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.

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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.

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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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