Factories in Iowa are humming. Employment in New Hampshire is thriving. The giant tourism and hotel industry in Nevada is booming. And in South Carolina, more African Americans are finding jobs.
This is the economic landscape less than a year from Election Day — and just months before those four states become the first in the nation to hold their 2020 primaries.
While President Donald Trump can point the strength of the economy as a whole — as he likely will in a speech Tuesday on the economy — his Democratic rivals have seized on the everyday realities of millions who've watched good times pass them by. Candidates like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have zeroed in on issues such as income inequality, wage disparity or a lack of health care.
“The president is banking on the economy staying strong,” said David Juvet, senior vice president of public policy at New Hampshire’s Business and Industry Association. “If the Democrats can’t use the economy to support their candidacy then they will have to focus on very specific issues rather than just looking at the economy as a whole, which may be slowing but is continuing to grow.”
Ultimately when Nov. 3 arrives, voters will be asking themselves: Am I better off now than I was four years ago?
Here’s a by-the-numbers look in each state:
Date of Caucus : Feb. 3
2016 Vote: Donald Trump 51.2%, Hillary Clinton 41.7%
As the No. 1 exporter of corn and pork and the second largest soy-bean exporter, the state has been particularly exposed to the trade war with China but its farmers have still largely supported the president’s policies. Agriculture makes up less than 5% of the state’s economy but fuels much of the manufacturing in the state. It regained most of the manufacturing jobs lost in the last recession, with employment in industries like food processing helping to drive the recovery. But payrolls in trade and transportation have steadily fallen since mid-2016.
Economist Take: “Many farmers view this as a short-term pain, long-term gain phenomenon, hoping that this will result in a structural reduction of trade barriers in dealing with China and that there will be more and greater amounts of products going to China at the end of this,” said Wendong Zhang, co-founder of Iowa State University’s Center for China-US Agricultural Economics and Policy.
Date of Primary: Feb. 11
2016 Vote: Clinton 46.8%, Trump 46.5%
New Hampshire has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S., something Trump highlighted — and took credit for — in an August campaign rally. It ranks among the richest, with the fourth highest median household income in the nation, and has become even more so under Trump. Part of the state’s success is its economic diversity. Robust tourism, health care and education industries make it less vulnerable if one sector gets hit. Still, manufacturing jobs have steadily decreased in recent months and the state’s aging population has made finding people to fill jobs one of the state’s biggest issues.
Economist Take: “We have a Goldilocks economy: not too hot, not too cold, but people sense there’s a wolf at the door,” said Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in New Hampshire. “If you’re Donald Trump, you campaign on that frozen-in-time image of ‘things are pretty good right now.’ If you’re a Democrat, you talk about things that deteriorate. You campaign on distribution of wealth and income.”
Date of Caucus: Feb. 22
2016 Vote: Clinton 47.9%, Trump 45.5%
Nevada relies on the tourism and gaming industry for hundreds of thousands of jobs. While some parts of the state are still recovering from the last recession — with home-ownership rates further trailing the national average after a wave of foreclosures — it’s growing. But the economic gains have concentrated with the wealthy. Between 2009-2015, Nevada’s top 1% saw their average real income grow more than 16 times that of the bottom 99%, according to research by the Guinn Center and Brookings Mountain West.
Economist Take: ““When the economy crashed we stopped building, but people kept moving here, and the result of that is we’ve got real housing shortages and high rents,” said Elliott Parker, professor and chair of economics at University of Nevada, Reno.
Date of Primary: Feb. 29
2016 Vote: Trump 54.9%, Clinton 40.7%
South Carolina is one of the largest exporter of cars in the U.S and its manufacturing sector employs about a tenth of non-farm jobs. Despite being particularly exposed to Trump’s protectionist trade policies, its economy is also growing. Germany’s BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Japan’s Honda, Sweden’s Volvo and the nation’s largest airplane maker, Boeing, each have facilities in the state. And the unemployment rate among African Americans dropped to 6.3% in 2018 from 7.5% in 2016. That’s important for Democrats because the group made up about 60% of Democratic voters three years ago.
Economist Take: “In South Carolina, to the average consumer, the data would suggest that things are looking pretty good right now,” said Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. “Consumers are looking at three things: jobs, incomes and prices.”
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