Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A Gallup economist finds little evidence that low income, unemployment, or loss of manufacturing jobs are behind the candidate’s popularity.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech Monday was like a menacing kidnapper’s note, with out-of-context snippets of news stories, half-truths, and full-fledged lies arranged to spell out a familiar threat: immigrants. The Republican presidential nominee suggested that immigrants and their children were responsible for 9/11 and proposed an “ideological screening test” to weed out “those who support bigotry and hatred.” Oh, the irony.
Such xenophobia has long been a staple of this campaign, which has relied heavily on nativist appeals to seal the nation’s borders. But according to a new working paper by Jonathan Rothwell, senior economist at Gallup, the voters cheering, clapping, and nodding in agreement at Trump’s speeches aren’t likely to be interacting with racial or ethnic minorities or immigrants on a regular basis: The best predictor of whether a person supports a Trump presidency is how white their neighborhood is.
In his paper, Rothwell uses a large sample (87,428 total) of people surveyed between July 2015 and 2016, who held both favorable and unfavorable favorable views of Trump. This dataset allows him to examine the geography of Trump supporters by zip code and commuting zone (a cluster of counties with labor market similarities). Then, he analyzes the dataset for three main things:
- Indicators of economic well-being
- Effect of trade competition
- Exposure to immigrants and minorities
No “high economic distress” among Trump supporters
One explanation for Trumpism that’s been gaining traction in the last few months is that the candidate successfully stokes the very real economic anxieties of an embattled white working class. But Rothwell doesn’t find much evidence for the theory that people who support Trump are languishing economically. He writes in the paper:
The individual data do not suggest that those who view Trump favorable are confronting abnormally high economic distress, by conventional measures of employment and income.
In fact, Trump’s supporters tend to earn more than non-supporters, and more than other white Republicans of similar education levels, by some measures. They are more likely to be self-employed, but no more likely to be left out of the labor force, relative to the overall sample. These folks also face the same rates of unemployment as other whites.
Most surprising, perhaps, is that pro-Trump Americans aren’t necessarily facing the economic fallout of globalization. Rothwell finds than an increase in manufacturing jobs in an area between 2000 and 2007 “predicts higher levels of Trump support, which is the opposite of the hypothesized relationship.” (Overall increase in such jobs between 2000 and 2015, however, showed no relation to level of Trump support.) In general, Trump supporters tend to live in areas that have improved, at least in terms of jobs, Rothwell writes:
Total employment growth predicts greater Trump support, suggesting that people in more economically prosperous metropolitan areas are marginally more likely to view him favorably.
Trump’s supporters were, however, less prosperous in other ways, Rothwell writes. They tend to hail from areas where the mortality rates for the middle-aged white population are high, for instance. (Pro-Trump folks generally lagged with respect to health indicators such as obesity.) Areas with low economic mobility across generations are also correlated with higher positive views of the GOP candidate. Trump support is by no means a neighborhood effect. Rothwell sums it up:
The evidence is mixed as to how economic hardship affects Trump’s popularity. It seems that lower social status and material hardship play a role in support for Trump, but not through the most obvious economic channels of income and employment.
Lack of contact with minorities is a better predictor of Trumpism
Rothwell found that pro-Trump folks tend to live in neighborhoods that are super white—sometimes, whiter than the wider regions they live in. “People living in zip codes with disproportionately high shares of white residents are significantly and robustly more likely to view Trump favorably,” Rothwell writes in the paper. “Those living in zip codes with overall diversity that is low relative to their commuting zone are also far more likely to view Trump favorably.” (So, white suburbanites in a diverse metros would qualify.)
They’re also less likely to live near Mexican of Hispanic households. In fact, Trump support rises with distance from Mexico, and a decrease in share of Hispanic residents in the neighborhood. In other words, a person is less likely to be a Trump supporter if they have a person of color as their neighbor.
What these findings mean, Rothwell concludes, is that support for Trump’s nativism has a lot to do with ignorance about immigrants and minorities, which in turn has a lot to do with residential segregation. “Limited interactions with racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and college graduates may contribute to prejudicial stereotypes, political and cultural misunderstandings, and a general fear of rejection and not-belonging,” he writes.
That’s not to say that Trump supporters aren’t anxious about their own economic well-being or that of their future generations. It just means that their economic anxieties are not necessarily a reflection of their economic position in society.