Outsider candidates resonate with Michigan’s working class

Apr 6, 2016

Michigan's uneven economic recovery is influencing the political allegiances of its citizens.
Credit Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Michigan’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in almost 15 years. But while the economy is on the upswing, not all Michigan workers are feeling the recovery. And that’s had an impact on political allegiances for both sides of the aisle.

Current State's Mark Bashore talks to Bridge Magazine reporters Ted Roelofs and Nancy Derringer about who the economic recovery isn’t reaching and how those workers have influenced the presidential primaries.


On what the unemployment rate doesn’t tell us

“It fails to capture a number that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. That is the people in the work force are either working part-time and want to get a full-time job, or people that have been discouraged from looking for work and have all but given up.

In Michigan, it’s a greater number than the raw unemployment numbers. So there’s this kind of hidden group within the work force that is frustrated, wanting full-time work but not able to find it.” -- Ted Roelofs

On Michigan’s underemployment rate

“As the raw unemployment rate went up, you saw that other rate go up as well. To put it in a broader perspective, Michigan’s unemployment rate put the state at 29th in the country. The underemployment rate - people at less than 35 hours a week, as well as those discouraged from looking for work - put Michigan at 46th in the country. It was one of the worst rates in the country in 2015.” -- Roelofs

How is the working class affecting the presidential race?

“I think it’s pretty obvious in the primary results. If they’re Republican then they’re supporting Donald Trump. If they’re a Democrat then they’re more likely to be voting for Bernie Sanders. In my story, I happen to find a father-daughter duo who fell on both sides of that divide. The father was all in Trump, and the daughter is ‘feeling the Bern.” -- Nancy Derringer

On the politically divided father/daughter

“They live in adjacent counties. Amanda Myers is a 31-year old woman. She lives in Port Huron, he lives in Warren. Both of them are kind of down on the economic margins. Alvin owns a tattoo shop and did not finish high school. So his employability is fairly limited, even though he’s a smart guy who learns quickly. He lacks a very important credential. He’s done various blue collar jobs throughout his life. He’s supporting Donald Trump. He’s a military veteran who responds well to Trump’s economic and military message.

Amanda on the other hand, is 31. Her parents divorced when she was very young. She said she used to have to stand in line for government cheese and dry milk. She did finish high school, though. She has a little post-secondary education as well. But right now she’s working in a Meijer store, making about $8.75/hr. She has two children and is married. She said she barely makes enough to pay her bills. She really listens to what Bernie Sanders is saying about raising the minimum wage. That is her biggest issue in this campaign.

Both of these people - Alvin and Amanda - are very down on the other candidates. Amanda just doesn’t like Hilary Clinton. I think Alvin feels the same way about all the other people in the Republican race.” -- Derringer

Is the outsider status of these candidates the biggest draw?

“Absolutely. I think both of these people feel like they’re outsiders themselves, and that Trump and Sanders are the candidates who best understand them. Amanda was very explicit about that. She said ‘I don’t feel like Hillary Clinton knows anything about me. Anything about the way I live. The struggle, the way I have to pay for things like child care, health care and rent’. Whereas she says that Bernie Sanders speaks very specifically about that - and to her.

Alvin says the same things about Donald Trump. He lives in Warren. Of course Warren is sort of the center of the blue collar working class in the Detroit area. The city has really fallen on hard times since we’ve seen things go offshore. The labor market for less-skilled workers took a huge decline in the late 2000s.” -- Derringer

On discouraging wage trends

“If you go back to 1979 and draw forward to 2013, the median wages of those with a high school degree - with inflation adjustment - fell by 32 percent. That’s an astonishing number. When you take a step back, maybe it’s not so shocking. Back in the 1980s, so many of those jobs were tied to manufacturing and they paid very well. Those are the people that are now going to be struggling.” -- Roelofs

Why have the political outsiders had more influence in this election?

“As I mentioned earlier, people with less education have lost purchasing power over the past decade. That’s what’s driving a lot of this frustration. Whether people are coming out for the Trump side or the Bernie side - it’s borne out of decades of frustration and a gradual loss in their place in the economy. Who has been in charge most of that time? It hasn’t been outsider politicians so much. It’s interesting to look at people who are coming with this different message - and people are latching on to that. They’re saying ‘We have all these establishment people in charge and my life has gotten worse.’ — Roelofs