Trump Counties Give Economy Strongest Marks

By Dante Chinni Features Dow Jones Newswires

People feel the condition of the economy personally, in their job possibilities, their prospects of a raise and the prices they pay. But ask whether they think the economy is getting better, and another factor seems to come into play: their politics.

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Comparing poll numbers and economic realities from different communities in the third quarters of 2016 and 2017 shows how influential politics may be to those points of view.

On the whole, the unemployment rate has fallen in all the county types as classified by the American Communities Project at George Washington University, which sorts U.S. counties into groups based on common characteristics. Here are a few examples:

Some of those communities are wealthy and some less so. Some are built around manufacturing or tech and others around agriculture or service jobs. But unemployment dropped in nearly every one. (Not all community types are shown on the chart above. You can see a map showing all the types here.)

Against those job numbers, look at the percentages of people in each community who believed the national economy was improving in the third quarter of this year compared with last year:

There is little correlation between the change in unemployment in these communities and the change in how their residents feel about the direction of the national economy.

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In the nation's big-city counties, for example, the unemployment rate dropped by half a percentage point, but the number of people who believed the economy was improving dropped by eight percentage points.

Rural Middle America -- small-town communities that don't rely heavily on agriculture -- saw a similar decline in unemployment, but the number of people there who believed the economy was improving climbed by nearly 16 percentage points.

One explanation for these community-level differences may lie in the 2016 presidential results. Here is the change in unemployment and the share of those who see the economy "getting better" for each county type, sorted by Mr. Trump's margin of popular-vote victory or defeat in each.

The county types at the top of the table posted the biggest voting margins for Mr. Trump in 2016. They also experienced the biggest jumps in those who believe the economy is getting better.

Mr. Trump won counties classified as aging farmlands and evangelical hubs by more than 50 percentage points. In each of those classifications, the percentage of people who believed the economy was improving climbed by 29 points or more.

In the two county types where Mr. Trump lost by the largest margins, big cities and urban suburbs, the "economy getting better" numbers were flat or declining.

These numbers don't necessarily prove that a place's politics is directly tied to how people there see the economy. It is possible, for instance, that a one-point drop in the unemployment rate in evangelical hub counties feels bigger to the people there because their jobless rates historically have been higher and incomes lower than the national average.

But the numbers suggest that the way people view those realities is greatly affected by their political outlook.

They are also a reminder that the economy remains an area of relative political strength for Mr. Trump, particularly among the voters who make up his base.

When The Wall Street Journal and NBC News last month surveyed Trump counties -- the counties considered most responsible for Mr. Trump's election victory -- it found that positive views of the president's handling of the economy outweighed negative views by 10 percentage points. That result stood in contrast with views of Mr. Trump's job performance overall, which was slightly more negative than positive.

Respondents also viewed Mr. Trump's stewardship of the economy more favorably than unfavorably in the last Journal/NBC News national poll, in October, at the same time Mr. Trump's job approval dropped to 38%, its lowest point since he took office.

In short, views of the economy appear to be helping the president politically, particularly among his core voters. But they don't seem to be a factor winning over additional supporters for Mr. Trump.

Write to Dante Chinni at Dante.Chinni@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 23, 2017 13:52 ET (18:52 GMT)