At his press conference in Florida Tuesday night, Donald Trump offered a confession. He is more conservative than anyone, he said, except possibly on trade.
"I am a free trader," he said, "but I'm also a smart trader." He described smart trade as a version of free trade, but where Donald Trump negotiates the deals. At least in Tuesday's Republican primary in Michigan, there's evidence that this kind of language has worked.
This is a plot of Michigan counties. On the x-axis is the percentage of manufacturing job losses they endured (or gains they celebrated) between 1990 and 2014. This a broad sweep of recent trade policy, including both NAFTA and China's emergence as a manufacturer. It's broad on purpose, to see how receptive a county might be to protectionist rhetoric on trade. On the y-axis is the percentage of the vote those counties gave Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, last night's winners.
Michigan's Republicans voted roughly as expected. The counties that had lost the most jobs, proportionally, were more likely to give a higher percentage of their votes to Trump. He may understand something about the politics of trade that the eggheads at National Review — his description last night — haven't picked up on.
Bernie's surprise win in Michigan last night, however, doesn't show the same trend. Rather, it shows a weak trend in the opposite direction. Counties that put proportionally more new people on shop floors were slightly more likely to vote for Sanders. Where the Grand River meets Lake Michigan, Ottowa County has added almost 7,000 manufacturing jobs since 1990. Its Republicans went 19 percent for Mr. Smart Trade; its Democrats, 61 percent for Bernie Sanders.
Wayne County, home to Detroit, has lost 46 percent of its manufacturing positions since 1990 — more than 71,000 jobs. But Wayne is also 41 percent African-American, higher than any other county in the state. Its Democrats gave only 38 percent of their vote to Bernie Sanders. Genesee, which surrounds Flint, and Saginaw counties show similar numbers.
This has been true since Democrats started voting this year: Attempt to look at the Democratic race in Michigan through the lens of economics and you end up focused, instead, on race.