WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' views on the U.S. economy heading into the upcoming presidential election have a lot to do with where they live. Small-town and rural America are decidedly dour about the direction of the nation's economy, while large urban and dense suburban places tilt positive or, at worst, just slightly negative.
The American Communities Project uses demographic data to break the nation's 3,100-plus counties into 15 types of communities -- everything from Big Cities to Rural Middle America. A map on the American Communities Project website shows how every county is sorted into these community types.
Using Gallup Daily tracking data for the first half of 2015, the American Communities Project analyzed Americans' answers to the question "Right now, do you think the economic conditions in the country as a whole are getting better or getting worse?" on the basis of the 15 community types. Residents of Big Cities and Urban Suburbs were the most positive, with slightly more adult residents in these areas saying the economy is getting better than saying it is getting worse. Residents of College Towns were the next-most positive, with roughly the same number saying the economy is getting better as getting worse. And these communities share some important traits. They tend to have large higher-income, college-educated populations. They also tend to be Democratic politically, with all three types voting for President Barack Obama in 2012.
At the same time, adults living in the Evangelical Hubs, Working Class Country and Aging Farmlands are roughly twice as likely to say the economy is getting worse, rather than better. The majority of their populations are rural, with lower college education rates and median household incomes below the national average. And all are heavily Republican; at least 63% of each group voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
The graph that follows displays the percentage of each community that is urban paired with the average percentage in the first half of 2015 saying the economy is getting better. The statistical correlation between the two metrics is strong (0.87 correlation), confirming that urbanicity and economic confidence currently go hand in hand.
Americans also tend to think the economy is good or bad, improving or stagnating, depending on whether their partisan orientation matches that of the president occupying the White House. And this is largely borne out in the accompanying graph, which displays the percentage of residents in each community who are Democratic or lean Democratic alongside the percentage saying the economy is getting better.
While the relationship between the percentage Democratic and positive economic outlook is strong (0.73 correlation), it is not as strong as the relationship between urbanicity and economic outlook. This is largely because of subdued economic confidence in a few Democratic-leaning areas, namely the African American South and Native American Lands.
Further, not only do the 15 groups' views about the direction of the economy differ, but they also vary in how much their outlook has recovered since the recession. In 2009, the more urban and plurality-Democratic communities were already more optimistic about the economy than less urban and Republican-leaning communities, likely reflecting Democrats' greater satisfaction with economic leadership during Obama's inaugural year. However, since then, economic optimism has improved to a greater degree in the more urban, Democratic and/or college-educated communities -- such as Urban Suburbs, Big Cities and Hispanic Centers -- than in the smaller, rural, less-well-educated and Republican communities, including Evangelical Hubs, Aging Farmlands, Working Class Country and Rural Middle America.
Urban Workers Report Best Net Hiring
The pattern is similar in the responses to another Gallup metric -- the Job Creation Index -- which asks employed adults "In general, is your employer hiring new people and expanding the size of its workforce, not changing the size of its workforce or letting people go and reducing the size of its workforce?"
Overall, the relationship between community size and perceptions about hiring is similar to that seen between community size and economic optimism. Net hiring (the percentage of employed adults saying their employer is increasing its workforce minus those saying their employer is reducing staff) is +32 or higher in the Big Cities, LDS Enclaves and Urban Suburbs. And the figure is nearly as high in College Towns (+29) and Middle Suburbs (+28). By contrast, net hiring is +20 or below in the less urban Aging Farmlands, Native American Lands, Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country.
Overall, while the relationship isn't perfect, the more Democratic communities tend to perceive the best hiring conditions, while the Republican communities tend to perceive the worst. However, in this case, the correlation between net hiring and % urban (0.88) is much stronger than that between net hiring and % Democratic (0.47).
These data reveal how the economic divide in the U.S. is strongly linked to proximity to cities as well as to the red/blue political divide. This also means that the different political messages espoused on the political left and right reflect more than just stubborn partisan opinions; they are rooted in real differences in the way their constituencies see and experience the economy after seven years of a Democratic president. People in rural places with lower education rates who also tend to be more Republican really do perceive different economic challenges and realities than those in better-educated urban and more Democratic communities.
Taken together, the numbers show how complicated the electorate is. It's difficult for a candidate to craft an economic message that resonates in all these places. In some areas, the economic pessimism is deep, while in others there is a growing optimism. The difference may help give rise to a 2016 campaign in which the major-party candidates essentially talk past each other, speaking to their urban or rural bases about different economies and different sets of problems.
Dante Chinni is the director of the American Communities Project, a political and socio-economic research effort partnered with American University and Michigan State University. He is the author of Our Patchwork Nation and data journalist working with The Wall Street Journal and NBC News.
This analysis is telephone interviews conducted Jan. 2-June 30, 2015, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 88,667 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The sample size in each community group ranges from 17,932 in the Big Cities and 17,665 in Urban Suburbs down to 244 in Aging Farmlands and 188 in Native American Lands. Aging Farmlands and Native American Lands are the only groups with fewer than 1,100 interviews.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level. For most community groups, the margin of sampling error is no more than ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For Aging Farmlands the margin of sampling error is ±8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level and for Native American Lands it is ±9 percentage points. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.
Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.
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