One of the darkest theories about President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral upset is the idea that the opioid epidemic ripping across middle America played a significant role in the outcome of the election, reports Slate. There seems to be a correlation between places that went heavily for Trump and areas struck hard by the opioid crisis. This has turned up anecdotally, with photojournalist Chris Arnade, known for his “Faces of Addiction” series, saying he “fell into” writing about Trump supporters while documenting addiction. “Wherever I see hope exiting,” he tweeted, “I see Trump and drugs entering.” For Arnade and others, it feels like no coincidence that Trump did best in counties with higher mortality rates.
That’s what Shannon Monnat, a rural sociologist and demographer at Penn State, found when she analyzed voting data in her recent paper, “Deaths of Despair and Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” She says Trump’s margins over Mitt Romney were highest in counties with higher than average drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality rates. Monnat’s research focuses on the industrial Midwest, New England, and Appalachia. “These places,” she says, “have experienced a perfect storm that facilitates addiction, depression, and suicide,” hence the “deaths of despair” moniker. Last year, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton discovered that the death rate for middle-aged white Americans, particularly those with a high school education or less, jumped 20 percent between 1999 and 2013—meaning half a million more people died during those years than would have if rates had remained flat. Ultimately, this connection is just a correlation, with unclear causation. It seems likely it’s a manifestation of another established correlation between lower economic status and support for Trump. The whys behind many of these correlations are still unclear and may never become clear. Monnat acknowledges that there is no clear causal relationship between drugs, alcohol, and suicide and support for Trump.