Silver at the 538 Blog reported that, based on exit polls, the median Trump primary voter had a household income of $72,000, roughly the same as Ted Cruz’s voters and $11,000 more than Sanders or Clinton voters on the Democratic side.
“These are truck drivers, skilled technical workers, installation, maintenance and repair, car mechanics, HVAC technicians, plumbers, electricians and workers in the construction trades,” said Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at Gallup.
In a more detailed analysis, Rothwell used a trove of 87,000 Gallup voter surveys in a report released in September. He confirmed that Trump voters had reasonably high household income and normal unemployment levels.
But middling household income levels don't translate feelings of security, Rothwell notes, especially when seen through an intergenerational lens. A worker whose father could support a family on one income and earn a solid pension today can do neither.
Using eight measures of economic insecurity, Rothwell found Trump primary voters to be more economically insecure than raw household income suggests. Fifty-nine percent of GOP primary voters who liked Trump felt stressed about the amount of money they had to spend, compared to 42 percent who said they didn't plan to vote for Trump. GOP voters who favored Trump were also 15 points more likely to say that they “are not feeling better about their financial situation these days.”
“Even $72,000 is a shakier $72,000 than it used to be,” said Peter Lawler, a government professor at Berry College in Georgia and an outspoken conservative critic of Trump.
“My plumber makes $100,000 a year, and he’s a good plumber who works long, hard hours,” Lawler said. “But he gets killed with self employment tax, has no pension, gets no benefits, and his health care rates are skyrocketing under Obamacare but he gets no subsidies.”
Diseases of despair
Lawler also suggests the mood in a given community might affect even those who appear to be secure. If Trump communities are more stressed on multiple levels, that is, then even those who are relatively well off may feel that anxiety.
And it turns out there is something distinctive about Trump counties.
The New York Times did a geographical analysis in March, finding that the strongest Trump predictors at the county level included whites without college degrees, number of mobile homes, the number of “old economy” manufacturing jobs, and the percentage of working age adults who were not in the workforce.
Rothwell found something similar in disability rates. People in areas with very high disability rates were much more likely to support Trump. The same was true of those with low intergenerational economic mobility.
“We are no longer the land of opportunity we think we are,” said Carol Graham, an economist at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming “Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream” from Princeton University Press.
Graham’s new book compares poor communities in different places and with different cultures to see how they respond to poverty and stress.
At the beginning of her study, Graham says, she expected that poor African-Americans would be more stressed, that poor Hispanics would be positive, and whites would be neutral.
Her expectations proved wrong. Poor blacks, she found, turned out to be much more optimistic, with whites “off the charts negative." Poor whites were twice as likely to report being stressed the previous day than were equally poor blacks. The numbers were so unexpected and so stark, Graham said, that she thought she had miscoded the data.
The findings fascinated Graham, whose work has focused on resilience to poverty and stress. Some of the explanation, she believes, may be due to the type and intensity of religious commitments among poor blacks.
About the same time Graham was crunching her own numbers, a landmark study covering similar ground was released by two economists at Princeton, who found that death rates for middle-aged white Americans were sharply rising. The effect was most pronounced among those with less education, but on some variables, like suicide, even educated middle-aged whites lost ground.
The study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed a dramatic increase, beginning in 1998, in mortality rates for white men and women with a high school education or less. The deaths stem not from heart disease or smoking, but mainly from suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcohol-related liver disease. These are known as "diseases of despair."
The study also found a decrease in self-reported physical and mental health.
These results reversed decades of steady progress in the U.S. and abroad, progress that continued in other countries and among other racial and ethnic groups here and for other countries.
In raw numbers, that means that from 1999 to 2013, over 500,000 white middle-aged Americans died earlier than they should have if they had kept pace with the world and other American racial groups.
Only middle-aged whites were affected here — and the effect was centered on whites with a high school education or less, with death rates rising 22 percent for that group. A follow-up analysis this year by an economist at the University of Pittsburgh showed that this effect was strongly concentrated in rural America.
The notion that social stress, poor health and dysfunction are dogging the lives of rural American whites on the lower socioeconomic strata is a rising concern, and was well before Trump burst on the scene. Charles Murray hit this theme in his 2012 “Coming Apart," which looks at economic and family crisis in poor, white America. Robert Putnam hit a similar theme in his 2015 “Our Kids," which looks at how communities have split along socioeconomic lines, leaving a generation of kids with less support. J.D. Vance’s 2016 “Hillbilly Elegy" likewise drew attention for its autobiographical sketch of the Trump demographic.
Some Trump critics have used the raw financial data on Trump supporters to discount economic distress theories and point instead to simple racism, which, they argue, would explain why his voters resonate to his Muslim and Mexican bashing rhetoric.
“You can’t talk about Trump’s rise without talking about racism,” writes Matthew Yglesias at Vox. “Trump’s essential appeal is based on racism,” agrees Jeet Heer at the New Republic. “He launched his campaign talking about Mexican “rapists,” and subsequently stirred up xenophobia against many other groups, especially Muslims.”
One widely circulated argument holds that GOP politicians for decades now have been using “dog whistles” to send deniable signals to race-motivated voters. This charge extends back at least as far as 1964, when the party first began making inroads into states south of the Mason Dixon line.
One GOP voice that embraces this racial indictment is Evan McMullin, former CIA operative and current rebel anti-Trump presidential candidate, who is making national headlines by making a serious run at Utah’s electoral votes.
McMullin recently did an interview with Byron York at the Washington Examiner, which was headlined, “There is nothing wrong with the GOP except racism.”
“I don’t think Trump voters are a monolith, and there are many different reasons why people support him,” McMullin said in an interview with the Deseret News. “But I do believe there is a problem with racism in the Republican Party.”
“I spent the better part of four years working in Congress,” McMullin said, “And I realized that not all Republicans are like the ones I grew up with. There are serious issues among some Republican voters with racism. It’s a tough topic, and it’s not one I enjoy discussing. But it’s a fact.”
McMullin’s critique focuses on a wing of the party now often referred to as the Alt-Right, which includes a number of outspoken and inflammatory provocateurs, such as pundits Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopolis.
But McMullin doesn’t see this as a problem of a noisy fringe, pointing to the moment when Trump bent over backwards to avoid disowning former Klansman David Duke, apparently believing that his own voter base would be put off by such a disavowal. “What can we say when the Republican nominee and his running mate won’t say that David Duke is deplorable?” McMullin asks.
Racism is not necessarily cut and dried, of course. Some of what passes for racism, Rothwell argues at Gallup, is simply unfamiliarity. He found evidence in the Gallup data supporting "contact theory," which holds that people who encounter differences gradually ease their fears.
Opportunity vs. fear
Lanhee Chen, a Harvard-trained Hoover Institution fellow and conservative pundit who teaches law and public policy at Stanford, is well aware of the threat of xenophobic rhetoric to the GOP’s future.
"The party needs to be speaking to populations that are growing, not just to those who are shrinking. It cannot be about marginalizing people, and there is rhetoric and dialogue we should disown," he says.
But Chen does not see disowning those who supported Trump as an answer. In fact, he sees a link between the GOP's longstanding struggle to attract minority voters and its schism with the marginalized Trump voters.
"For too long the party has been speaking to overly narrow segments of society. "The party has to speak more broadly to folks who have been left behind economically."
That link that is a bit paradoxical, given Trump's appeal to struggling white voters who would seem to feel threatened by the diversification of America. But Chen is not the only one to latch onto that common ground. A "Saturday Night Live" skit just featured Tom Hanks as a Trump supporter on Black Jeopardy!, with the Hanks character finding common ground on cultural and class issues with the black host and two black contestants.
Like McMullin, Chen acknowledges a dark side in the Republican past that does shed light on its present, including the embrace of the Democratic Party's exiled Southern segregation wing by Richard Nixon in 1968 and its continuing influence on the party's base.
But the GOP Chen says he has fought for "seeks to build opportunity by emphasizing the value of opportunity and hard work." That GOP, he said, has never been really successful when it has appealed to fear.
He points to the "sunny optimism" of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who in the 1980s came to embody a big tent opportunity brand of Republicanism, but whose influence waned in the 1990s and beyond, when the party leadership focused on protecting majorities and serving powerful interests.
To have any chance at healing the rift with the Trump base while also appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate, Chen says.
“The party must begin really understanding Trump voters,” Chen said, “not just say it understands them. And it needs to recognize that the core problem is a lack of opportunity in too many parts of our country."
Chen knows bridging that gap won’t be easy. Like most coastal elites, he’s never been to Buchanan County. But at least now he’s heard of it.