“I wasn’t on the ballot,” President Trump absurdly told Fox News in an interview that aired Sunday night. It got only more comically ham-handed from there. Questioned about the GOP’s crushing loss of the House, Trump repeated this formulation again and again — even after being confronted with the fact that he himself had repeatedly urged Americans to vote as if the elections were, in fact, a referendum on him.
Chances are many Fox viewers will now robotically agree that the outcome had zero to do with Trump. But even if Trump’s name was not literally on the ballot, the story Trump has been telling about this country was undeniably central to this election. With the Democratic edge in the House popular vote now swelling to nearly eight points — 53 percent to 45.3 percent — it’s clear that the country decisively rejected this Trumpist story.
A new analysis and report from the Brookings Institution may help explain why Trump’s narrative flopped so badly for the GOP. But the analysis also has important implications for Trump’s coming effort to get reelected — and hints at ways Democrats can more effectively reach beyond their current coalition to prevent that from happening.
The analysis finds that Democrats won the House by making big inroads in parts of the country that are more prosperous and more educated — which we already knew. But, crucially, it also finds that those areas are more connected to the digitalizing, professional, globalizing economy than areas held by Republicans.
At my request, Brookings analyzed data in the roughly three dozen congressional districts, or CDs, that Democrats flipped, and compared them with the totality of districts held by both Democrats and Republicans. The result:
The analysis shows that the approximately three-dozen House districts Democrats flipped have substantially higher average gross-domestic-product-output per worker than the average across the totality of the districts now held by Republicans nationwide. The same goes for household income; percentage with a bachelor’s degree; and job share in professional and digital services. Meanwhile, the flipped districts have a significantly lower percentage of manufacturing job share than the GOP ones overall.
By all these metrics, the flipped districts much more closely resemble the totality of Democratic districts across the country. Mark Muro, the Brookings senior fellow who conducted this analysis, draws broad conclusions about the areas of the country in which Democrats seized House districts.
“The ones that flipped are relatively high-productivity, high-income and well-educated places with a higher proportion of their employment in information-oriented professional and digital services,” Muro told me. “They are far better educated and more tied to the global economy.”
By contrast, Muro added, the GOP districts “have much less professional or digital employment, and are less educated and more oriented towards traditional pursuits like manufacturing.”
The deepening economic divergence
The big story here is that this election once again highlighted the deepening economic divergence between Democratic and Republican areas, a divergence that is driven by what Brookings calls “territorial inequality.”
In its new report out today, Brookings looks at this problem in depth. In short, the biggest metropolitan areas and their immediately surrounding suburbs are pulling away from more rural, small town, and small metro areas in productivity and share of the nation’s job growth, due to digitalization, globalization, corporate concentration, and other factors.
“Big, techy metros like San Francisco, Boston, and New York with populations over 1 million have flourished, accounting for 72 percent of the nation’s employment growth since the financial crisis,” the report says. “By contrast, many of the nation’s smaller cities, small towns, and rural areas have languished.” This has created a “geography of discontent” that has spawned “entrenched poverty” in the “left-behind” areas, producing “deepening small-town resentment of coastal cosmopolitan elites.”
As my chart above details, the post-election map of the House shows that, overall, districts now held by Democrats have significantly higher output per worker, median household income, percentages with college degrees, and jobs in professional and digital services than GOP districts do.
CNBC’s John Harwood crunched this and other data supplied by Brookings and summarized it this way: All of the districts across the country that will now be controlled by Democrats “account for 61 percent of America’s gross domestic product,” while all the districts that will now be controlled by Republicans account for 38 percent.
My chart demonstrates that Democrats won with inroads into areas that follow that pattern. Harwood looked at more data and added:
Blue districts have attracted the expanding segments of the U.S. population and workforce; half their residents are non-white. Red districts are 27 percent non-white.
All this hints at one reason Trump’s closing narrative may have failed. Echoed by many Republican candidates, Trump closed with theatrical trade belligerence and a relentless campaign fueled by lies demonizing migrants as a destructive force. He tried to claim the Trump/GOP agenda — crackdowns on immigrants; trade wars; a deeply regressive economic agenda wrapped in false promises of a huge middle-class tax cut and health-care protections — has fueled a miraculous Trump Economy that is breaking decisively with the hellscape of the Obama years.
But if the areas where Democrats won the House are more prosperous and more connected to the global and digitalizing economy — and to some degree more diverse — then this may help explain why that narrative didn’t resonate in those places. The economy was already doing well in many such areas when Trump took office, and globalization and immigration — in short, the changing makeup of the economy and the country — are perhaps not experienced as economic threats.
Indeed, a new poll from Democracy Corps underscores this on immigration. It found that on Election Day, 54 percent of those who voted believe immigrants “strengthen our country,” 20 points higher than those who see them as a burden. This included a large majority of independents. As pollster Stan Greenberg concluded, Trump’s “open borders” attacks “backfired,” allowing Democrats to make “big gains” by embracing “diversity” and “immigrants” and “multicultural America.”
Those big gains were, of course, in the very areas discussed above.
A lingering challenge for Democrats and progressives
Still, all of this also points to the need for Democrats and progressives to do a better job speaking to those “left behind” parts of the country, by focusing on the problem of territorial inequality.
The Brookings report lays out multiple ideas for mitigating this, from investments in helping workers transition to tech and digital occupations, to finding alternative sources of capital to bolster businesses in these lagging areas. It also points to the decline in antitrust enforcement leading to more power to depress wages by local employers in them. Brookings proposes geographically targeted wage subsidies and tax credits to incentivize hiring, among many other things.
The broader point here is that big Democratic gains in areas dominated by the new economy also showcase the need to address the problems in areas outside of them.
“The economic dislocation outside growing metropolitan areas creates legitimate economic grievance,” Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute, which has studied the impact of economic concentration on these left-behind areas, tells me. “Rising regional inequality bespeaks the need for a broader policy agenda,” one that will “ensure broadly shared prosperity.”
Democrats, of course, lost ground in the Senate. Steinbaum points out that the geography of the upper chamber, in which rural areas are overrepresented, itself suggests the utility of a “compelling message” on regional inequality directed at those areas.
It might also be good politics against Trump in 2020, as well.