Recently I wrote a retrospective on our national elections entitled “Why it Happened – My Take”. It focused on three general factors that probably doomed Hillary’s chances, though a better campaign strategist and public orator might have overcome them. But evidence is accumulating that there was in fact a single concrete issue that substantially drove the outcome. This was discussed during the contest, however there seemed to be not much daylight between the stated positions of Trump and Clinton. Nevertheless, I am convinced this was the key to the result.
I am not teasing by not identifying this issue. Look at the following image and see if it doesn’t jump out at you. This is a county-by-county breakdown of the vote that shows how strongly voters supported each of the candidates. The darker the colors, the higher the percentage of support.
Do you see it? This picture contrasts sharply with similar breakdowns from recent Presidential elections. The heart of Republican support has long been the solid South and the largely rural West. This is clearly different. The rust belt rules. There is one word – well acronym really – that defines this change: NAFTA. The rust belt voters rose up and denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement in a deafening roar. That became a symbol for a largely Democratic economic policy that may have increased our GDP but at the cost of deep and enduring pain for many communities.
Its proxy this time was the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This yet-to-be-ratified agreement by the Obama administration seemed like NAFTA II to many voters. Trump spoke out powerfully against it, but not because he opposed international trade agreements in general. Rather, he contended that it was characteristically poorly negotiated by people who didn’t understand “The Art of the Deal“. Furthermore he argued that bilateral agreements are more likely to give better results than multilateral ones like NAFTA and TPP which have to mediate many conflicting interests.
Hillary waffled on TPP though eventually she said that, on balance, she opposed it. Basically few believed her, and her overall reputation for dishonesty didn’t help. Moreover the fact that her husband was the father of NAFTA probably stuck in many minds. As rust belt opinion solidified, Hillary didn’t see it coming, not even when the evidence was there for all to see. Her local supporters saw it of course and begged her to come stem the tide, but to no avail until it was too late.
To be fair, Democratic Party consensus agreed with Hillary. Everyone knows, for example, that Pennsylvania is the El Dorado that Republicans seek every four years only to have their hopes dashed. In October, the Washington Post cleverly – so they thought, anyway – expressed this using an analogy to Lucy pulling the football away from good old Charlie Brown.
Will this become the map of the future. I don’t think we know yet, but I suspect not. For one thing, given Trump’s proclivities, we probably won’t have more NAFTA clones to goad those who hate it. I think the red color will slowly drain south and west again to a more familiar picture.