The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story about Elijah Cummings’s district that Trump isn’t interested in telling

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) play into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s sweeping disparagement of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District over the weekend was obviously not informed by the district’s actual dynamics. Trump apparently saw a segment on Fox News in which a Republican activist shared videos of run-down houses in a district represented by a fierce critic of the president, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). With a flick of his magic Twitter wand, Trump declared the district to be so toxic as to be uninhabitable.

“No human being would want to live there,” he wrote on Twitter, a wholesale denigration of the people who do live there — people who, in Trump’s eyes, either don’t want to live there or aren’t human. Trump was focused on the portion of Baltimore that Cummings represents (the dark-blue cluster in the district), almost certainly without recognizing that the district also stretches out into the suburbs and includes no fewer than 64,926 people who voted for Trump in 2016.

Cummings’s district is “considered the Worst in the USA,” according to the president’s random attack, and is “the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States.” It’s a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” Trump went on, and “very dangerous & filthy."

Again, Trump was responding to a few videos shared by a Republican who lives in Baltimore, but it took very little for him to extrapolate: It’s Baltimore, so it’s poor, dangerous and dirty — which is precisely the context in which Trump has always referred to the city.

The thing is, though: Cummings’s district isn’t that poor. Compared with the other 434 congressional districts, the 7th District is in the 61st percentile on median household income. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s old district, South Carolina’s 5th District, is in the 22nd percentile for income, despite Mulvaney disparaging Cummings’s district on Sunday.

(Here, we’ve compared incomes to the Cook Political Report partisan voting index, a look at how districts have voted in the past two presidential elections. On these charts, districts that backed Trump in 2016 are in red.)

Mulvaney specifically referred to poverty, a metric on which his old district and Cummings’s are about equal, according to Census Bureau data. Maryland’s 7th District is in the 70th percentile for poverty. Poverty there is significantly lower than in, say, the heavily Republican 5th District of Kentucky, which Trump has not targeted for disparagement on Twitter.

In both of those graphs, we’ve overlaid another dimension: the density of the white population in the districts. The smaller the circle on the graph, the more heavily nonwhite it is.

Let’s compare income and race directly. Many of the most heavily black districts in the United States are also on the lower end of the income spectrum. Maryland’s 7th District has the second-highest median income among districts that are at least half black. (The highest is found in Maryland’s 4th District.)

Part of Trump’s focus on Baltimore concerns the rate of violent crime in the city. The Gun Violence Archive tracks shooting incidents by congressional district. From 2014 to now, there were 4,335 such incidents in Cummings’s district, the third-highest of any district.

This doesn’t correlate precisely to poverty at the district level. The district with the highest poverty rate in the country, according to the Census Bureau, is New York’s 15th District, represented by Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.). The district with the most shootings is Illinois’s 7th, in Chicago — a district that does have higher poverty than the median.

On average, the 15 congressional districts with the highest number of shooting incidents are in the 88th percentile nationally for poverty.

The lowest poverty rate of those 15? Maryland’s 7th District.

There’s a complicated overlap among race, crime and income. There are long-standing systemic reasons for Baltimore’s poverty, explored by The Post during unrest in the city in 2015. As Emily Badger wrote then:

“Just a few years ago, Wells Fargo agreed to pay millions of dollars to Baltimore and its residents to settle a landmark lawsuit brought by the city claiming the bank unfairly steered minorities who wanted to own homes into subprime mortgages. Before that, there was the crack epidemic of the 1990s and the rise of mass incarceration and the decline of good industrial jobs in the 1980s.”
“And before that? From 1951 to 1971, 80 to 90 percent of the 25,000 families displaced in Baltimore to build new highways, schools and housing projects were black. Their neighborhoods, already disinvested and deemed dispensable, were sliced into pieces, the parks where their children played bulldozed.”
“And before that — now if we go way back — there was redlining, the earlier corollary to subprime lending in which banks refused to lend at all in neighborhoods that federally backed officials had identified as having ‘undesirable racial concentrations.’”

But again: As that first map shows, the district isn’t all Baltimore. There’s another gap that’s worth highlighting, in fact. The median household income for white households in Cummings’s district is 2.25 times the income for black households. That’s a higher discrepancy than in all but 13 other districts — including Illinois’s 7th District.

Despite that gulf, black household incomes in Cummings’s district are in the 61st percentile among congressional districts — the same position white households hold. Why the above gap, then? White households in his district have incomes that are in the 91st percentile. About a third of the district is white, according to the Census Bureau. Voter data from the data firm L2 suggests that those white voters are more heavily Democratic than Republican.

It’s a complicated picture, one that Trump obviously isn’t interested in. He often presents blue districts — particularly urban, heavily nonwhite blue districts — as representations of the worst of America. That fails to capture the complexity of the situation. Here, the goal is obvious: Bash Cummings. Picking out one part of a district to impugn an elected leader, though, means that Trump might be held more accountable for Baltimore than Cummings himself.

In the 2016 election, the Republican running against Cummings pulled in 21.8 percent of the vote. Trump did a bit worse, getting 20.2 percent and about 4,000 fewer votes.

Given the weekend’s tweets, it seems quite possible that Trump might do worse in 2020.