I recently had the delight of happening across “Way Back Home,” a 1949 warble by Bob Crosby, Bing’s less famous brother. In the song, Crosby laments leaving his family homestead, where “the pies are the crustiest, the songs the lustiest, the friends the trustiest.” Instead, he’s stuck in exile, presumably in some cold-hearted coastal city.
Americans have a complicated relationship with hometowns, particularly small ones. Sometimes they’re idealized, home to virtuous people with good values, who are unseduced by the allure of life in the big city. But just as valued in Americana is the urge to leave—to make your fortune in New York City, to get famous in Hollywood. Hometowns simultaneously repel and attract.
As it turns out, that odd magnetic quality might be playing a role in the 2016 race. How people plan to vote appears to correspond, albeit broadly, with whether they decided to move away from where they grew up. According to the just-released PRRI/The Atlantic poll, 40 percent of Donald Trump’s likely voters live in the community where they spent their youth, compared with just 29 percent of Hillary Clinton voters. And of the 71 percent of Clinton voters who have left their hometowns, most—almost 60 percent of that group—now live more than two hours away.*
The effect is even stronger among white voters, who already tend toward Trump. Even a bit of distance matters: Trump wins by 9 points among white likely voters who live within two hours of their childhood home, but by a whopping 26 percent among whites who live in their hometown proper.
“Whites who were born in their hometowns and never left are really strong Trump supporters,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research. “If you’re raised in a more culturally conservative area and you never leave, chances are that you’re going to be a bit more insular. I think among those kind of folks, there’s an appeal that Trump is hearkening back.”
While Trump often talks about bringing manufacturing jobs back and restoring American dominance in the world, he paradoxically fares best among communities that haven’t yet been adversely affected by globalization. His supporters live in towns that are somewhat better off than average (Trump has more votes than Clinton does among people making between $50,000 and $100,000) and racially homogenous.
I’ve written before about the “hope gap” that separates the two candidates’ camps; this new data adds a local dimension. Might Trump voters be motivated by the fear of change in their own communities—towns they’ve grown up with—and thus vote for a candidate promising to set the clock back?
April, 30, has lived in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, her entire life. It’s a small suburb north of Chicago, snug against Lake Michigan and the border with Wisconsin. April says she had a good childhood, but she’s concerned about the direction her neighborhood has taken in the past decade or so.
“We’re a working-class neighborhood—nobody’s well off, nobody is in poverty,” she said. “But once I hit my teenage years … our neighborhoods went to crap.” She blames the change on an influx of residents from Chicago, who are mostly black, and is considering moving farther north.
“I don’t want to be offensive, but... I feel as though Democrats have kept the poverty, especially in my area, it’s mostly the black community. They like having them there. The black community has been voting for them for, gosh, 50-something years? And there’s more people on welfare. And those are the areas that are bad, I’ve seen it firsthand,” she said.
David, 72, has similar concerns about his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. “You go down the street, you look at these homes—they were nice-looking homes, and they ain’t worth a rat’s ass now,” he said. “We had a mayor that welcomed 500 families of blacks from Chicago and Detroit. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some good ones, but mainly all we got is them turning up in the paper, stealing something, shooting somebody. Gangs are fighting.”
That a 30-year-old and a septuagenarian from two different states could have much the same opinion about their communities says a fair amount about Trump’s expert (or more likely, innate) targeting: He appeals to folks who believe their communities are being taken away from them. It cannot be left unsaid that most of these people are white, and the people moving into their hometowns are not.
Previous research has shown a correlation between staying put and holding conservative views. A 2007 study concluded that people with lower geographic mobility—i.e., who are less likely to have moved around—were also less likely to think favorably of homosexuality. And Pew Research found in 2008 that conservatives were more likely than liberals to say they stayed in their hometowns because they grew up there. One of the strongest predictors of moving away is a college degree, according to Pew’s report: Three-quarters of college graduates made at least one move in their adult lives.
The PRRI/The Atlantic poll echoes these findings, which are particularly prominent among the white working class. While white people overall are no more likely than blacks or Latinos to stay in their childhood communities, whites without college degrees tend to stay put. Forty-one percent live where they were born, one of the highest proportions found.
So Trump has found a following among people who stayed home. One theory would suggest his supporters are sheltered: They haven’t encountered the world beyond what they knew growing up, and their support for Trump is potentially rooted in prejudice. You could also say these people are more in touch with their communities and are willing to dismiss Trump’s more incendiary remarks because he speaks to their news and those of their neighbors. Or both could be true. Either way, it’s a telling correlation. Hillary Clinton may have the hearts of the people who moved away. But way back home, they’re voting for Trump.
* This article originally stated that almost 60 percent of all Clinton supporters lived more than two hours from their hometowns. We regret the error.