Contrary to the media notion that Donald Trump's surprising electoral victory represented merely the actions of unwashed “deplorables," his winning margin was the outcome of rational thinking in those parts of the country whose economies revolve around the production of tangible goods.
And their economies stand to gather more steam in the years ahead.
Trump’s victory was largely minted in the suburbs and smaller cities of the new American Heartland, from Pittsburgh to Omaha to Dallas-Ft. Worth. The heartland regions depend on agriculture, home construction, manufacturing and energy, all of which could benefit from the policies of the new presidential administration and Republican Congress. In contrast, Hillary Clinton favored extending the Obama administration's policies on fossil fuels and housing that may win support in the dense progressive bastions of the East and West coasts, but were viewed with alarm by many tied to heartland industries, some of which have been under pressure from a global decline in commodity prices.
Trump's pro-fossil fuel stance may be anathema in the coastal cities, but will have a very positive effect on the many cities in the “oil patch” that extends from Texas’ Permian Basin to North Dakota, Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This is not just a matter of roughnecks out on the Gulf or West Texas; many of the 100,000 or so jobs lost in the energy industry over the past few years were located in major cities, such as Houston, where many of the employees are both well-educated and dwell close to the urban core.
Most important of all, manufacturing matters in the heartland in ways that no longer resonate in coastal areas, particularly New York and San Francisco. Since 2000, two of America’s historic centers for manufacturing, Los Angeles and New York together have lost over 600,000 manufacturing positions. Trump’s call for more U.S. industrial jobs could turn out a swan song, but every job that stays in America due to his cajoling is more likely to benefit people in suburban St. Louis or Detroit than Manhattan or Malibu.
Building on Momentum
Critically, Trump’s election comes at a time when heartland cities already had economic momentum, including in the Rust Belt.
The stock, real estate and tech booms on the coasts, as well as increased regulation and taxation there, have made interior cities increasingly attractive to relocating companies and migrants. This is most evident in Texas' leading metropolitan areas -- Dallas-Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio and, until recently, Houston -- which have consistently led the nation in job and population growth.
When California companies like Apple look to add middle-class jobs, they don’t often do it in the Golden State, but in more affordable places like Austin. Every big Texas city in recent years can show you a big scalp from my adopted home state: Occidental to Houston, for example, or Toyota America and Jacobs Engineering to Dallas.
Similar patterns can be seen in the rapid expansion of such smaller cities as Nashville, Charlotte, Columbus, Salt Lake City --- all in states that Trump won handily. These cities have developed impressive central cores, but have seen larger scale growth on their periphery. Resilient Great Plains cities like Fargo, Omaha and Sioux Falls have spiffed up and attracted investments in everything from tech and financial services to health care.
Other industries, such as financial services and business and professional services, are also moving increasingly to heartland cities, and some are building impressive presences in health care.
Voting With Their Feet
Perhaps the most underreported, but significant shift towards heartland cities has been a human one. Before, educated people generally clustered in favored blue cities such as San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. This thesis was well documented by urban analyst Richard Florida in his “Rise of the Creative Class.”
Yet when Richard and I were together in Kansas City last month we were treated to a tour of the region’s ascendant neighborhoods, both in the city and in adjacent parts of Kansas.Cities like Kansas City have seen their downtown residential populations surge, but the vast majority of growth there, as well as in the rest of heartland, tends to be on the periphery.
As growth in New York and other “hip” cities has slowed, populations are shifting to less expensive ones. Research by demographer Wendell Cox has found that since 2010 over 1.45 million people net have moved from Clinton states to those that favored Trump.
This increasingly includes young people, according to research conducted at Cleveland State University. There has been a sea change in the migration patterns of educated millennials since 2010, with faster growth in heartland cities than the Bay Area, Washington or New York.
The biggest drivers for migration to Trumpland tends to be housing prices and rents. Housing prices across the New heartland overall Is 3.4 times the median household income (this is a price-to-income ratio called the "median multiple"). This compares to 7.5 times in California and 4.3 times in the Northeast Corridor (Washington to Boston).Given the choice between more expensive locales on the coasts and less expensive ones in the interior, many people have begun to flock to places like Des Moines, Omaha, Indianapolis and Columbus.
These trends may become more pronounced when the bulk of millennials enter their 30s and begin to start families and buy homes. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic observes: “The great irony of national migration is that media headquarters overwhelmingly reside in the same dense urban areas that other Americans are desperately trying to escape (or cannot afford).”
A similar trend may soon take place among immigrants. The Trump campaign may have sought to demonize some of the foreign born, notably the undocumented and Muslims, but many of the cities now growing their immigrant populations most rapidly are in the heartland.
Houston has been gaining more foreign-born residents than Los Angeles; Dallas now has a higher share of foreign-born residents than Chicago.
Now the immigrants are expanding to other mid-American outposts such as Nashville, Indianapolis and Columbus. Trumpian politicians may seek to exploit xenophobic sentiments, but metropolitan boosters across the heartland are quick to promote their appeal with foreign-born residents, seeking their entrepreneurial energy and enriching cultural influences. When in Nashville, boosters take you not just to the old country music haunts, but to thriving Kurdish, Somali, and Mexican enclaves.
Can Trumpland take success?
Yet for Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, the resurgence of heartland cities will also bring with it risks. Some of those who now find their future in Kansas City or Houston also bring with them attitudes shaped in blue states, something some progressives are counting on. They may have escaped the worst aspects of ultra-high taxes and abusive regulations, but sometimes this does not stop them from wanting to repeat the old patterns in their new homes.
the core cities in most of the larger heartland metropolitan areas are either deep blue, as is the case in the Great Lakes, or are turning blue, including Dallas and Houston. The suburbs, particularly the new, further out ones, have remained deeply conservative, but this also could change over time as more young people and immigrants migrate there. Heartland success could undermine some of the very reasons for their resurgence.
Success also has strange impacts on people’s thinking, and ultimately a resurgent heartland, populated by newcomers and immigrants, could take a very different turn in the decades ahead.
But this can only happen if Democrats somehow learn to craft their appeal to places outside their current deep-blue bastions. Trump may have won in large part due to the misfortunes heaped on these in the past, but, unless challenged, he ultimately may further consolidate his base by riding on the ascendancy.
This piece first appeared in Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.
Photo by Max Goldberg from USA (Trump Cedar Rapids) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons