(Bloomberg Opinion) -- White voters were the key to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. Their continued support for him is the main reason he is unlikely to be removed from office by impeachment. They are the foundation of his political support heading into 2020. Unless, of course, they live in Dane County, Wisconsin.
Nationally, Trump won 54 percent of the white vote in 2016, according to an analysis by Pew Research Center. The more racially diverse corners of the U.S. recoiled from his candidacy. But whites constituted three-fourths of the 2016 electorate, and enough of them were strategically placed in upper Midwest states to power Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.
Dane County does not buy what Trump sells. About four in five residents of the county, which includes the state capital of Madison, are non-Hispanic white. Nationally, according to the U.S. Census, about 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white. The electorate in Dane is generally even whiter than the county’s general population. Yet in 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Dane County by a margin of three to one.
Political distinctions among white voters are well established. Women are less supportive of Trump than men, youth less supportive than oldsters, seculars less supportive than evangelicals, urbanites less supportive than farmers, college graduates less supportive than the high-school-educated. Dane features the kind of demographic markers — other than race — that are associated with support for Democrats.
“The population in Dane County displays many of the hallmarks of contemporary progressivism,” said University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden in an email. “It is highly educated and secular. It is young and upwardly mobile. Large numbers of people work in the public sector for state or local government.”
Still, Dane seems to have a little extra Democratic sauce. “Demographics alone don’t explain it,” said Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political reporter Craig Gilbert in a telephone interview. Along with local culture and history, he cites the “hothouse” atmosphere of politics in the state capital over the past two decades, the product of intense ideological and partisan conflict. The Democratic trend in the county precedes the hothouse, however. In a news article, Gilbert wrote:
Dane has been growing about four percentage points more Democratic with each presidential contest since 1980, while adding thousands more voters every year. As a result, it packs an ever stronger political punch. Democrats won the county’s presidential vote by a margin of roughly 20,000 votes in 1984, 50,000 votes in 1996, 90,000 votes in 2004 and almost 150,000 votes in 2016.
The county’s Democratic identity has strengthened as its economic prospects have brightened. “Fueled by a tech boomlet, Dane is adding people at a faster rate than any county its size between Minnesota and Massachusetts,” Gilbert wrote. “In 2016, it accounted for almost 80 percent of Wisconsin’s net population growth and is now home to more than 530,000 people.”
Nationwide, Clinton carried fewer than 500 counties in 2016 while Trump carried more than five times that number. However, Clinton counties generated almost twice the total economic output of Trump counties. Dane’s relative racial homogeneity combined with its powerful liberalism is a strong indicator that density, even without diversity, contributes to liberalizing politics. As Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote in a 2018 research paper on density and the populist backlash:
The increase in returns to human capital and density has amplified the polarizing nature of selective urbanization. It has intensified the self-selection of temperamentally liberal individuals into higher education and big cities while leaving behind a lower-density population that is relatively uniform in white ethnicity, conservative disposition, and lower economic productivity.
Dane County’s prosperity appears to drive both Democratic votes — despite Democratic support for higher taxes on the affluent — and rural conservative resentment. University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer spent years meeting with small groups of residents in rural Wisconsin. Her book, "The Politics of Resentment," is a sympathetic analysis of the myriad grudges these rural citizens hold against Wisconsin’s largest cites, Madison and Milwaukee, even though the people in those cities seem to have little in common beyond density and Democratic inclinations. The median household income in Milwaukee, which is almost two-thirds nonwhite, is more than $21,000 lower than in Madison.
Kramer’s book explores the distinct, mostly white, “rural consciousness” that propelled Republican Scott Walker’s three gubernatorial election victories and, after the book was published, Trump’s presidential win in the state. But there seems to be a political consciousness among white Wisconsinites who dwell in higher-density locales, as well. The affluent suburbs outside Milwaukee, like others around the country, are trending less Republican. Meanwhile, Madison’s liberalism seems to be radiating outward.
“It ain’t just Madison,” emailed Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based there. “Even the surrounding suburbs and surrounding counties — which are a mix of bedroom and rural/small town — are getting more Democratic. Never seen anything like it.”
Density was a key dividing line in 2016 and will surely map the 2020 election as well. But as long as economic growth continues, the battle will be increasingly skewed. Economic dynamism, and the jobs it creates, are concentrated in densely populated areas. Indeed, one source of rural resentment is that the kids need to leave home to seek opportunity in cities and suburbs.
Trump’s politics of resentment is double-barreled — aimed against nonwhites on one hand and against culturally and politically liberal whites on the other. To sustain it, Republicans must sustain white rural America, a task for which Trump’s chaotic trade war and plutocratic policies are ill-suited. He has done little to reverse the economic forces that draw the most adventurous children of conservative rural voters into the high-density, more liberal, political cultures of cities and suburbs.
Madison is a famed liberal outlier. But it’s also a model of sorts. It shows the power of a liberal political culture that’s underwritten by high levels of education and economic growth — even if it’s not racially diverse. Trump’s brand of racial tribalism can’t compete there.
To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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