A quick look at the geography of election returns shows that some fundamental things have changed. Just to use Pennsylvania as an example, last night Hillary Clinton netted 455,000 votes out of Philadelphia and 95,000 votes out of Pittsburgh compared to the 450,000 and 90,000 that Obama netted in 2012. Romney narrowly carried suburban Chester County in 2012 by about a thousand votes, but Clinton won it by 35,000. Yet, Obama carried the state with 52% and Clinton lost it with only 47.7%.
What changed? Take a look at Somerset County in Western Pennsylvania (site of the 9/11 Flight 93 crash) where 33,000 votes were cast in 2012 and 35,000 votes were cast in 2016. The real difference wasn’t increased turnout. The difference was Romney won 71% and netted 14,500 votes, but Trump won 77% and netted 20,000. This pattern repeated itself in rural county after county in Pennsylvania until Hillary’s better performance in the cities and suburbs was erased and even Obama’s margins were wiped away. You can see similar effects in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere that almost entirely explain the surprising result last night. Clinton met the benchmarks in cities like Miami and Philadelphia but was overwhelmed by a rural white vote that rejected her and the Democrats in unprecedented numbers.
If this is a temporary Trump-induced aberration, it might be survivable, but if it becomes the new normal the left can forget about controlling the House of Representatives or most state legislatures and will leave itself open to more Electoral College disappointments.
At the Washington Monthly, we’ve been grappling with regional inequality for some time. In our most recent issue my brother Phil wrote a piece on the potential for a revival of anti-trust enforcement to revitalize the economies of small town America. It was pitched as an idea to conservatives who might be looking for some policy light at the end of their post-Trump tunnel. In this new world we’re living in, the same ideas can serve a similar purpose for progressives and offers at least a reed of hope for bipartisanship.
Our challenge going forward is to come up with actual policy prescriptions that can prevent what happened last night from becoming the new normal.
This is also a way of meeting the racial challenge presented by Trump’s victory without making allowances for it or saying that it is any way “okay.” If the Democrats take the message that the status quo wasn’t working for these folks to heart and try to do something aggressive to restore small town America, that’s good for everyone and doesn’t leave anyone out. If, on the other hand, these folks are vilified as undereducated bigots, it won’t be long before they feel about us the same way that we feel about Trump. No one needs to sweep any of that under the rug, but that can’t be the response.
These communities used to be filled with privately-owned banks and pharmacies and hardware shops. They can be again with an aggressive anti-trust push.
People need to start thinking about other things that can done, because the Obama coalition doesn’t have the geographical breadth to overcome a rural America that votes against them in these numbers as a matter of habit.