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Trouble in Trump country: Many are still "left behind"

  • More than 200 counties flipped for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but they continue to struggle with subpar economic growth, a new study finds.
  • More than half the counties lost population from 2016 to 2018, the Economic Innovation Group found.
  • The gap in employment growth between flipped counties and the rest of the country has widened since Trump won. 
  • The trajectory of flipped counties "did not meaningfully change" during President Trump's first two years.

The 207 counties that flipped from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to voting for Donald Trump in 2016 are credited with handing Mr. Trump his victory -- and for serving as a referendum on the country's economic ailments. But two years later, those counties are still "left behind," a new report finds.

Those counties, like battered Erie, Pennsylvania, are still lagging the rest of the U.S. in employment and business establishment growth, according to a Tuesday report from the Economic Innovation Group. The bipartisan think tank, co-founded by Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame, sheds light on the entrenched problems those regions face and suggests that voter dissatisfaction may play a role in the 2020 election.

"Among voters there is a strong belief in the power of the executive branch," the report notes. "To the extent that flipped counties' political swing reflected voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, the latest data provide no evidence that their trajectories will have meaningfully changed by 2020."

Parker's Facebook, of course, is also credited with playing a part in the 2016 election by allowing Russian-backed posts to stir anger over many divisive issues, like immigration. Parker has since spoken critically about Facebook and said Mr. Trump's election should "wake everyone up." In 2015, he joined with John Lettieri and Steve Glickman to create the Economic Innovation Group, which describes its mission as providing bipartisan public policy research.

A problem in 2020?

To be sure, voters go to the ballot box with issues other than the economy on their minds. Yet Mr. Trump has billed himself as a business-friendly leader who would revive economic growth and restore prosperity to many of these regions. That could prove problematic in 2020 if voters in these counties feel their lives haven't improved measurably since 2016.

The U.S. is at full employment, but that's not the whole story

The flipped counties are diverse, representing regions that range from prosperous to impoverished, the report noted. They're also scattered across the country, from Rust Belt states to coastal areas of Washington state. But they all share a few traits that transformed them into "left behind" regions during the past decade, the report noted.

While big cities like New York and Los Angeles witnessed an economic resurgence after the Great Recession, these flipped counties experienced a sluggish recovery. Nine of 10 flipped counties also lost prime-age workers during the past decade, the report noted.

Same trajectory

What has happened since Mr. Trump won the election? Not much has reversed this trajectory, the researchers found. Annualized job and business growth in flipped counties since 2016 has increased 0.7% -- or less than half the U.S. rate of 1.7%, they found. 

More than half of the flipped counties have also lost population since 2016. The report noted: "Adding jobs and businesses in the face of such headwinds is challenging; indeed demographic stagnation may be a driving force behind the economic stagnation that characterizes this otherwise relatively disparate group of places."

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