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If Trump’s A Surprise, You’re Not Paying Attention

Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr. Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Anyone who has conducted at least one focus group with registered voters anytime in the past six years should not be surprised by the ascendancy of one Donald J. Trump. This is especially true if the focus group participants reside in exurban counties away from the focus group facilities typically located in major metropolitan areas across the country.

These disaffected voters are just that… disaffected. Disillusioned. Disgruntled. Pissed off. Pick your descriptor.

The general tendency in market research when these types of voters show up in a focus group is to dismiss their views and attendance as a failure of the focus group facility to recruit a quality group of participants. Representatives of the client or campaign will often ask, “Where did you get these people”?

This is how surprises like Trump happen.

You ignore what you are hearing or seeing right in front of you because the viewpoints, attire, and participants look different than your neighbors, relatives, or friends. In general, people have a tendency to interpret information in a way that conforms to their life experiences and viewpoints.

And I will be the first to admit, I’ve chalked up some “odd” groups to the recruitment of unrepresentative participants by the focus group facility.

This bias shows how media and political types are caught flatfooted when the country and world is changing rapidly beneath their noses. The life experiences of those residing in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding suburbs of Fairfax County Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland hold little resemblance to the lives and lifestyles of those living in rural and exurban counties across the country. The viewpoints of these diametrically opposed groups on the direction of the country and the state of the economy could not be further apart.

Often you will see hosts on Bloomberg, CNBC, or Fox Business describing an improving economy where employment is growing. Many of these hosts and their guests mock those offering contrarian views, who describe a weak economy with low employment participation rates, significant pockets of underemployment, and a growing number of Americans receiving some type of disability check.

This disconnect and inability to see the plight of what’s happening outside of Washington, D.C. is what’s fueling the Trump momentum.

There is growing fervor to clean house of those residing in our nation’s capital. To get rid of those politicians who are not only viewed as corrupt, but the cause of the many ailments impacting Middle America.

I’m lucky. I left the Washington, D.C. area many years ago. Residing in a city such as Nashville and spending a lot of time in Florida away from the major tourist areas helps me remain somewhat more grounded in assessing the mood of the country. I also do a lot of online focus groups and research, which means I’m not stuck only talking with voters and consumers within driving distance of a focus group facility located in a major metropolitan city.

I should note, many of the consultants and media types who are focusing on analytics and social media mentions have a better view of the country’s mood. They are simply viewing data, not making judgement calls that can be influenced by the dress, language, or geography of focus group respondents. This is important because the source material and language used for political polls is typically derived from focus groups. Those consultants and media types who fly into a city for a few focus groups with voters are the most likely to suffer from confirmation bias, which is simply interpreting information in a way that fits one’s own preconceptions. This is how you miss things. Important things.

That’s why many of our “betters” in Washington and New York are aghast at what’s happening in the Republican party. Their American experience is very different from the people Trump is attracting to the polls.

Here’s a snapshot of the America Trump’s supporters see:

  1. Middle-wage jobs have not fully recovered from the recession. In spite of the 1.9 million middle wage jobs added in the recovery, middle-wage occupations remain 900,000 jobs below their prerecession employment levels. (Source: GOOD JOBS ARE BACK: College Graduates Are First in Line, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2015)
  2. Most of the good full-time jobs with health insurance and retirement plans have gone to college graduates. Out of the 2.9 million good jobs created since the recovery, 2.8 million have been filled by workers with at least a Bachelor’s degree. (Source: GOOD JOBS ARE BACK: College Graduates Are First in Line, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2015)
  3. Middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century. In 2014, the median income of these households was 4% less than in 2000. Moreover, because of the housing market crisis and the Great Recession of 2007–09, their median wealth (assets minus debts) fell by 28% from 2001 to 2013. (Source: The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground, Pew Research Center, 2015)
  4. For about the last fifteen years, the share of the prime-age population in the workforce has been declining. Currently, the rate is lower than it’s been in three decades. Much of the decline is due to fewer men in the workforce. From a peak of 97.9 prime-age men out of every 100 participating in the workforce in September 1954, the participation rate stood at 90.9 percent when the Great Recession began, bottomed out at 87.9 percent in October 2013, and has equaled about 88 percent in 2014. (Source: Getting Back to Work, By Michael R. Strain, CATO 2014)
  5. In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government. (Source: Unfit for Work, The startling rise of disability in America, NPR, 2013)

It’s a mistake to simply marginalize Trump’s supporters as people who are “old, and white, and super-cranky about something”. It’s also a mistake to simply label them as racist nativists. Granted, Trump does pander to avowed racists, but his supporters are much broader than that.

In short, a large part of the electorate has seen an erosion in the incomes and future for their families, neighbors, and their communities and they want change. They view the status quo political landscape as corrupt and part of the problem for many of their communities’ ills.

While Trump may not be the solution, they sure know who isn’t — the establishment in Washington, D.C. — and they are willing to sign on to any train regardless of the conductor who promises to shake things up.