Democrats think Trump won on economic issues — but exit polls offer a more complicated story

Hillary Clinton has laid the blame on her upset election loss to Donald Trump on everyone from FBI Director James Comey to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But for many Democrats, Clinton's shortcomings can be pinned on her inability to promote a concise, compelling economic message that resonated with voters.

"The Democratic Party failed to offer a compelling jobs message for everybody," Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, an early Clinton supporter, told Business Insider in a recent interview.

See Trump win in Electoral College vote

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Pennsylvania elector Carolyn Bunny Welsh holds her ballot for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump before casting it at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Pennsylvania electors cast their ballots for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
People protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as electors gather to cast their votes for U.S. president at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. Pennsylvania's twenty electors are assumed to be committed to Trump by virtue of his having won the popular vote in the state, but the vote that is usually routine takes place this year amid allegations of Russian hacking to try to influence the election. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pennsylvania electors bow their heads in prayer before casting their votes for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Protesters rally outside as Michigan's 16 presidential electors meet at the State Capitol building to cast formal votes for the president and vice president of the United States in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Electoral college tellers count the ballots Pennsylvania electors cast for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Pennsylvania electors take their oath of office before casting their votes for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump hold signs in the Senate gallery as Michigan's electors cast formal votes for the president and vice president of the United States in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Activists demonstrate against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump ahead of the meeting of the Electoral College at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Khursheed
North Carolina's Thirteenth District Elector Ann Sullivan wears clothes adorned with patriotic and Republican Party symbols after the state's Electoral College affirmed their votes for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the State Capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Protesters shout in anger from the gallery at Pennsylvania electors after they cast their votes for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
People protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as electors gather to cast their votes for U.S. president at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. Pennsylvania's twenty electors are assumed to be committed to Trump by virtue of his having won the popular vote in the state, but the vote that is usually routine takes place this year amid allegations of Russian hacking to try to influence the election. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Activists demonstrate against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump ahead of the meeting of the Electoral College at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Khursheed
Pennsylvania elector Carolyn Bunny Welsh smiles as she returns to her seat after casting her ballot for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
North Carolina's Electoral College representatives pose for a group photo after formally voting for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the State Capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
North Carolina's Electoral College representatives sign the Certificates of Vote after affirming their votes, all for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, at a ceremony in the State Capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
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Clinton "did win Rhode Island by a couple digits," she added. "But a lot of the areas that went for Trump in Rhode Island are places where people are feeling like they're left behind in this economy. And I think that as I'm out and about talking to Rhode Islanders, there's still a high degree of anxiety about my economic future."

But while some Democrats read up on struggling white working-class voters and consider a strategy that prioritizes pocketbook issues over identity politics, others point to data suggesting a more complicated understanding of why Clinton failed to win in the former Rust Belt states.

An examination of the exit polls in three key states that helped swing the election Trump's way revealed that the economy was by far the most important issue to votes. But among those who reported the economy as their top issue — at least in the abstract — believed that Clinton had a stronger message.

In Michigan, 52% of voters said economy was "most important issue facing the country," compared to 60% of voters who said thing about the economy in 2012. This year, Clinton won by 6 points among people who reported that the economy was the most important issue, while Obama only won the issue by 3 points.

Check out scenes from Trump's "Thank You" tour

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump throws a cap to the audience as he speaks during a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar 
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump attend a USA Thank You Tour event at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump attend a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump attend a USA Thank You Tour event at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a rally as part of their "USA Thank You Tour 2016" in Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1, 2016 . REUTERS/William Philpott
A protester walks out of the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a rally as part of their "USA Thank You Tour 2016" in Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1, 2016 . REUTERS/William Philpott
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence hold a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1, 2016 as part of their "USA Thank You Tour 2016". REUTERS/William Philpott
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1, 2016 as part of their "USA Thank You Tour 2016". REUTERS/William Philpott
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump attend a USA Thank You Tour event at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 01: Guests listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks at U.S. Bank Arena on December 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump took time off from selecting the cabinet for his incoming administration to celebrate his victory in the general election. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son speak to the press after meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a USA Thank You Tour event at Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, U.S., December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Supporters cheer for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at a USA Thank You Tour event at Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Republican presidential then nominee Donald Trump and Ben Carson walk to Carson's childhood home in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/ File photo
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump greets members of the press at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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In Pennsylvania, Clinton won by 4 points among the 56% of voters who reported that the economy was most important issue facing the country. In 2012, Romney won by 5 points among the 61% of voters concerned most about the economy.

The results were even more stark in Wisconsin. While about the same percentage of voters said the economy was the "most important issue facing the country" in 2016 and 2012 — 55% and 56% respectively — Clinton won those voters by 11 points, while Romney won the issue by a single point in 2012.

Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies, acknowledged that while Democrats "need to do a better job" of connecting with workers concerned about economic and personal finance issues, "it's not the reason Hillary Clinton lost this election."

"There's really no unifying 'big picture' campaign fault that emerges as the reason why she lost them," McDermott said, referring to the three states. "In part, this is because these three states were each handled in markedly different ways by the Clinton campaign, and yet each was lost by an equally small margin."

He added:

"In Michigan, there were few campaign dollars and fewer events, while in Wisconsin, the campaign was in fact infusing resources in the closing weeks of the campaign. And in Pennsylvania, there was a massive, long-term presence on the ground from the Clinton campaign. If their loss of either or all of those three states could be attributed to the campaign — and in particular, their message on the economy — you'd expect their loss to match the level of their campaign presence."

It's not clear that voters in these states had more faith in Clinton in the abstract, while they were more attracted to individual aspects of Trump's economic message, including his vehement opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his vague promise to bring back US manufacturing jobs and punish companies that outsource jobs, and his criticism of immigrants living in the US illegally.

Exit polls themselves can be unreliable. Exit polls of early voters are often viewed by experts as imperfect. And on Election Day, they tend to skew toward counties and precincts with higher incomes and education levels.

Yet the exit polls also offered other explanations for why voters supported Trump over Clinton.

Trump won overwhelmingly among voters in Michigan and Wisconsin who craved "change," which voters in both states said was, in the abstract, the most important quality they sought in a candidate.

"We don't live in a monocausal world — one answer will not explain a phenomenon," said Michael Traugott, a professor and polling expert at University of Michigan. "Clinton did not deliver a sustained economic message, and doing a better job on that cold have helped here win across the country and in those three close states. But it's also true that if she traveled there instead of elsewhere, or advertised on TV, or if there had been no Comey letter, etc., she could have done better as well."

Many top Democrats and some polling analysts long dismissed Trump's early campaign boasts that he could carve a new electorate through the Rust Belt. And in the end, whatever the cause, it came back to bite them.

In July, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti rejected the idea that Trump's rhetoric and proposals on immigration will help him win Rust Belt states.

During a conference call, he told Business Insider: "Millennials, younger Americans, even those who are Gen X overwhelmingly support immigration reform, even in the most working class, Midwestern, Rust Belt states."

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