By Alan Tonelson
Back in September, I published a piece challenging claims that President Trump is a phony populist by analyzing government data indicating that a key portion of his 2016 supporters – Americans who had twice voted for his White House predecessor, Barack Obama, before defecting to Trump World – had overall seen highly impressive gains in their annual paychecks under his administration. The evidence came from Commerce Department figures reporting on annual salary trends in the 196 counties that have voted Obama-Obama-Trump in 2008, 2012, and 2016.
Recently, Commerce issued a new set of statistics permitting the issue to be examined according to another gauge – economic growth adjusted for inflation. These numbers reveal a decided Trump payoff for these voters as well and could signal that the President will retain the loyalty of most such flippers during this year’s election.
These new Commerce statistics would be noteworthy alone because they represent the federal government’s first survey of growth on the county level. But they also make clear that, at least through the first two years of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the economies of the “Trump flip counties” on the whole grew faster than they did during the final two years of the Obama administration.
As with my analysis of the county-level salary figures, this examination of the growth figures looks at the periods of the previous and current presidency closest to each other in the current business cycle. Just as I focused on private sector workers in my salary analysis, I focus on the private sector in this growth analysis (because the growth of government, which mainly reflects politicians’ decisions, sheds little light on the health of the economy as a whole).
One difference – whereas the salary analysis looked at figures in pre-inflation dollars (mainly because price-adjusted data weren’t available), these growth numbers all take inflation into account. That matters in part because the “real” figures are the growth numbers that are most closely followed by students of the entire national economy.
According to the Commerce results, total inflation-adjusted growth was greater in the final two Obama years than during the first two Trump years in 84 of the 196 flip counties – or 42.86 percent. The Trump years, however, were better growth wise during these periods for 57.14 percent of these counties.
Another important finding: During the final two Obama years, 27 of these counties saw their economies shrink in after-inflation terms in both of those years. But this plight was suffered by only 14 of the flip counties during the Trump years.
The results were much more even in terms of flip counties whose economies contracted when adjusting for prices during just one of the two final Obama years or just one of the two first Trump years. Eighty-six of the counties experienced economic contraction during one of the two final Obama years while 87 percent of the counties recorded such setbacks during one of the two first Trump years.
The Commerce growth data also suggest that some progress in reducing inequality was made in the flip counties during the first two Trump years – and possibly more than during the last two Obama years.
Specifically, in 2015, 56 of the flip counties outgrew the national private sector average of 3.3 percent in real terms, while two matched this rate.
In 2016, 82 outgrew the national private sector average and two tied it – but that national average had fallen by more than half (to 1.6 percent).
In 2017 – the first Trump year – only 49 percent of the counties grew faster than the national private sector average and two were tied. But that national average had bounced back up to 2.6 percent.
And in 2018, although the private sector’s national growth rate quickened again – to 3.2 percent adjusted for inflation – the number of Trump flip counties topping that performance jumped to 78, with six matching the national average.
The political implications of these findings become obvious – and obviously positive for the President – upon seeing how heavily the Trump flip counties are concentrated in likely 2020 battleground states and how many “winner” flip counties are found there.
Fully 47 of the 196 total flip counties are located in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio – states carried by Mr. Trump in 2016 and that are considered crucial to this year’s outcome.
In Michigan, the story for the President isn’t encouraging. Only three of its flip counties have grown faster during the first two Trump years than during the last two Obama years. But in Wisconsin and Ohio, growth under the President so far has been faster in 15 of 23 and eight of nine flip counties, respectively. (Only three of Pennsylvania’s counties, interestingly, are flippers – and two of them have grown faster so far during the Trump years.)
In addition, because he only narrowly lost Minnesota in 2016, Mr. Trump’s campaign is targeting the state this time around. With eleven of its 19 flip counties having grown faster under his presidency than during the final two years of his predecessor’s, the effort looks promising.
The new Commerce figures by no means guarantee victory for the President in November. As widely noted, his popularity is relatively low despite voters rating his economic performance highly, signaling that pocketbook issues may not override concerns about his personality, character, and other non-economic matters.
Also, the 2019 numbers won’t be out until after November, and they’re likely to weigh most heavily on the minds of voters who do prioritize the economy. In fact, fully 82 of the flip economies nationally experienced inflation-adjusted economic shrinkage in 2016 – which surely didn’t help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Nonetheless, two major national data sets now point to the conclusion that voting for Mr. Trump in 2016 has been a good bet for the lion’s share of one-time Democrats who switched presidential allegiances that year. And they strongly suggest that, if his rivals hope to use the economy against him this year, they’ll need a more convincing claim than that the President is a phony populist.
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).