The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People are oversimplifying the reasons for Trump’s victory

Elliott County, Kentucky has been called "the most reliably Democratic county in America." The people there chose the Democrat in every presidential election for 136 years, dating all the way back to the county's establishment in 1869.

But that all changed this week. Trump won Elliott County in decisive fashion on Tuesday, running the numbers all the way up to a 44 point margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

It's easy to read what happened in Elliott County this year as a reflection of the familiar narrative of white hardships and grievances: the county is 95 percent white, with a median household income of about $28,000.

But the travails of the white working class don't alone explain Trump's dramatic victory. Exit polls show Trump held an advantage over Clinton among voters making $100,000 a year or more, and that Clinton actually won among lower-income voters.

Indeed, a look at the other 252 counties where voters moved toward the GOP by 25 percentage points or more suggest that the Trump wave wasn't isolated to America's Rust Belt, or even largely a product of it.

All of those counties, with the lone exception of Shoshone County, Idaho, are located in the quadrant of the U.S. map shown above. These counties are overwhelmingly rural: nearly 65 percent of voters here live in rural areas, according to Census data, compared to 19 percent nationwide.

Voters here are also overwhelmingly white: 95 percent of the residents of these counties were white in 2015, compared 77 percent nationwide.

The counties include major chunks of southeastern Ohio and Iowa. They include reaches of far northern New York and New England, as well as the northernmost stretch of the Red River valley in North Dakota and Minnesota.

By contrast only 15 counties -- most of them in Utah -- swung left by similar margins.

It's tempting to look at the map and conclude that whatever's happening here is a Rust Belt phenomenon, a function of the familiar white working class narrative of closing factories, disappearing jobs and fading hopes. But look a little closer. Below, I've overlaid the rough boundaries of what we think of as the Rust Belt according to Belt Magazine, a publication focusing on the Rust Belt and the Midwest.

With the exception of southeast Ohio, most of the counties seeing these huge GOP shifts are located well outside of the Rust Belt. Iowa and the Red River valley, for instance are corn country, not manufacturing country. The upper reaches of Wisconsin are known for forests and farms, not for manufacturing.

Indeed, many of the Great Lakes coastal regions we traditionally associate with the Rust Belt don't show up on this map at all. Part of this is because manufacturing is typically located in urban areas, and the Census numbers above suggest this is primarily a rural phenomenon.

While the hardships of the white working class explain part of what's happening here, in other words, it's not the whole story.