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Virginia voters cast their Super Tuesday primary day ballots March 1, 2016, at Colin Powell Elementary School, in Centreville, Virginia. Voters in a dozen states will take part in  Super Tuesday  -- a series of primaries and caucuses in states ranging from Alaska to Virginia, with Virginia the first to open its polling stations at 6:00 am (1100 GMT).
Virginia voters cast their Super Tuesday primary day ballots March 1, 2016, at Colin Powell Elementary School, in Centreville, Virginia.
Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images

With 12 states choosing delegates, seven of them in the Republican’s southern core, Super Tuesday was supposed to be a dream date for the GOP establishment. One big day to wrap up the intra-party discussion and focus on defeating the Democrats.

Instead, it’s almost certain that the vote will cement Donald Trump’s status as the Republican front runner, and increasingly possible that it will pretty much seal off Marco Rubio’s path to the nomination. So what happened?

Here’s one answer: Hurricanes don’t come out of nowhere. Trump may feel like a freak storm for the GOP. But it’s taken years—actually, decades—of economic dislocation for the Republican’s core Super Tuesday constituency to get here.

There are many ways to measure the health of a society: income, accumulated wealth, overall feelings of happiness. One number, though, that nicely summarizes most of them is life expectancy. It’s really one of the most direct ways of calculating how much better off we are.

For most of the country the answer that we get from looking at changes in life expectancy over two decades is “a fair amount.” From 1990 to 2010 the average lifespan of white women in the U.S. increased by about 1 year and 11 months (you can see detailed data for 2010 from the Social Science Research Council here, and historical data from the Census Bureau here); for men it was close to four years.

But that doesn’t hold true for white voters in many of the Super Tuesday states. Five of the states holding primaries today fall in the bottom 10 of the country for life expectancy. In several Super Tuesday states, life expectancy for white women barely budged. In two—Alabama and Oklahoma—white women's lifespans actually declined.



That kind of turnabout is almost unprecedented in peacetime economies. Nobody has a definitive answer about what’s causing this but we do have a really good clue: Lifespans aren’t falling across the board. Instead, they’re dropping dramatically for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

When S. Jay Olshansky, a public health researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago, probed deeper into the numbers, it turned out that life expectancy for white women without high school degrees is overwhelmingly driving the mortality epidemic. That has everything to do with where folks stand in the economic pecking order. “Education,” says Olshansky, “is a proxy for access to jobs and access to health care.”

The poor, in other words, are less likely to finish school, less likely to get jobs, and less likely to be able to afford (or seek out) medical treatment. That downward spiral has been accelerating dramatically.

"The harmful effects of being poor and less educated are more harmful than they were several years ago," says Olshansky.

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The trend now seems to be playing out in an extreme way in the Super Tuesday states. In a word, the life expectancy data implies that poor whites are now experiencing the kinds of cascading crises (job loss, eviction, lack of health care) that have afflicted poor blacks—whose life expectancy remains lower, but at least is rising—for many years. This may not have affected you directly, especially if you are online reading a personal finance site, but if you live in the South it is almost certain that you have seen this play out among people you've known and grown up with.

Here's one surprising factoid: Fifty years ago (yes, a long way back), whites in Southern states had some of the highest life expectancies in the country. For white women, Arkansas (now 45) was at no. 4, Oklahoma (now 47) was at no. 6, and Georgia (41) was at no. 13 among U.S. states. In two generations, these states have gone from the longest lifespans to the shortest.

You can argue about who's to blame, but there's certainly plenty of anger and blame to go around. It's just that no one seems to have figured out how to capitalize on that anger for electoral gain like Donald Trump.