Rust Belt voters could be bailing on Trump — here's the surprising reason why
Drew Angerer, Getty Images, AFP | US President Donald Trump tosses a hat into the crowd as he arrives for a 'Make America Great Again' campaign rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 2019

The conventional wisdom holds that whatever the reason white, lower-educated parts of the Midwest swung to President Donald Trump — be it economic frustration or racial grievances — it will be the fate of the economy that makes or breaks Trump's re-election bid in 2020. If the economy continues on its upward trajectory, the thinking goes, Trump will pull off a win, and that if it crashes, which some people are worried is in the cards, the blue-collar areas that rolled the dice on him will throw him out.

But this isn't necessarily the case. In fact, according to Michigan economist John Austin, it might actually be the other way around.

"Contrary to the perception that a rebounding economy will work to the president's benefit, there is growing evidence in Michigan and throughout the Rust Belt that metro areas that are bouncing back — and there are a bunch — are turning blue again," wrote Austin in Politico. "Indeed, communities that continue to flounder — and unfortunately there are still many of those, too —are likely to double down on Trumpism.

Austin noted that the two Michigan congressional districts that supported Trump in 2016 but flipped to Democrats in 2018 are both home to fast-growing, economically booming communities.

"There are many communities in the Rust Belt that have found ways to transition away from the single-industry model, be it cars or steel, that sustained them for so much of the 20th century," wrote Austin. "No longer is Minneapolis the Flour City, Pittsburgh the Steel City, or Cincinnati 'Porkopolis' (a nod to its history as a slaughterhouse center)—but diverse, dynamic urban entrepots. Among smaller cities, Akron, Ohio lost its title as 'Rubber Capital of the World' but has found purchase with a revitalized downtown and growth in emerging polymers/plastics, advanced manufacturing industries, and as a transportation/logistics cross-roads."

"What these communities have in common, aside from better job prospects, is a generally more forward-looking view that is less responsive to Trump's economic nostalgia," continued Austin. "They also tend to be younger (thanks to colleges and universities and their ability to draw newcomers), as well as more ethnically diverse. These voters are more focused on basic kitchen table issues (good schools, affordable higher education, health care, decent roads) and less inclined to reward nativism and economic nationalism."

While none of this suggests that an economic crash would be inherently good for Trump, it does suggest that the places where the economy is strongest are the places that have rejected Trumpism — which means that it could be harder for Trump to win on an economic message than it might first appear.