Fractured Factions: Labor Unions, the Rust Belt, and Black America

By | February 17, 2017

Given the Democratic Party’s success in capturing the Presidency in 2008 and 2012, the results of the 2016 election left many election forecasters in disbelief. Had the razor-thin margins of victory in Wisconsin (.8 percent), Michigan (.3 percent) and Pennsylvania (1.2 percent) gone the other way, the Democratic Party would have maintained control of the White House. Given these numbers, understanding the 2016 election will involve splitting hairs. Here we analyze two: Rust Belt voters and black voters. In 2016, many current and former union-affiliated Rust Belt voters, amid declining labor union influence, flipped to the Republican Party, while both the Democratic Party victory margin and turnout among black voters fell—but why?

These two factions have previously and will likely continue to share economic policy viewpoints. Like other factions, they use their size to push candidates to voice their concerns in their policies and have the most to lose if their candidate is not victorious; yet, the economic policies now likely under consideration may in fact harm these groups.

Given their shared incentives, why did the coalition weaken? It may be driven in part by a diminished organizational capacity among them to whip their respective votes. First, the institutional mechanisms that empower organized labor in Rust Belt states, and black Americans nationwide, to assemble voting blocs historically relied in part upon union and black church membership. For an example, President George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiatives,” which provided federal funding to support the social services work of religious organizations, combined with the Bush campaign’s outreach to African American voters and endorsements from leading black pastors, was credited for a 2-percentage point increase in his share of the black vote before his re-election in 2004. (Real Clear Markets)

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