Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
The president’s approval rating stands at a record low, but the geography of opinion reflects pre-existing cultural, educational, and economic divides.
President Donald Trump’s average first-year approval rating sits at a lowly 38 percent—the worst of any president since Gallup started measuring presidential job approval in 1945. But this overall average belies huge variation in that approval rating across the 50 states, according to a recent Gallup poll based on surveys conducted throughout 2017. Indeed, Trump’s approval rating reaches above 60 percent in West Virginia and above 50 percent in 11 other states, including the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
As the map above shows, there is a broad Trump approval belt across the Plains, Appalachia, the Deep South, and parts of the Midwest, and a broad disapproval belt on the coasts and in New England, as well as in states like Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, and Minnesota.
Yet, rather than being a radical break with the past, this jagged geography of Trump’s approval rate mirrors the fundamental contours of America’s long-standing political, economic, and cultural divides.
A basic statistical analysis of the Gallup data by my colleague Charlotta Mellander bears this out. Her correlation analysis compares Trump approval and disapproval rates to key demographic, economic, and political characteristics of states. (As usual, I note that correlation does not infer causation, but simply point to associations between variables.) Her findings point to the fact that far from being an outlier, the geography of Trump approval and disapproval reflects more persistent divides.
For one, the geography of Trump approval falls in line with the basic red state/blue state pattern of previous elections. His approval rating is strongly positively associated with the share of people who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 (0.92) and disapproval of him is strongly associated with the share of people who voted for Barack Obama that same year (0.92).
Opinions of the president reflect the fundamental cleavage of class, which has long divided Americans along political as well as economic lines. Trump’s approval is overwhelmingly concentrated in less affluent, less educated, more working-class states. It is positively associated with the share of workers in blue-collar working-class jobs (0.76), and negatively associated with income (-0.72), wages (-0.79), education (measured as the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree and above, -0.86), and the share of workers doing knowledge, professional, or creative work (-0.72).
Contrary to the idea that support for Trump is a function of rising unemployment, there is no statistical association between Trump’s approval rate and a state’s unemployment rate. The conventional wisdom suggests that Trump’s rise was bolstered by those losing out from America’s gaping inequality. However, the data complicates that story. Approval of Trump is actually higher in states with lower levels of income inequality, approval being negatively correlated with the Gini coefficient measure of income inequality (-0.40). On the other hand, states with higher levels of inequality are much more likely to disapprove of Trump, with a positive correlation between income inequality and the share of people who disapprove of Trump (0.38).
Approval and disapproval of the president powerfully track America’s widening spatial divide. Approval is concentrated in less urbanized states, while disapproval is concentrated in denser, more urbanized ones. Trump’s approval rate is negatively correlated with two measures of urbanity: the urban share of population (-0.52), and to an even greater extent, the urban share of a state’s total land area (-0.62). (Interestingly, neither Trump’s approval nor his disapproval has any statistical connection to the overall population size of states.) Another dividing line is the car. Approval of the president is positively associated with the share of commuters who drive to work alone (0.45).
Race and immigration are two more axes of division on Trump. Overall, the geography of Trump approval is positively associated with the share of the U.S. population that is white (0.49). Conversely, but not surprisingly given his stance on immigration, Trump’s approval is negatively associated with the foreign-born share of the U.S. population (-0.69).
The data on Trump’s approval also reflects key dimensions of America’s cultural divide. Approval of Trump is positively associated with the share of a state’s population that identifies as “very religious” (0.52). It is even more strongly negatively associated with indicators of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, being negatively correlated with the number of abortion providers per capita (-0.64) and the LGBTQ share of a state’s population (-0.74). Trump supporters are often vocal about their support of more traditional “family values,” but the people in states where Trump’s approval is higher do not necessarily adhere to them. There is a strong positive correlation between approval of the president and places that have higher rates of so-called “serial marriage,” that is, being married three or more times (0.59 for men and 0.61 for women).
Despite his record low level of overall approval, President Trump retains considerable support in traditionally conservative states in the Plains and Deep South and in parts of the Midwest. Trump’s approval rating is not a break with the past; its geography both reflects and reinforces the basic fault lines of class, geography, race, and culture that have long divided this country. If anything, Trump’s support has deepened America’s persistent red-blue divide.
All of this fits the pattern of Trump’s support as being premised on what Ron Brownstein, my colleague at The Atlantic, has aptly dubbed the “coalition of restoration”—a geographically concentrated band of working class, white, suburban, and rural support that is bent upon restoring a bygone America.
This political backlash not only signals a more reactionary political agenda, it is also an agenda for economic retreat, undermining key pillars of America’s economic growth and rising living standards. “The much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political,” I wrote of the rising tide of conservatism in less prosperous states back in 2011. “American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.”
This is far more the case today.