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Democrats Claim the Economy Needs Work. Here's a Breakdown of the Early Primary States

Reade Pickert and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou
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Democrats Claim the Economy Needs Work. Here's a Breakdown of the Early Primary States

(Bloomberg) -- With just days before the Iowa caucuses, a look at the first four primary states highlights how the nation’s economic might is playing out at the state level.

Iowa’s economy, at the forefront of the U.S.-China trade war, continues to grow, albeit modestly. The workforce participation rate in New Hampshire has improved as the strong jobs market lures more Americans off the sidelines. Nevada is seeing its lowest unemployment rate on record. And in South Carolina, more African Americans are finding jobs.

President Donald Trump has championed -- and taken credit for -- the nation’s economic success, making the issue a key element of his campaign. And when looking at a variety of metrics, the data underscore strength. But averages can distort the realities of individuals, leading his Democratic rivals to seize on issues like tariffs, income inequality, wage disparity or a lack of health care.

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. 32016 Vote: Donald Trump 51.2%, Hillary Clinton 41.7%

Iowa is the No. 1 state exporter of corn and pork and the second-largest soybean exporter. Farming occupies more than 80% of the state’s land and fuels much of its manufacturing industry, even though agriculture makes up less than 5% of the state’s economy. As a result, the state has been particularly exposed to the U.S. trade war with China. But its farmers have still largely supported the president’s policies.

Manufacturing jobs play a greater role in Iowa than in the country as a whole. While the state regained most of the jobs in that industry that were lost in the last recession, employment declined in the sector last year compared with 2018. In fact, Iowa was one of only five states in the U.S. that lost nonfarm jobs in 2019. A breakdown of key economic indicators below also shows unemployment ticking up — in part because of a surge in people moving back into the workforce — but wages growing faster than when Trump took office.

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,’’ Wendong Zhang, co-founder of Iowa State University’s Center for China-US Agricultural Economics and Policy said of their support of the trade war. “And that there will be more and greater amounts of products going to China at the end of this.”

New Hampshire

Date of Primary: Feb. 112016 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 decreased last year and the state’s aging population has made finding people to fill jobs one of the biggest issues.

Economic indicators to watch include the state’s overall economic growth and wages that are growing faster than the national average:

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. 222016 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 — the economy’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.

Check out the state’s economy by the numbers including its falling unemployment rate:

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.

South Carolina

Date of Primary: Feb. 292016 Vote: Trump 54.9%, Clinton 40.7%

South Carolina is one of the country’s largest exporter of cars and the manufacturing sector accounts for about one in every 10 non-farm jobs. Despite being particularly exposed to Trump’s protectionist trade policies, manufacturing jobs and the overall economy continue to grow. 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. 

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 four years ago. The jobless rate in the state is tied for the lowest in the nation. More economic stats below:

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.”

--With assistance from Dave Merrill.

To contact the authors of this story: Reade Pickert in Washington at epickert@bloomberg.netMisyrlena Egkolfopoulou in Washington at megkolfopoul@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Margaret Collins at mcollins45@bloomberg.net, Wendy BenjaminsonVince Golle

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