A Tale of Two Americas
The political world was rocked to its core on Election Day last November, when the vast majority of pundits realized that their collective conclusion – that Secretary Clinton would win the presidency with relative ease – was dead wrong. The pundits, of course, weren’t just guessing; the data backed them up. Of all of the major polls put out in the field during the last week of the presidential campaign, only one had then-candidate Trump winning. The other nine had Secretary Clinton besting President Trump by anywhere between one and six points. While the proudest pollsters will argue that Secretary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 points (which is true), few if any pundits divined an ultimate Trump victory from the available polling data.
Election Day 2016 was but the latest in a growing body of evidence that suggests that relying on national polling to draw conclusions regarding political races, the mood of the country, or even the state of the economy may not lead to correct assumptions. In short, last November was the clearest indication yet there is no unified United States on virtually any issue. Instead, there are really two Americas whose disparate experiences over the last many years has created a sharp divide that we have watched play out in our politics of late.
The economic carnage caused by the Great Recession touched nearly everyone. The Federal Reserve determined that American households lost approximately $16 trillion in net worth over the course of the financial crisis. Virtually anyone with a retirement account, a property, or an investment account felt the pain. Unemployment peaked at 10% in October 2009, just as America’s GDP receded by 2.9% the same year. To look at national statistics in the intervening eight years, though, one would reasonably conclude that we’ve not only recovered from the crisis, but grown beyond it. The national unemployment rate currently stands at 4.4% -- the lowest it’s been in exactly 10 years, since before the Great Recession – and our GDP is growing, on average, at somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5% annually. But these national figures don’t tell the whole story.
There are just about 3,100 counties throughout the United States. Last year, the Economic Innovation Group conducted a study to determine how evenly America’s economic recovery was being felt across the country. Their findings were staggering. According to the study, job growth and new business formation in the years since the Great Recession were overwhelmingly concentrated in just 70 counties that almost all clustered around large American cities. Of the roughly 9.1 million jobs created in the United States in the years immediately following the financial crisis, fully half were located in just 73 counties. Though these facts alone are remarkable, the visual representation is stunning:
Now let’s look at the 2016 election results by county:
To almost a county, Secretary Clinton overwhelmingly won the popular vote where the economic recovery was felt the strongest, and President Trump decidedly swept the rest of the country, where voters didn’t feel the job growth and economic recovery that the national news had been heralding for years.
It should be no surprise, then, that more focused polling demonstrates that America continues to be divided politically. President Trump’s national job approval and favorability rating currently both sit at -14.2; historic lows for a first-term Commander in Chief still in the honeymoon phase of his presidency. But a poll recently conducted in Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and West Virginia, which don’t have very many of the job creating counties in the map above, found a different America. The poll found that likely voters in that America approve of President Trump’s performance thus far, by a 48% to 45% margin (+3%). Voters in these states overwhelmingly identified “economic issues” as the most important policies they’d like the government to focus on. And almost half of the voters in those states (47%) said they thought the country was on the right track, as compared with just one-third nationally.
It’s been a truism in politics that Americans vote with their pocketbooks and wallets. The incredibly disparate economic recovery has therefore created two economic Americas, but two political Americas, as well.