The Rust Belt's Pandemic Resilience Could Help Trump
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This recession has featured extreme differences in pain levels between companies and industries based on their exposure to the pandemic. States are no different. Those reliant on travel and services are basically in depressions. Those more exposed to manufacturing are relatively better off – which may be good news for President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes.
With the national unemployment rate at 10.2%, things aren’t going particularly well for any state or region. But Midwestern states are relatively less exposed to the industries that have gotten hurt the worst.
Unemployment in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin is on average 2% lower than the national unemployment rate. We've never seen anything like this before in 45 years of state employment data, particularly during recessions.
There are a couple ways to think about this. The first is that if we get a vaccine tomorrow and everyone can go back to their pre-pandemic routines quickly, then the Midwestern states that have done relatively better in this crisis may underperform their coastal peers. The post-vaccine recovery, at least initially, will likely be more robust in New York and San Francisco than Michigan.
But assuming that doesn't happen over at least the next few months, there are reasons to believe these Rust Belt states can grow even as life remains disrupted. Pandemic-related inventory shortages have led to price spikes throughout the economy, suggesting there's room for production to increase. Wednesday's durable goods report points to a V-shaped recovery in manufacturing. This should benefit workers in Midwestern factories and supply chains.
Another perhaps surprising source of strength for the Midwest is the housing market. Construction and new home sales tend to be a more important part of the economy in the South and West, where demographics are more favorable. But this week's new home sales report showed housing is booming in the Midwest as well. On a seasonally adjusted basis, Midwestern new home sales in July were the highest in 13 years, and more than triple their level during the worst months after the 2008 financial crisis.
If the presidential race tightens over the final two months of the campaign, it might be due in part to the economies of key Midwestern states being somewhat more resilient than those of coastal, more Democratic locales.
Unemployment rates of about 8% make it tough for any president running for reelection. As my colleague Brooke Sutherland has written, many manufacturers are cutting jobs even as they report relatively strong profits. But with manufacturing and housing improving, the lagged impact of fiscal relief passed by Congress this spring still being felt, and much of the labor market burden being felt by younger workers who may be less likely to vote, it's possible the kinds of older voters without strong attachment to either party who voted for President Trump in 2016 might be economically insulated enough to stick with the president.
There are still two months for voters to make up their minds, and in a year like this one perhaps late-breaking economic conditions will be more impactful than in most election years. For that reason it will be important to track economic conditions not only nationally but also in the states most likely to determine the outcome of the election.
Polling averages currently give Democratic nominee Joe Biden a lead of about 9% nationally and slightly less in Midwestern battleground states, putting him in better shape than Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016. But if the trajectory of the coronavirus improves somewhat over the next couple of months, manufacturing and housing continue their upward trajectories, and Congress passes another fiscal relief package, that may be enough to make the election more competitive than it currently looks.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.
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