Newspaper article International New York Times

The Downwardly Mobile for Trump

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Downwardly Mobile for Trump

Article excerpt

The Republican nominee's message resonates with people who are doing fine, but are worried about the future.

What makes Americans receptive to what Donald J. Trump has been saying on the campaign trail?

We know from opinion polls that whites without college degrees provide his deepest well of support. Among these working-class individuals, one might think that Mr. Trump would do best with people with lower incomes and more tenuous connections to the job market. In accepting his party's nomination, he claimed to be the voice of "laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals." Shouldn't the people in the worst economic circumstances be most receptive to that message?

A recent paper by Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup, based on 87,428 interviews conducted by the organization between July 2015 and July 2016, showed this seemingly surprising finding: Support for Mr. Trump wasn't strongly related to income and employment. In fact, among whites with similar educational levels, those who held favorable views of Mr. Trump had higher incomes and were no more likely to be out of the work force than those who held unfavorable views of him.

But that doesn't mean that economic distress is irrelevant to Trump's supporters. Rather, the interviews show that people's satisfaction with their standard of living, and their subsequent political choices, depends on more than how many dollars they bring home each week. Their happiness depends on their reference group: Whom are they comparing themselves to?

People often compare their standard of living with the standard they experienced while growing up. The most dissatisfied individuals tend to be the ones who don't think they have matched or exceeded their parents' economic standing. One might fault them for their narrow focus on their own kin, but they have merely bought into the American idea of progress -- which implies that every generation should have a better life than the previous one -- and found their own situation wanting. Typical survey measures of income and employment don't capture the influence of these glances back in time.

This principle suggests that we should expect greater support for Mr. Trump among the downwardly mobile -- those who believe that they aren't doing as well as the previous generation -- even if their incomes aren't that low.

The 2014 General Social Survey, conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, asked a national sample of adults whether their standard of living was better, the same or worse than that of their parents. Among non-Hispanic whites age 25 and older who had completed less than four years of college, 53 percent said they were doing better than their parents. Another 27 percent said they were doing about the same, and 20 percent said they were doing worse. …

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