Why Hillary lost the Rust Belt

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Almost two weeks after Donald Trump won a majority in the Electoral College the discussion about what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s campaign has all but faded and been replaced by a discussion about what the US will look like under president Trump.  Still there is one aspect of Hillary’s loss that has hardly been analyzed so far.  Her campaign blamed the unexpected debacle that turned the Democrats from a party potentially in control to a party in crisis exclusively on FBI Director Comey’s letters to members of Congress, suggesting that the second letter did even more damage than the first one, which had already halted Clinton’s momentum.  They undoubtedly have a point, but it’s incomplete.  Obviously Comey’s intervention didn’t help, but neither did the paranoid way in which grandma Hillary handled her emails, and probably even more damaging was the way in which the Clintons squirreled over $200 million together after Bill’s presidency.  But ultimately Hillary Clinton’s defeat can only be explained by her campaign’s messaging.

Granted that it would have been difficult to execute a coherent communications strategy while the email controversy kept popping up, it was even harder because of the lack of a comprehensive message.  The Clinton campaign seemed to tell the voters three things, first that Donald Trump was totally unqualified for the presidency, second that in contrast to Trump’s divisive language we would be stronger together, and third that it was Hillary’s turn, embedded in slogans about electing the first female US President.  In a TV show last week veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum mentioned that this was the first time in his memory that a Democratic candidate ran without an economic message.  The reason for this fatal omission is probably that the Clinton people were bamboozled by the official US unemployment rate, currently 4.9%, and by the way Barack Obama was touting that percentage as a major achievement. However, although his policies after the crisis of 2007 have contributed to the creation of millions of jobs, the unemployment rate is a bad measure of their success.

In most countries of the world a person is considered unemployed if he or she is a potential employee but doesn’t have a job.  In the US someone is only considered unemployed if he or she is actively looking for a job, which implies being registered with a State Department of Labor and going through all the required moves.  If and when that person gives up looking for a job and decides to get by in another way he or she is no longer counted.

Social scientists are well aware that the real percentage of Americans without jobs is much higher than 4.9%.  Not the 42% Donald Trump occasionally mentioned, but probably anywhere between 10% and 20%, although nobody knows for sure.  Intuitively Trump realized this as well, and he tapped into a reservoir of disgruntled voters that Hillary ignored.

The bad news for those voters is that president Trump won’t do anything for them.  Jobs that went to low wage countries won’t come back, coal mines will not reopen because gas is much cheaper, and infrastructure investments turn out to be tax discounts for builders.

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