How The Rust Belt Won Donald Trump The Presidency

Grant Gregory is a recent graduate who has worked on several Iowa campaigns. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Donald Trump won the presidency on November 8 because independent and Democratic voters who supported President Barack Obama in 2012 shifted their vote for Donald in 2016. Middle-class Americans flipped the switch on party identity and flocked to the anti-establishment candidate in a fantastic fashion. In fact, 37 states shifted to the right from 2012 in 2016, despite Obama approval ratings hovering around 56 percent, according to Gallup.

A combination of race, education, and incomes all likely determined the tremendous swing from Democratic strongholds, but Iowa was unique in that it demographically aligned almost perfectly with the Trump brand. Iowa shifted more than any other swing state in the country, voting +5.8 percent Obama in 2012 and +9.4 percent Trump in 2016, a total margin shift of 15.2 percent, according to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

With a population that is 91 percent white, the share of the population with a bachelor’s degree 17 percent below the national average, 15 percent of the civilian workforce employed in manufacturing (5th in the nation only behind Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio) and income growth rates below the national average, Iowa was the perfect social and economic storm for Trump to turn a purple state deep red. So red, in fact, that Iowa voted for Trump by a wider margin than Texas did in 2016. Iowa’s tremendous shifts can then help us understand why previously considered “Democratically safe” Wisconsin and Michigan were so quick to switch to Donald as well.

Ultimately, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan shifted approximately 12, 8 and 10 points in Trump’s direction, respectively – delivering Trump those unexpected and decisive rust-belt victories.

The data do not point to any one demographic group that account for an Obama-Trump flip. Women, who were expected to define the election following the release of the sexually explicit “Trump tapes,” didn’t end up providing much of a shift away from Donald; some 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, according to a New York Times exit poll.

An analysis conducted by Nate Silver determined that education was the defining factor of this election. Silver indicated that controlling for all other variables, level of education is the largest explanatory variable for Trump’s surge in the Midwest across ethnic and income groups.

When considered carefully, the data suggest that party allegiances Democrats expected to carry Democrats across the finish line were nothing more than smoke and mirrors. This race was ultimately about the educated coasts and cities vs. the less educated middle-rural class, which flipped what we know about conventional politics and campaign strategy on its head.

Grant Gregory 1 photo Higher ED_zpswbkeamqx.png

Grant Gregory 2 photo White and Margin Shift_zps90bksgv0.png

Graphs created by Grant Gregory. Margin Shift values from David Wasserman’s vote tracker and Education/Race data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.

  • We can't blame demographics.

    If demographics are to blame, then I guess we just give up now then? Democrats failed to reach people. Everyone should read this if you haven’t yet: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/?utm_term=.3a0d57d95727

    • I didn't read it that way

      I don’t think anyone is saying we have to give up trying. But we do need to recognize where we lost the most ground so we can do something about it.

  • Rural Counties

    Marion County is a rural county that did not support Barack Obama in either 2008 or 2012. So it was no surprise that it didn’t support a woman with a liberal agenda in 2016. There was a time when unions made the difference here. That’s gone, and the county is now a conservative stronghold. In spite of that, the local party does a good job at staying visible. We just can’t win elections. We have candidates who run decent campaigns with no outside help. If they were a serious threat to the GOP,, the money and negative ads would swoop in and put an end to it. “Resistance groups” are popping up everywhere. The Marion County Democrats have operated as such for a number of years now. Maybe that’s our calling.

  • Isolated dots

    Can you elaborate by telling us what states are represented by the outlying dots on your graphs? I’m looking at six or seven dots that lie far away from the others.

    • Data

      I already emailed you this personally, but I should provide this information here as well. The outliers in terms of % white are Hawaii (25%) and D.C. (40%). The one data point very far to the right on the swing axis (switched from very red to less red) is Utah, largely due to McMullin’s influence, rather than Hillary’s.

  • Iowa as Rust Belt

    Thanks for this observation: “15 percent of the civilian workforce employed in manufacturing (5th in the nation only behind Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.”

    I have seen discussions of the election and the Rust Belt that left Iowa out. Now I have your evidence that we should be included. My hometown rate is twice as high as the 15% you cite for the whole state.

    I agree with foley above that demographics aren’t everything. Leadership counts and campaigns count. I read today about the Facebook advertising Trump’s people did—more targeted and harder hitting that we knew at the time. For example Hillary’s super-predator comments were played to African-Americans via FB ads that may account for her mysteriously missing support among inner city voters in Detroit and elsewhere. They aimed right at her favored demographic and it worked.

    • Nice Theory

      I watched as Barack Obama won the Presidency and gave many people across the board a lot of hope for the future. I then watched as most Big Dems© let him be savaged by an obstructionist congress–and then back away from him during the mid-terms. You may not remember but many of us saw him being either abandoned, betrayed or lied about for 8 years. If you think the super-pred thing did it, that’s reasonable I suppose, but the optics of Barack and Michele’s treatment at the hands of a not-so-subtly racist repubs and spineless non-support from many Dems spoke pretty loudly too.
      At least repubs had a message (albeit negative) for minorities. Dems….crickets. One last note: The birther thing was deeply offensive. Hillary actually tried to finesse that into her late stage nomination fight with Barack in ’08. It was clumsy, she backed off but the damage was done.
      Racism: one hell of a drug.
      Now with that said, Obama was far from perfect. His administration’s policies on handling whistleblowers and his enabling of the surveillance state really are proof that neither Dems nor repubs in power can be trusted. Stay involved. Vote! Be informed and don’t let the DNC tell you what’s good for Iowans.

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