Let’s start out with a thought experiment. Let’s pretend for a moment that up until 2016, Wisconsin was a US territory that had just been admitted into the union by a bipartisan coalition of legislators. The territory of Wisconsin had elections, but their party system was different than ours, so we only knew about Wisconsin’s demographics, like race, education, income, and religion(s). If we had no prior electoral information about the state, we’d likely think Wisconsin would be competitive with two major cities supporting Democrats (Milwaukee and Madison), a large wealthy white suburb supporting Republicans (Waukesha) and a hodgepodge of support in the rural, predominantly white parts of the state. If we took Milwaukee, Madison, and Waukesha as fixed entities, we’d conclude that if the rural parts of Wisconsin voted more like it’s neighbors Iowa and Minnesota, that the state would lean Democratic, but be competitive with the right Republican candidate (i.e. not Romney). Through this frame it’s understandable how Trump, or the right Republican could win Wisconsin, even if past electoral history biased us against it. A caveat here is that Bush almost won Wisconsin in 2000, he lost by only 5,000 votes out of 2.5 million, 0.22% about the same percentage as Trump’s margin in Michigan. What happened in Wisconsin three weeks ago seemed impossible, but it’s not as crazy as it seems.
By now, you’ve read 25 stories on how working class white voters (loosely defined?, undefined?) broke for Trump in the midwest because of racism, sexism, xenophobia, economic anxiety, the opioid epidemic, desire for change, complete lack of faith in the political system, hatred of banks, etc. I’m not going to attribute any one solely to Trump’s victory, but they all certainly played some role. There’s even a lot of talk about Obama-Trump voters, a proposition that I want to rule out a priori because of how absurd it seems, but that we won’t be able to confirm until after the voterfiles are updated. If there’s a sharp increase in turnout of people who didn’t vote in 2012, and a decrease in turnout among people who did vote in 2012, what looks like Obama-Trump voters, might just be differential turnout. Of course some people voted for Obama and then Trump, but I want to be careful before assuming that’s true and what drove the difference in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee Clinton got 43,000 fewer votes than Obama, but Trump got 26,000 fewer than Romney. There likely wasn’t much vote switching, but depressed turnout explains a lot in Milwaukee, and might explain behavior in other parts of the state.
On paper there’s virtually nothing different about Wisconsin in 2012 than in 2016. Scott Walker is still Governor, the state’s unemployment rate is lower, but still behind the national average, Republicans still control the state legislature, and state GDP growth stayed at it’s 1% level almost the entire time. There certainly weren’t any national or state shocks that should have altered voting in any meaningful way. But one relationship pops up that’s fascinating: The relationship between education and the Republican candidate’s share of the vote.
Below are scatter plots of Romney and Trump’s county level Two Party Vote Share ( Dem Vote / (Dem Vote + Rep V0te)) labeled TPVS by plotted against county-level College Attainment (percent) and Median Individual Income as measured by the Census. Two Party Vote Share is the x axis for all of these plots below.
For those of you that have read Andrew Gelman’s Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State these figures should be familiar. Romney’s vote share and income relationship, matches the relationship we’d expect in a solidly Republican state like Texas or South Carolina, as voters get wealthier they become more Republican. But Trump’s relationship with vote share and income looks like that of a solidly Blue state like Connecticut or California, as income increases, there’s no relationship with partisan voting. Remember, all 4 of these graphs are the same 72 counties in Wisconsin from 2012-2016. And they’re of the same fucking party.
To recap, county-level median income is correlated with Support for Romney, but not for Trump. County-level College attainment is negatively correlated with support for Trump, but not for Romney. An extraordinarily important caveat here is that this is explaining how counties voted, not how individuals behaved. So Trump does worse than Romney in Waukesha, a well-educated affluent suburb, but he still gets a ton of votes from there that gets downplayed when you look at counties instead of individuals. Below is a link to a downloadable map to look at this data for 2016 graphically. You can download it and view it in Chrome.
The simplest interpretation of these data is that in 2012 economic concerns heavily influenced voting behavior in ways that fit the traditional partisan narrative, Republicans are wealthier and Democrats are poorer. 2016 shows that voting behavior was driven most heavily by differences in educational attainment (a proxy for social and cultural issues or cosmopolitanism, rather than literal education), with income being a relatively unimportant determinant of voting behavior, a kind of bizarro 2000.
As a baseline test I thought I’d regress Trump Vote share on county level Education and income, to see what patterns emerged. In the url for the .PDF below are a series of weak, but I think instructive models looking at the relationship between income and education on vote share. The big thing that seems to stand out is that income, as measured at the county level, is not driving support for Trump. I wouldn’t read this as “there’s no economic anxiety, they’re all racists” but the story of economic anxiety should not be considered the sole driver of voting behavior in the midwest, as at least some pundits would like us to believe.
I don’t know how we define class in the US, and I’m increasingly unsure what others mean by it when they use it. It’s sort of become this stand-in for education, but there’s a real cultural component to it as well. It’s not just whether or not someone has a college degree, but watching football or CBS sitcoms puts someone in a different class than if they watch Game of Thrones and read Vox. What I’m getting at is there is a growing cultural divide that expressed itself throughout the Midwest this past election. It’s a lot more complicated than “economic anxiety” and it won’t solve itself simply by redistributing wealth, even though we obviously should. There’s a lot left to unpack from this election, but the notion that this is a purely economic phenomenon just does not seem right to me.