Politics & Policy

The Revenge of the Discouraged ‘Deplorables’

Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio, August 22, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Jobless voters in the swing states could hand Trump the election.

Over half a million people are currently not looking for work “because they believe there are no jobs.” As a demographic, the Labor Department technically labels these people “discouraged.” Many of them live in battleground states, and they may end up swinging the election to Donald Trump.

As this year’s unprecedented presidential campaign barrels toward the finish line, the polls are poised in a shaky equilibrium that very few observers anticipated. Hillary Clinton is dramatically outspending Trump on the airwaves. Her nationwide field organization resembles a full-scale mobilized army, while his looks more like a homespun militia. And yet, even following a debate performance that political professionals panned, he’s closing the gap in some polls and surpassing her in others.

Time after time, reports of Trump’s political demise have proven premature.

Because this election is obviously unusual, it’s easy to miss one of the underlying factors fueling the Trump phenomenon: the huge decrease in labor-force participation. Today there are 94 million people not in the labor force. That’s up from 78 million in January of 2008, at the start of President Obama’s first term. These numbers help tell the story of Trump’s remarkable, enduring success. And they may also chart an Electoral College path to his victory in November.

Imagine a city the size of Los Angeles, 13 million people. Imagine that entire city is out of work. Even then, you won’t have fully grasped the number of people who have left the labor force since 2008: 16 million, roughly as many as live in Los Angeles and Denver combined.

When we add the unemployed to the 94 million Americans not in the labor force, the number of those not working tops an astonishing 100 million. When Trump promises to add 25 million jobs to the American economy, these are the people listening. And after Clinton labeled Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables,” they embraced the word as a personal cri de coeur.

Meet the discouraged “deplorables.”

Trump’s ‘deplorables’ may be discouraged, but they are motivated to vote.

Every single state in the nation has seen a decline in labor-force participation since 2008. But have any of the swing states been particularly hard-hit? It turns out that they have.

The two states with the biggest declines in labor-force-participation over the last eight years are battleground states, but they aren’t often cited as “must-gets” for Trump, and they have been polling for Clinton: New Mexico saw a 10 percent decline, followed by Nevada at 9.3 percent. Real Clear Politics colors New Mexico baby blue, and most people expect it to go for Clinton. But the state’s popular governor, Susana Martinez, is a Republican, and it went for George Bush in 2004. Trump tussled with Martinez in the primaries, but he has the potential to appeal to those New Mexicans who have dropped out of the labor force. Meanwhile, neighboring Nevada also has a Republican governor and went for Bush twice. Polling already appears to be turning around there.

Add Colorado (7.6 percent decline) and Arizona (7 percent decline), and you have four critical Western states with devastated labor forces. By crafting a message focused on job creation, Trump could sway voters in those four states who have dropped out of the workforce during the Obama years, and improve his electoral prospects dramatically.

Florida (7.2 percent), Ohio (6.8 percent) and Georgia (8.9 percent) are also on the hardest-hit list. And the suddenly relevant North Carolina, a traditionally Republican state where the polling lead keeps shifting, saw a 5.5 percent decline in labor-force participation.

Start with the core Republican states, which are 160 Electoral votes. Then add in the states that saw a greater than 5 percent decline in labor-force participation (excluding Oregon and Maine, which are reliably blue) and Trump wins with 272. That doesn’t include Iowa, which had been close before Trump opened up a small lead, or Pennsylvania, which is perennially on the GOP wish list.

It seems a little odd to argue that a man who rose to fame on the phrase, “You’re fired!” could be the hero of the jobless. On the stump, Tim Kaine has tried to make this case: “Do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president or a ‘you’re hired’ president?” he asked. But one of Trump’s supporters turned the phrase back on Clinton when he stepped to the podium at the now-infamous “birther” press conference: “It’s time we sent someone to Washington, DC,” he declared, “who knows how to say, ‘You’re fired!’”

Trump’s “deplorables” may be discouraged, but they are motivated to vote.

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