Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made raising up the middle class a big theme in their election pitches, and with good reason. A recent Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll found jobs and the economy was the top priority for voters in all 50 states. But it sometimes sounds like the candidates are talking about two different middle classes. That might be because their bases appear to be living in two different middle classes.
New Census Bureau data shows median household income trends for 2015 fell along political lines: While family income went up in every state last year, families in Democratic states earn more than families in Republican states. Democratic-leaning states earn more than Republican-leaning states, and so on. Meanwhile, families in states considered a toss-up for the 2016 election are among the nation’s lowest earners – perhaps as a result of the shifting battleground map, which has expanded to more Southern, traditionally Republican states. Of the six states considered by a recent Washington Post-SurveyMonkey 50-state poll to be a toss-up for either Clinton or Trump, only one – Florida – increased its median household income by more than the national average last year.
Where did income grow the most?
Percent increase in median household income from 2014 to 2015.
Less than 1%
More than 4%
Politicians are in a tough spot when it comes to how to talk about the economy with voters, especially in swing states. The economy is improving, as it has been steadily (albeit modestly) for President Obama’s entire term. Census Bureau data shows middle class incomes had their fastest growth on record last year and their biggest raise in 50 years.
But those gains aren’t universal. The economy is changing in a way that benefits more educated urban dwellers. Almost all of the income increases over the past year came in cities, while almost none of it came to rural areas, writes The Post’s Jim Tankersley.
Combine that with what we know about local political leanings, and you get a clear trend: The economy is improving for people in heavily populated areas, which tend to vote more Democratic, while stagnating for people in rural areas, which tend to vote more Republican. Swing states, like Ohio and North Carolina, tend to have a mix of both rural and urban populations.
The major-party presidential candidates are trying two very different strategies when it comes to talking to this politically and geographically bifurcated middle class.
Clinton is attempting to straddle a thin line, praising President Obama’s handling of the economy while acknowledging it isn't improving for everyone. She’s promised not to raise taxes on the middle class, so they can “catch up to where they were before the Great Recession.” (The average American is making less today than he or she was 15 years ago.) In other words, the middle class isn’t doing bad, Clinton says, but it could be doing better.
Trump has a much simpler outlook: “Our middle class is being absolutely decimated,” he likes to say. His campaign basically ignored the new Census Bureau data showing good news for the middle class.
Polling suggests most Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic. A May Quinnipiac Poll found 67 percent rated the economy “not so good” or “poor.”
As you might guess, that number varied a lot, depending on the political leanings of respondents: 50 percent of Democrats rated the economy as good, while only 12 percent of Republicans did.