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Super Tuesday Will Be Our Best Look Yet At What Voters Think About The Economy

From Bernie Sanders’s attacks on the rich to Donald Trump’s pledge to help the U.S. “win” in its trade with China, economic issues have been central to the presidential race in both parties this year. Today’s Super Tuesday contests in 12 states will give the clearest picture yet of how the candidates’ economic messages are connecting with voters.

The first two states to vote this year, Iowa and New Hampshire, both have fairly strong economies that don’t much resemble the broader national situation. South Carolina and Nevada were more representative. But the dozen states voting today offer a much wider range of perspectives on an economy that has shown significant improvement in recent years but is still leaving many Americans anxious about the future.

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The results, therefore, could serve as a crucial window into how voters in different types of states are responding to the candidates. Does Sanders do better or worse in states that are struggling economically? Do Trump’s protectionist policy proposals resonate in places that have lost jobs to overseas competition? Does John Kasich’s more optimistic message play better in states that have seen stronger recoveries?

I’ve broken the 12 Super Tuesday states into three rough categories based on factors such as income, unemployment and education.1 These categories aren’t perfect, of course, but they should give a sense of which states are facing similar challenges. As the results come in this evening, we’ll begin to get a sense of whether these states vote in similar ways as well.

Group 1: Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont and Virginia

casselman-super_tuesday-1

These five states all have highly educated populations — 44 percent of Massachusetts adults ages 25 to 64 have college degrees, for example, the highest share of any state — and household incomes that are thousands of dollars above the national median. They have diversified economies that don’t depend too heavily on any one sector and have poverty rates well below the national average.

These states struggled in the recession, though not as badly as states in the Sun Belt or the industrial Midwest; none saw its unemployment rate hit double digits. Virginia and Vermont experienced comparatively mild recessions but have also seen slower rebounds. Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota were harder hit but have experienced stronger recoveries.

Today, all five states are in relatively strong shape economically. All have unemployment rates at or below the national average and have added jobs in the past year (although Vermont lost jobs in December).

Group 2: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee

casselman-super_tuesday-2

Compared with both the first group and the U.S. as a whole, the members of this group have populations that are significantly poorer and less educated. In Alabama, 19.3 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2014, the fourth-highest rate in the U.S. In Arkansas, just 22.5 percent of adults age 25 to 64 have a bachelor’s degree, the lowest rate of any state but Mississippi and West Virginia.

These states face both long-term and short-term challenges. They generally have large manufacturing sectors, which have suffered a decades-long decline nationwide. In recent years, they were hit hard by the recession — all but Arkansas saw double-digit unemployment rates — and have experienced painfully slow recoveries. Alabama is one of 14 states nationwide that still haven’t regained all the jobs they lost in the recession.

Group 3: Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas

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These three states have one big thing in common: oil. All three are major energy producers, which insulated them from the worst of the recession. None of the three saw its unemployment rate even approach the U.S. peak of 10 percent in the downturn; Oklahoma’s topped out at 7.1 percent. Now, however, tumbling oil prices are taking their toll. Oklahoma lost jobs in December, and employment growth in Texas has slowed precipitously. Data from the middle of last year, the most recent available, show weak economic growth in Alaska and Texas; Oklahoma’s economy actually shrank.

Alaska is a bit of an outsider in this trio. Like Texas and Oklahoma, the state is a major oil producer and benefits when prices are high, but unlike them it hasn’t undergone a fracking boom in recent years. A long-term decline in oil production, combined with a refusal to impose taxes, has clouded Alaska’s long-term economic outlook. And whereas Texas and Oklahoma have unemployment rates below the national average, Alaska’s is among the highest in the country.


What do these categories mean for Tuesday’s results? Think of them as a viewing guide. So far, for example, Hillary Clinton has outperformed Sanders in states that are in tougher shape economically. But four states don’t prove much; South Carolina and Nevada also have much higher minority populations. (Trump, too, has tended to do best in the states that are faring worst economically, but it’s hard to discern a clear pattern.) By tomorrow morning, our sample size will have quadrupled, and we’ll begin to have a better sense of where each candidate is doing better and worse.

Check out our live coverage of Super Tuesday.

Footnotes

  1. I looked at 15 different data points for each state, including measures of their current economic environment (including their unemployment rate and poverty rate), their longer-run economic situation (education, median income, industry composition) and their experience in the recession and recovery. I then performed a cluster analysis to identify the states that were most similar to one another. The groups were relatively consistent no matter which indicators I used.

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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