What American red state women want

What American red state women want

Is it really Trump? It’s a question that may well have a big impact on the next presidential election. I’ve been pondering whether the economic downturn and what I see as a looming global recession (the topic of my own column this week) will dampen the prospects for a Trump re-election. 

In the past, I’ve questioned the conventional wisdom that a dismal economy in 2020 would tank Trump; my argument had been that his base — which seems to stick with him come hell or high water — was hurting in 2016, too, and blames the establishment of both parties for their problems. They would thus stick with the president who would likely spin any bad news as the fault of China, the Fed, and/or the global “elites”. 

But I was interested in a recent study by pollster Stan Greenberg showing that conservative women in some non-metro areas are starting to turn against the president for economic reasons. Greenberg is a Democrat, but unlike many progressive politicos in the Swamp, I think he has a good handle on Red State psychology (he has argued for some time that Dems needed to focus more on economics than identity issues to win back swing states). 

His research found that white women in areas such as Maine, Wisconsin and Arizona are increasingly feeling the pinch from a lacklustre economy, and one-third say they’d consider voting for someone aside from Trump in the next election. 

Among their chief complaints was the fact that healthcare still remains unaffordable, and that any wage hikes they’d seen were being eaten up by higher prescription drug costs, and other basic living expenses. Their worries include not being able to pay for school lunch for their children, having to ask their banks for relief when making mortgage payments, splitting prescription pills in half to make drugs last longer, and foregoing health insurance for themselves so that their families could afford treatments for illness. 

As Greenberg puts it:

When asked to associate `wages keeping up with costs,’ they went ballistic. They nearly shouted down the moderator. They went right to healthcare costs, insurance premiums and prescription drug prices. And they also go right to pharmaceutical companies and opioids. Many of them shared personal stories about their experiences with out of control healthcare costs or being uninsured and the financial struggles that precede or follow. Two in the groups had someone close to them who had died.

And as one woman from Oak Creek Wisconsin put it: 

Usually when we get a raise, all of a sudden, here comes along, your insurance premium is going up two or three per cent. You feel like, “Yay” for about two seconds and then it’s now I’m worse off

When the poll group was played videos of Trump boasting about the economy, they were scornful. “Maybe in New York City” the American economy is robust, “but not here.” 

I think these women may be the canaries in the proverbial coal mine. Pundits and the president alike have praised the robust US consumer, but I think the headline spending figures are concealing a huge amount of anxiety and weakness. That could have a big impact not only on the election, but on the global economy — one very smart investor recently told me that he was becoming increasingly worried about the amount of private equity deals that were really more like dicey private credit deals with underlying loans tied to vulnerable borrowers (eg, motorcycle or subprime auto loans, or CDOs based on rental properties). 

Sounds a lot like where we were before the Great Financial Crisis. I wonder how the politics will play this time if and when those debt dominoes fall — Ed, do you have any predictions? 

Also, a note to Swampians — this is my final Note before leaving for a two-week holiday (West Coast to show my daughter California colleges, then on to Hawaii for a big 50th birthday bash of a close friend). I’ll be back in the Acela corridor after Labor Day. Stay cool. 

Recommended reading

 It’s August, and that’s State Fair time in the Midwest. I have many fond memories from the Indiana State Fair (twirling a flag with the Frankfort High School marching band, listening to stadium rock, eating corn dogs and “elephant ears,” the Hoosier name for the giant saucer shaped fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar that is ubiquitous at such events). For the all-time best take on this quintessentially American summer experience, read the late great David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair” essay from 1994 in Harper’s magazine.

Summer is also the time for longer pleasure reading — I’ve just finished former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” about her time editing the now defunct Condé Nast magazine about food. It made me nostalgic about the glory days of glossies — I started my own media career at a Condé Nast women’s publication, and remember quite fondly being able to dip into the fashion closet to borrow a couture dress, seeing the line of black cars lined up in front of the old Madison Avenue building (anyone, assistants included, could take one home after 6pm — talk about a market top!) and hearing the stories of delicious excess. A friend who was then a PA for a VERY high profile editor (you can guess who I’m talking about) once ordered her bosses’ evening gown a seat of its very own on Concorde, so the ostrich feathers wouldn’t be damaged in transit. As one does.

And now, back down to earth — in the FT, don’t miss Undercover Economist Tim Hartford’s reminder about why vacations are good for you.

As I was just telling Ed in the green room for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show — where we both appeared on Sunday, Swamp Notes Strong! — the very best thing about the FT, aside from the brilliant colleagues, is the six weeks of European-style holiday.

Edward Luce responds

I don’t have predictions for the 2020 presidential election other than to say it will be closer than many Democrats are hoping. Polls show almost every Democrat, including Bernie, defeating Trump comfortably next year. I don’t think these are very useful numbers. Nor do I have any forecasts about the likelihood of recession. There are two things worth bearing in mind. First, the median US consumer has barely regained their 2008 earnings level but are considerably less secure than they should be at this mature stage of the business cycle. A growth slowdown to say 1.5pc will feel like a recession. Second this will be the Democrats’ election to lose. They are more than capable of pulling that off. Enjoy your time in Hawaii Rana. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!

Your feedback

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce

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