The Myth of Desperation

One narrative that’s been floating around the lyin’ press throughout the past two years is that that Trump and Sanders voters were mainly driven by desperation -that one wouldn’t vote for a candidate of dramatic change if one was perfectly satisfied with one’s affairs.

Perhaps the perfect counterexample to that is the county in Michigan with the highest median household income and lowest poverty rate in the state -Livingston.

Livingston County is many things, but it ain’t desperate. It’s rich, very Republican -it went for John McCain with 55% of the vote in November 2008, and 61% of the vote for Mitt Romney in 2012- and is not the place where one would find out-of-work factory workers or coal miners discontented with their economic situation, because there aren’t much of them. And, during the 2016 primaries, the candidate there who got the most votes was Donald Trump. The candidate who got the second-most votes there was Bernie Sanders (indeed, Livingston County had a higher Bernie share in the Democratic primary than all the counties surrounding it). The candidate who got the third-most votes there was John Kasich -this county isn’t as socially conservative as the western part of the state. Nor did woke neocon Marco Rubio appeal there much -he got a lower share of the Republican vote there than in the rest of the state, and Rubio and Kasich’s vote share combined would not have sufficed to prevent Trump from winning it in the primary.

Now, before 2016, Michigan hadn’t had a real Democratic primary for ages. But it did have real Republican primaries in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012. And guess who won the vote in Livingston County (a solidly Republican county, it must be remembered) each time? Mitt Romney by double digits in 2012, Mitt Romney by double digits in 2008, George W. Bush by single digits in 2000 [most MI counties went for McCain at the time], and Bob Dole by double digits in 1996 (Buchanan did well in Lapeer and St. Clair, though, and nearly won the famous Macomb). Not Ron Paul. Not Mike Huckabee. Not Alan Keyes. Rich guy Mitt Romney and establishment candidate George W. Bush.

There are other examples of this. Nevada’s third congressional district. Long Island. In the general election only, Minnesota’s sixth and second congressional districts (though Trump did far worse than Rubio there in the caucuses, he did better than Romney there in the general election).

Now, yes, Trump and Sanders really did appeal more to those among the really desperate who are White, at least, relative to Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. The results of the 2016 primaries in the poorest non-Hispanic White majority congressional district in the country (KY-05) are enough to prove this. But that does not mean economic or social desperation was either a necessary or sufficient condition for Trump or Sanders support (many Whites in desperate rural areas in the South also voted for HRC in the primary).

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