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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

Labor Market Profiles Might Tell Candidates More than Tradition Public Opinion Polls

A presidential election is ultimately about agenda setting. Each campaign is attempting to set an agenda and build support for future policy action. The question, however, is where each campaign comes up with its own definition of what constitutes a problem for which policy is needed. Presumably some have listened to voters through initial exploratory committees, while others have conducted public opinion surveys and focus groups to get a sense of what the pressing issues of the day are.

This appears to be the traditional approach, but there is yet another which could be taken but which unfortunately has been overlooked. Candidates might do better were they to look at the changing demographics of labor markets at the national, state, and local levels. Instead of doing a separate poll in each state to figure out how to “shape the message,” an analysis of changes in each state’s labor market will illuminate many of the changes that have been occurring which continue to be of concern to many voters.

It should come as no great surprise that Bill Clinton’s famous aphorism of 1992 that “it’s the economy stupid” is as true today as it was then. Every ten years the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a census for the purpose reapportioning seats in the House of Representatives. But Census data, particularly the Current Population Survey (CPS), contain a wealth of economic data on the health of American households. It is based on this data that we can identify changes in industry and occupational composition along with changes in other basic demographics that can help us identify clear policy problems with clear implications for the direction of policy.

For some reason we fight over whether the Census will be based on a sample of a certain percentage of the population, but we seem not to be as attuned to the labor market changes that might tell us that much more. For the Democrats, this inattention is precisely the reason they lost the 2016 presidential election, and given the slogans of those vying for the party nomination they appear poised to lose again.

The biggest failure was that nobody was paying attention to the blue-collar middle class that was displaced from once high paying and unionized factory jobs. And when these workers attempted to express themselves, they were dismissed as “deplorables” Solidly blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin flipped red. Of course, the Democrats claimed this was because of racism, especially animus towards immigrants.

Based on the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election, one would have expected not only red states to be heavily anti-immigrant, which given the rhetoric surrounding the election might be a proxy for racist. Moreover, given the rhetoric of the 2016 election, one might expect that those states that flipped from blue to red between the presidential election of 2008 and the presidential election of 2016 would have done so because the voters were gripped by anti-immigrant fervor. Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), however, suggests something else.

Demographic profiles of these states confirmed that in these three states in particular that there had been a tremendous loss in the manufacturing base. Generally states that  flipped from blue to red in the 2016 election did so because of the changes in the economy. That is, the loss of manufacturing effectively left behind large numbers of workers who felt the global economy, and by extension decades of economic policymaking, left them behind. There was little statistical support for the idea that voters were responding to an increase in undocumented workers.

On the contrary, the presence of Mexican workers in red states appeared to have absolutely no significance. Of course, the other issue that received little discussion in the last election was rising inequality, which continues to be an issue today.  Rising inequality, of course, isn’t responsible for the changing base of the economy. Rather the changing base of the economy is reflected in rising income inequality. The two are very much interrelated. If the changing base of the economy can be said to be responsible for greater polarization, as data from the CPS suggests, then by extension we can conclude that increased polarization in the U.S. is also a function of rising income inequality.

Of course, none of this fits the convenient narrative that those who voted for Trump did so because they are racist. But they voted for him because they felt all but neglected by elites who espoused a neoliberal ideology of free markets in an increasingly more competitive global environment. And yet, since these same elites have had no answers for the economic transformations responsible for the displacement of many workers, if not for the disappearance of the middle class, have opted for the politics of diversion or what has come to be known as identity politics.

To dress it up they conduct public opinion polls in an attempt to build an agenda for what they believe the masses need. Although public opinion polling has its place, much of what they really need to know in order to craft a message is already contained in the demographics of respective labor markets.

If labor market profiles tell us that the economy has changed and how it has changed, can we draw implications for serious policy proposals? If these demographics tell us that what has replaced the old manufacturing base requires a more skilled workforce, then the logical policy course would be workforce development. While “free college” would help somewhat, it is more of an empty slogan. Rather greater investment needs to be made into the human capital of the labor force, especially the non-college bound, so that they can work in an economy requiring greater skills. Ultimately, that is what will drive up wages.

Curiously enough, we don’t hear much about that from our Democratic presidential hopefuls. Instead, they play identity politics, which leads them to offer more freebies to the voters without any substantial development of the workforce. Isn’t it ironic that the candidate who in 1992 ran and won on a platform of “it’s the economy stupid” also called for policies to develop the workforce? Sadly, his efforts in Congress were opposed by Republicans, who continue to miss opportunities to miss opportunities.

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