Thomas B. Edsall
Democrats point to a thousand reasons that Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. Here is another.
In political circles, it’s common knowledge that in four key states President Trump unexpectedly carried counties that Democratic presidential campaign strategists had failed to recognize as crucial terrain — sparsely populated areas of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In “What I Got Wrong About the Election,” for example, published right after Clinton lost, David Plouffe, who had managed the Obama campaign in 2008, wrote that
Trump’s margins in rural and exurban counties were off the charts. For example, in Madison County, an exurban area outside Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Romney’s margin over Mr. Obama was 20.4 percentage points; Mr. Trump’s margin over Mrs. Clinton was 39.8.
Plouffe added that this “happened in thousands of counties throughout the country, and it added up quickly.”
What Democrats missed was the profound political impact recent immigration trends were having on the more rural parts of the once homogeneous Midwest — that the region had unexpectedly become a flash point in the nation’s partisan immigration wars.
In a Brookings essay published last month, John C. Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center, a local think tank, writes that the region is experiencing a “steady stream of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”
As a result, Austin continues,
Immigration has become an unambiguous factor in this racially charged Midwestern landscape. While immigrant-rich states like Arizona, California, and Florida are often at the center of immigration policy discussions, the political debate about the role of immigrants burns hottest in the heartland.
Austin went on, in an email, to provide more detail about the power of immigration to move white voters into the Trump column:
The “rural” voters here are some farmers, but more likely, as in the hinterlands outside Flint, Monroe, Toledo, Erie, or Janesville, Wisconsin, they are mostly white, working class blue collar workers or retirees, many, sadly, who fled their small cities to escape blacks. They are anxious about the economic prospects for their future, their aging communities (the kids have fled), making folks mad. And now all these immigrants come and are changing the society!! Just as Macomb County, where working class white voters fled Detroit in advance of blacks, now sees nearby communities like Hamtramck becoming (in their view) a Bangladeshi bazaar — and they don’t like that. And they are easily fanned to blame those folks.
In February 2017, Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and strategist, conducted four postelection focus groups with white voters who had cast ballots for Trump in Macomb County, Michigan, an area he has been studying since 1985. The participants were not Republicans. They were whites without college degrees who identified themselves as independents, as Democratic-leaning independents, or as Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008, 2012 or both.
“Immigration is a powerful issue for these Trump voters, representing a demand that citizens come before noncitizens, Americans before foreigners, and that we take care of home first before abroad,” Greenberg wrote in his report for The Roosevelt Institute:
They believe that we have “opened up our borders, they pretty much made it a free for all” which means fewer jobs and greater demands on government services and more concerns about safety.
Greenberg’s report is replete with revealing quotes from the focus groups:
I went and finally signed up for Medicaid, and I’m standing in the damn welfare office, and I’m looking around at all of these people that can’t even say hello to me in English. But they’re all there with appointments for their workers, which means they have the health care, they have the food stamps…. If you can come from somewhere else, why can’t we all get it?
My grandson’s school, I went to as a child, there are hardly any — I’ll just say American families there now. It’s mostly Middle Eastern and people all standing outside waiting for their kid, to pick them up at the end of the day, and nobody’s speaking English. Everyone’s speaking other languages, which, there’s nothing wrong with other languages.
You know what, like where I’m working, at Kroger, how many Spanish people I wait on. The universal language — I don’t care, if you smile — hello, I don’t care what country you’re from, but some of these people, they act like they can’t do that, even. It’s like, “You know what? You’re in America.” Get with either — you can learn to say hello, goodbye, thank you, in our language. This is America.
Three developments are taking place in the rust belt simultaneously.
First, as recently as 2000, many of the key Midwestern counties that moved from blue to red in 2016 had very few minority residents. Since then, their immigrant populations began to increase at a rapid rate well above the national average. Second, at the same time that immigrants are moving in, younger native-born residents are leaving in droves to seek employment elsewhere, while the remaining white population is aging and is often hostile to change. It is the perfect formula for cultural conflict, and Trump proved to be the perfect candidate to exploit it. Finally, these changes are taking place in a region that Austin points out is home to “15 of the nation’s 25 major metro areas with the sharpest black-white segregation,” making it even more unreceptive to nonwhites than other sections of the country.
One way to understand what has been taking place recently in the Midwest is through the use of a measure called the diversity index. This index ranks geographic areas — states, counties and ZIP codes — on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the number, the more likely that two people chosen at random will be different by race and origin. Put another way, a higher number means more diversity, a lower number, less diversity. (The diversity index for states and counties can be found here.)
Arrayed on a diversity index, Michigan with an index of 42, Wisconsin at 35, Ohio at 36, and Pennsylvania at 41, all rank in the bottom twenty — i.e., the least diverse — of the fifty states. The diversity index for the entire country is substantially higher at 63. Examples of states with very high diversity indexes include California at 79; Nevada at 73; Texas at 70; and New York at 70.
A rapid rate of growth in the percentage of immigrants in communities that have in the past experienced little diversity is particularly explosive.
Benjamin J. Newman, a political scientist at the University of California-Riverside, described this phenomenon in a 2013 paper:
Growth in local Hispanic populations triggers threat and opposition to immigration among whites residing in contexts with few initial Hispanics, but reduces threat and opposition to immigration among whites residing in contexts with large pre-existing Hispanic populations.
In other words, communities that are close to 100 percent white will react intensely to a modest increase in foreign-born residents, while highly diverse communities will shrug it off.
Exit poll data from 2016 shows how critical opposition to immigration in the Midwest was to Trump’s victory.
In Michigan, for instance, exit poll data showed that those who believe immigrants to the United States “hurt the country” voted three to one for Trump. Those who said illegal immigrants should be deported voted for Trump by better than five to one. The same pattern can be seen in exit poll data from Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which, while not part of the Midwest geographically, resembles it politically.
Democratic strategists were unprepared for the depth of the upheaval that shifted the balance of power across the Rust Belt.
Take Erie County, Pennsylvania, one of the key jurisdictions that shifted from blue to red in 2016. In 2012, the county backed Obama over Mitt Romney 57.1 to 41.2; four years later, Trump carried the county 48 to Hillary Clinton’s 46.4.
From 2000 to 2015, the diversity index for Erie rose from 19 to 29.3. That’s a 54 percent increase, nearly double the national rate of increase, 28.6 percent.
For a more extreme example, take Luzerne County surrounding Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Obama beat Romney there by 51.5 to 46.7. Four years later, Trump beat Clinton by a landslide margin, 57.9 to 38.6. In 2000, Luzerne had a diversity index of 8; by 2015 the index rose to 36.6. That’s a 360 percent increase over 15 years.
The same pattern can be seen in many of the Midwestern counties where the shift to Trump was strongest. Adams County, Wisconsin, voted for Obama over Romney by 53.9 to 45.1. Last year it backed Trump 58.9 to 37. From 2000 to 2015, the diversity index for Adams County rose from 7 to 21.3, a 204 percent increase. Macomb County, Michigan: 51.3 to 47.3 for Obama; 53.6 to 42 for Trump — its diversity index jumped from 16 in 2000 to 34.5 in 2015, a 116 percent increase.
At the same time, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania, have each experienced a net out-migration of native-born residents. The effect of this exodus is twofold.
First, the people leaving tend to be younger and more open-minded, willing to risk moving to a faster growing section of the country. Second, those left behind tend to be older, more closed-minded and more set in their ways.
William Frey, a demographer at Brookings, emailed me:
These “left-behind” populations tend to be older and more backward rather than future oriented — less likely to embrace the nation’s new diversity and the emerging global economy. This was surely the case among 2016 voters in rural parts of swing states that helped to elect Trump as president.
In a June paper, “Census shows nonmetropolitan America is whiter, getting older, and losing population,” Frey wrote that nationwide, nonmetropolitan communities experienced negative population growth, declining 0.4 percent with “a net out-migration of 680,000 people. This contrasts with a nearly 6 percent growth rate and net in-migration for metropolitan areas.”
Frey noted how crucial many of these declining, left-behind, nonmetropolitan communities were to Trump’s victory:
In Pennsylvania, nonmetropolitan residents comprised just 12 percent of the population and 10 percent of voters, but Trump’s nonmetropolitan margin of 287,000 votes overtook Clinton’s metropolitan advantage of 243,000 votes.
Rob Paral, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote in an email that one thing that sets the Midwest apart “is the tremendous loss of native-born population.” As younger residents emigrate to the South and West,
the depopulation makes the inflow of even modest numbers of immigrants add up to more dramatic demographic change than would be otherwise felt.
Further compounding the rightward movement of these white voters is their animosity to nonwhites.
In Macomb, the bellwether Midwestern county, Austin of the Michigan Economic Center found that whites in virtually all-white communities react most strongly to demographic changes taking place in close-by neighborhoods:
All the recent population growth in the county — 3 percent over the past six years — has come from minorities, as the white population continues to drop. New residents include a 34 percent increase in African-Americans, a 27 percent increase in Asians, and a 14 percent increase in Latinos. And migrants from abroad account for fully 60 percent of the county’s recent population increase.
Looking at the 23 small cities and towns that make up Macomb County, Austin determined that between 2012 and 2016 each one had shifted toward Republican voting, with the increase ranging from one percent to 14 percent, but that “the shift was greatest in the white enclave communities.”
The consequences of neighborhood increases in foreign born and black residents can be seen in Austin’s data.
In the whitest Macomb communities, averaging 3.4 percent foreign born and 4.9 percent African-American, Trump’s gains over Obama were largest, 12.4 percentage points. In the more diverse Macomb communities, close to white enclaves, 8.3 percent foreign born and 9.3 percent African-American, Trump’s gains were smaller, averaging 7.2 percentage points.
In a prescient 2010 paper, “Politicized Places: Explaining Where and When Immigrants Provoke Local Opposition,” Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, described the crucial interaction of the rate of change in the level of immigration with the politicization of the immigration issue by national figures:
When faced with a sudden, destabilizing change in local demographics, and when salient national rhetoric politicizes that demographic change, people’s views turn anti-immigrant.
In an email, Hopkins elaborated on his thesis: “sudden influxes of immigrants generate hostility, likely because they destabilize long-time residents’ sense of their communities’ identity.”
Looking back on the 2016 election and the importance of the immigration issue, what stands out is the failure of the Clinton campaign to address the immigration concerns of the Obama-to-Trump voters who played such a key role in the outcome. Campaign strategists may not have been aware of the intensity with which these voters viewed the issue, or they may have decided that given their target voters, the Democratic Party was not at liberty to moderate its unwavering pro-immigration stance.
The immigration stance of the Clinton campaign contrasted with Obama’s record. While Obama called for immigrants who were brought into this country as children to be allowed to stay, he stressed policies calling for the deportation of criminals and in fact deported more people than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
The campaign’s public stance on Immigration Reform declared:
Hillary has been committed to the immigrant rights community throughout her career. As president, she will work to fix our broken immigration system and stay true to our fundamental American values: that we are a nation of immigrants, and we treat those who come to our country with dignity and respect — and that we embrace immigrants, not denigrate them.
Eight of the nine policies described in Clinton’s statement are pro-immigration, and the ninth refers only peripherally to enforcement:
Enforce immigration laws humanely. Immigration enforcement must be humane, targeted, and effective. Hillary will focus resources on detaining and deporting those individuals who pose a violent threat to public safety, and ensure refugees who seek asylum in the U.S. have a fair chance to tell their stories.
The Clinton campaign has come under some fire from fellow Democrats on immigration. In a June American Prospect essay, Stanley Greenberg wrote:
The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation’s growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens’. Instinctively and not surprisingly, the Democrats embraced the liberal values of America’s dynamic and best-educated metropolitan areas, seeming not to respect the values or economic stress of older voters in small-town and rural America.
The contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination will test whether and how the explicitly liberal stance adopted by Clinton might evolve. This is a moral and political challenge for left-liberal parties throughout the Western Hemisphere. On one hand, there has been the prospect of “an emerging Democratic majority.” In the United States, Obama won the White House twice relying on just such a majority.
Still, Trump’s 2016 victory — as well as Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s episodic successes (33.9 percent of the French presidential vote last May), and the emergence of the anti-immigrant AfD in Germany last month as the third largest party in the Bundestag — all demonstrate that backlash politics continue to gain ground and remain a powerful force.
An issue that first came to the fore 52 years ago after passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act has yet to be resolved. The task for Democrats is how to come up with a non-xenophobic, non-racist answer to this problem.