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Voters in this 'boomerang' county say they're nostalgic for the Trump economy

Luis Escarraman spent $139 when he picked up some vitamin C and a few items of clothing for himself and his daughter. "I need to work extra to get what I used to have before," he told NPR.
Asma Khalid
/
NPR
Luis Escarraman spent $139 when he picked up some vitamin C and a few items of clothing for himself and his daughter. "I need to work extra to get what I used to have before," he told NPR.

EASTON, Pa. — Luis Escarraman says he is nostalgic for the Trump economy.
The 41-year-old Republican owns his own truck and hauls freight from New Jersey to California. Maintenance, parts, diesel fuel — it has all become so pricey, he said.

"I can do my living, but compared to what I used to have, I need to work extra to get what I used to have before," Escarraman said.

He is not alone. Poll after poll show voters trust the presumptive Republican 2024 nominee more on the economy than the incumbent, President Biden. It's an important factor as voters look ahead to Election Day in November — but it's far from the only one.

Escarraman said he is weighing a variety of factors in whom he supports politically. Right now, he is concerned about the increase in migration and the money the U.S. government is spending on conflicts overseas, as well as the high cost of living.

But he also remembers that life under former President Donald Trump was at times alarming. "I know it was a lot of fights in the country," he said. "It was kind of like a civil war, but financially, it was better."

Inflation was a top issue in this "boomerang" county back in 2021

Heading into the 2024 election, inflation is one of Biden's biggest and most persistent political challenges.

In the summer of 2021, when the cost of living began ticking up, NPR traveled to Northampton County, Pa., to hear how voters were feeling about the president and his economic agenda ahead of what was expected to be a bruising 2022 midterm election cycle.

Northampton is one of only 25 "boomerang" counties in the U.S., meaning people there voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then opted for Trump in 2016 and then most recently in 2020 chose Joe Biden.

It's the type of county that Republicans hope to win back to give Trump a shot at picking up the key swing state of Pennsylvania in November.

Back in 2021, voters in this county and across the nation were concerned about prices for gas, groceries, rent and insurance. But even though the economy dominated the headlines, Democrats did a lot better than expected in midterm races in 2022, including in Northampton County, where Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., held her seat.

The high cost of living remains a big concern to voters

Outside grocery stores and polling sites last week in Northampton County, hardly anyone NPR spoke with during more than a dozen interviews felt upbeat about the economy, regardless of their politics.

"When Trump was in office, it was sad, but my 401(k) was just going up and up and up. I mean, it was wonderful to watch it," said Ruthann Arris, 69, a Democrat who is retired.

In Trump's first three years in office, the S&P 500 index rose 46%. Comparatively, during Biden's first three years in office, the S&P 500 index rose 26%.

Like a lot of voters, Arris doesn't mention 2020, Trump's last year in office, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the economy to a near standstill.

She's frustrated with what she's currently seeing in the grocery store: high prices and smaller packages for the same products she has always bought.

But she said she still intends to vote for Biden this November. "I think he comes across as much better than the alternative," she said. "You have a more stable USA. And it's not worth the short-term gain of a 401(k) going up."

Voters are looking at other issues, too, as they weigh decisions

Polling shows many voters are like Arris: worried about the economy, but looking at other issues as they make their decisions.

A surveyfrom NBC News in April found that voters said inflation was the No. 1 concern facing the country, and they gave Trump a double-digit advantage on the issue. But when it came to identifying an issue that is "so important that you would vote for or against a candidate solely on that basis," voters pointed to democracy, abortion or immigration/border security, depending on their politics.

And that is akin to what NPR found in Northampton County: Many people were frustrated with inflation and the high cost of housing in a region that has seen an influx of transplants from the New York City metro area, but they also pointed to other priorities this election cycle.

"People want to complain about the economy and everything like that," said Greg Poff, 49, a Republican who said he is concerned about border security. "If you can control the flow of people into the country and get the people that aren't supposed to be here out, everything else will fall like dominoes."

Biden's campaign is trying to point to economic successes

Biden has made the economy a central part of his message on the campaign trail, pointing to the strong jobs market and the growth in the infrastructure and semiconductor sectors thanks to legislation he has signed.

He also spends a lot of time talking about his efforts to curb housing and prescription drug costs and eliminate junk fees.

One challenge is that many people are still using pre-pandemic prices as their benchmark, so any other economic message the president is trying to send isn't breaking through.

"I think it's hard because people don't like things to cost more than they did before. And until that adjusts for everyone in their minds, it's going to be hard to convince people perhaps otherwise," said Julie Smith, an economist at Lafayette College in Northampton County.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.