It’s Not About the Economy

In an increasingly polarized country, even economic progress can’t get voters to abandon their partisan allegiance.

President Obama speaks in Elkhart, Indiana, in 2016. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

ELKHART, Ind.—This city once had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Now, though, it’s booming. The once-shuttered factories of the recreational vehicle industry, which is concentrated here, are full of workers, their parking lots packed with employees stepping over snow banks to work long hours to fulfill consumer orders.

This city exemplifies the economic recovery the country has experienced since the Great Recession ended. Elkhart’s unemployment rate, which had reached a high of 22 percent in March of 2009, is now at 3.9 percent. Hiring signs dot the doors of the Wal-Mart, the McDonald’s, and the Long John Silver’s. The RV industry makes 65 percent of its vehicles in Elkhart, and the industry is producing a record number of vehicles, which is creating a lot of jobs in this frosty town in northern Indiana.

“America’s economy is not just better than it was eight years ago--it is the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” President Obama said during a visit to Elkhart in June, in which he touted the economic recovery. (Elkhart was also the first place outside Washington he visited as president, in 2009.) “Elkhart would not have come this far--if we hadn’t made a series of smart decisions, my administration, a cooperative Congress--decisions we made together early on.”

But despite the decisions that the Obama administration made that might have helped Elkhart, many people here have a strong dislike of Obama, who presided over an economic recovery in which the unemployment rate fell nationally to 4.6 percent from a high of 10 percent in October 2009. They say it’s not Obama who is responsible for the city or the country’s economic progress, and furthermore, that the economy won’t truly start to improve until President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

“He didn’t help us here, but he took credit for what happened,” Chris Corbin, 47, who works for a dispatch company in Elkhart, told me. Corbin thinks it will be Trump who improves the economy. “It’s going to take two terms, but he’ll fix things,” he said.

Elkhart is a case study in how Democrats lost the 2016 elections despite the economic resurgence the country experienced under Obama. It shows how, in an increasingly polarized country, an improving economy is not enough to get Republicans to vote for Democrats, in part because they don’t give Democrats any credit for fixing the economy. Gallup, for instance, found that while just 16 percent of Republicans said they thought the economy was getting better in the week leading up to the election, 49 percent said they thought it was getting better in the week after the election. And in a Pew poll in 2015, one in three Republicans said the economy wasn’t recovering at all, while just 7 percent of Democrats said that. This bias is true for Democrats, too, of course. Before the election, according to the Gallup poll, 35 percent thought the economy was getting worse, while after the election, 47 percent of Democrats thought that.

These biases are only increasing as the country becomes increasingly polarized. As people become increasingly loyal to their parties, they are unlikely to give leaders from the other party credit for much of anything positive. Both sides are instead more likely to believe narratives that suggest that the other party has only made things worse.

“People’s predispositions affect their factual beliefs about the world,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who has researched why people believe what they do about politics. “What we want to be true influences what we believe to be true.”

Indeed, as the economy began improving, Elkhart voters grew less likely to support  Democratic candidates for president. Obama won 44 percent of the vote in Elkhart County in 2008, 36 percent in 2012, and Clinton received just 31 percent in 2016.

Of course, there are many reasons why people in Elkhart might dislike Obama that have nothing to do with his role in the economy. Ed Neufeldt, whose daughter and two son-in-laws now work in the RV industry after losing their jobs in it during the recession, told me he thought Obama was responsible for improving the economy in Elkhart, but that he still didn’t like the president because of his stance on abortion.

And it could be, as my colleague Derek Thompson has argued, that a president doesn’t have that big of a role in growing the economy anyway. But I interviewed more than a dozen people in Elkhart about the economy and their political beliefs, and I was surprised to find a strong conviction among locals that the Obama administration played absolutely no role in Elkhart’s economic revival. Though people largely admitted that the city’s economy has vastly improved since 2009, only Neufeldt believed Obama had anything to do with that. Instead, the majority of people said they were waiting for Republicans to take over to see any meaningful change. They told me that the city has been revived not because of Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, which helped some RV suppliers, or his stimulus bill, which poured money into Indiana and other states across the Midwest. The economy might have improved, they said, but it did so despite who was in office nationally, not because of him.

“We actually need a business man in there,” Josh Banks, 35, said. “Some of the decisions [Obama] made were not great.” During the recession, the company that Banks works for, which makes glass for the RV industry, saw business slow so much that he worked only 30 hours a week, which made it tough to provide for his wife and two kids. Now, he said, he’s working 45 to 50 hours a week to keep up with demand. But it was local leaders, not national ones, that help jumpstart the industry, he said.

People’s feelings about the political party in charge influence how they perceive the economy, according to academic research. One recent study asked Republicans and Democrats what they thought the unemployment rate was before and after an October 2012 jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed that the unemployment rate had fallen below 8 percent. Both groups thought the unemployment rate was high before the report came out, but when asked after the report what they thought unemployment rate was, people who considered themselves “strong Democrats” estimated that the unemployment rate was more than one-third of a point lower what it actually was, while Republicans estimated that it was one-third of a point higher than it actually was.

“People have a hard time reconciling information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs about the world, so they just tend to reject it instead,” Brian F. Schaffner, the lead author of that paper, said. People pick a partisan team, he said, and they often filter information through their loyalty to that team. When the information coming in contradicts their team’s beliefs, they have trouble accepting it.

Time and again, Schaffner said, people evaluate their own economic situations differently depending on who is president. During the Obama presidency, Republicans were less likely to say that their economic situation had improved over the past year. When Trump becomes president, though, this will likely switch, and Democrats will say their economic situation has not improved.

RVs at International RV World in Elkhart in 2009 (Joe Raymond / AP)

Brandon Stanley owns a bar in Elkhart. He says he’s optimistic that the economy is improving now that Republicans have regained power, but emphasizes that there are still a host of economic problems that haven’t been solved in Elkhart. As for the shrinking unemployment rate in Elkhart, “they changed how they report unemployment numbers,” he told me, so they’re not believable.

The idea that the government falsified unemployment numbers was a popular narrative among Republicans during the Obama administration, and was most notoriously trumpeted by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch on Twitter. Outlets such as Fox News published multiple stories questioning whether the Obama administration has doctored the unemployment rate. “People tend to engage in effortful resistance when information is inconsistent with their prior beliefs,” Nyhan told me.

When people hear, for example, that the unemployment rate has fallen, but they don’t want to believe that because they don’t like who is in office, they may seek out information that challenges or resists these facts. They can often find other, alternative, information on the news sites that most closely fit their political beliefs.

Andi Ermes, 39, offered a number of reasons for disliking Obama. She said Obama didn’t attend the Army-Navy football game, even though other presidents had. Obama has actually attended more Army-Navy games than George H.W. Bush. She said that he had taken too many vacations. He has taken fewer vacation days than George W. Bush. She also said that he refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. While it is true that Obama did not wear a flag on his lapel at points during the 2007 campaign, it was back on his suit by 2008. Ermes told me the news sources she consumes most are Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and a local conservative radio show hosted by Casey Hendrickson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ermes sees the biggest signs for hope in the economy in Carrier deal struck by Donald Trump, which will keep 1,000 jobs in the U.S. “He’s not even president yet and already he’s helping the economy,” she said.

Democrats and Republicans, though, appear to be equally guilty of viewing objective facts through partisan filters--Nyhan said that there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that one party is more susceptible than the other. Though some research has indicated that even strongly partisan people are more likely to answer questions about politics correctly if they are getting paid to do so, paying Americans to listen to facts doesn’t seem a particularly realistic solution. Little will change, Nyhan said, if the environment in which political leaders and the media promote incorrect information doesn’t change.

There is, however, one way to pierce partisan biases, Nyhan said. If reality intrudes, people may be more willing to accept it. Someone can debate climate change for years, but if his house is threatened by a tide that rises every year as the planet warms, he may be more likely to accept that climate change exists.

But in Elkhart, people have jobs they didn’t have six years ago, and they’re working more hours. Their homes are worth more than they were before Obama took office, on average, and their paychecks are fatter than they used to be. Yet Obama is, and will likely remain, the president who didn’t do anything right.

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