Opioid Epidemic Leaves Mark on Campaign Trail

Researchers at Penn State University found a correlation between communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump who promised radical change.   - Illustration by Javier Maria Trigo

Researchers at Penn State University found a correlation between communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump who promised radical change.   - Illustration by Javier Maria Trigo

Amid all the post-election analysis, one story sticks out – the correlation between areas suffering most severely from the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump.

Researchers from Penn State University made the connection, noting that high mortality rates from drug overdoses coincided with communities hardest hit economically and, in turn, with Trump’s over-performance on election day.

The researchers speculated Trump’s strong performance was effectively a cry for help from people suffering “diseases of despair," much like in 2008 when many of the same communities voted for candidate Barack Obama and his message of hope and change.

Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor of rural sociology and demography who oversaw the study, found the correlation held nationally, but was most prominent in the Rust Belt and New England.

“Even when using statistical models that include 14 demographic, economic, social and health care factors,” Monnat wrote, “the drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rate remains a significant and positive predictor of Trump over-performance nationally.”

The study doesn’t carry a political punch line, other than to recognize Trump’s ability to project himself as a hopeful change agent.

As James Hohmann wrote in The Washington Post, “This really ought to be one of the biggest storylines that everyone takes away from 2016. One big reason that elites were so caught off guard by Trump’s victory is that they’re so insulated from the stomach-churning scourge of addiction and cycle of brokenness.”

Hohmann culled out several communities that undercover the study’s finding. One was Mingo County in West Virginia where "the drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rate spiked from 53.6 in 1999 to 161.1 in 2014,” which was the seventh highest rate in the nation. Trump’s share of votes from this coal mining area was 19 percent higher than what Mitt Romney pulled in the 2012 presidential election.

In Scioto County in Ohio, Trump exceeded Romney’s 2012 vote total by 33 percent in a community that had transformed from a “once-thriving manufacturing base to become the pill-mill capital of America.”

Noting that life expectancy in the United States is declining, Hohmann observes, “The statistics are staggering. All told, over the past decade, 400,000 Americans died from drug overdoes, another 400,000 committed suicide and about 250,000 died from alcohol-induced diseases. While these numbers are painful to see on paper, they are even more heart wrechnzng when you consider the individual stories behind them.”

The people directly or indirectly affected by those stories may have been the tipping point in the 2016 election.