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Red and Blue Economies Are Heading in Sharply Different Directions

Jed Kolko

At a quick glance, red and blue metropolitan areas are performing equally well on average in the most watched indicators of labor market health.

Employment growth in the year ending in the first quarter of 2019 was 1.4% in both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning metro areas, and the unemployment rate in both types of places is roughly equivalent.

Silicon Valley (blue) is booming. So is Provo, Utah (red).

But below the surface, red and blue local economies are worlds apart on enduring, fundamental measures that determine their future prospects and their biggest economic challenges.

The skyline in San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2019. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)

The correlations between deeper economic measures and how the contrasting metro areas voted in 2016 are striking.

In bluer metros, more residents have college degrees: The 10 large metros with the highest educational attainment each voted for Hillary Clinton by at least a 10-point margin. Median household incomes are higher in bluer metros even after adjusting for the cost of living, which is higher in bluer metros as well. (Metro area is a better measure for a local labor market than a neighborhood, city, county or state.)

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And bluer metros have a more favorable job mix for the future, with fewer manufacturing jobs, a higher share of harder-to-automate “nonroutine” jobs, and a higher share of jobs in occupations projected to grow faster.

These measures — education, household income, cost of living, non-routine jobs and projected job growth — are highly correlated with one another, and with voting Democratic.

Other economic measures are less strongly correlated with partisanship but still show a pattern. Bluer metros have less year-to-year volatility of job growth. In part that’s because goods-related sectors like manufacturing and mining are more volatile and are clustered in Republican-leaning areas.

Home values have risen more in bluer metros than in redder ones. And blue metros have a higher prime-age employment-population ratio, even though the unemployment rate varies little by partisanship. That’s because red metros have a higher share of prime-age adults who are not in the labor force and therefore aren’t counted in the unemployment rate.

But there are a few places that vote differently than you’d expect from their local economic fundamentals. Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Provo-Orem area, for instance, have education levels and an occupation mix more typical of blue metros but voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by a wide margin. On the flip side, Stockton, California, and El Paso, Texas, look more like red metros economically but voted for Clinton.

Why do some metros vote differently than their economics might suggest they would? Race, ethnicity and religion. Metros that vote Democratic despite having lower education and a job mix more typical of redder metros tend to have large Hispanic populations, including many in inland California and on the Texas border. Metros that vote more Republican despite having higher education and a blue-metro job mix tend to be whiter. (Colorado Springs also has a large evangelical population, and Provo-Orem a large Mormon one.)

Although most economic fundamentals look better in bluer metros, national economic confidence is higher among Republicans. And people who are upbeat about the national economy tend to be upbeat about their local economy. But once you account for personal political views, local economic confidence is higher in blue metros than in red metros. That means Republicans in blue metros have the highest levels of local economic confidence.

Moreover, redder metros have their own advantages, especially for people in certain economic situations. The lower cost of living in redder metros is a big advantage for retirees and others not in the labor market.

Also, income inequality — and all the social and political challenges that come with it — tends to be lower in redder metros. And while cost-of-living-adjusted household incomes are higher in bluer metros, cost-of-living-adjusted salaries for a given occupation are typically higher in redder metros.

There’s a reason for this difference: Bluer metros tend to have higher-paying occupations and fewer prime-age adults out of the labor force, which increases household incomes. But if you move from a bluer to a redder metro and find a job in the same occupation, you’re likely to get an increase in salary after taking living costs into account.

The economic challenges of blue metros — unaffordability and inequality — are different from those of red metros, which face lower living standards and greater risks of job loss. Even if the economy takes a back seat in the 2020 election to health care, immigration and Trump’s record, these economic differences won’t be far from the surface. And if national economic conditions soften, these differences will become more reason for partisan disagreement on urgent policy priorities.

Where will recent trends take us? These economic fundamentals — household income, cost of living, educational attainment, nonroutine job share and projected job growth — were all more indicative of how a place would vote in 2016 than they had been in 2012.

If the places that moved left between 2012 and 2016 continue getting bluer — and the places that swung Obama-to-Trump keep getting redder — the local economies of red and blue America will keep growing further apart.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2019 The New York Times Company