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Do Blue State Have Higher Unemployment Rates?

Democrats, since last November’s election, have generally taken a much more aggressive and interventionist position on handling the ongoing economic crisis. It is generally assumed that this is simply because Democrats are more comfortable with the idea of governmental intervention into the economy in general, and that, to quote Stanford economist Paul Romer, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Are there perhaps however less abstract reasons why Democrats have been calling for a greater response to the recession? Namely, is the economic crisis worse in blue states?

The answer is “perhaps”, although it depends on what you mean by “blue state”.

Below is a chart, with the 50 states sorted by their present unemployment rate. The unemployment rates are listed alongside six measures of the partisan makeup of the state: its vote for President in 2008, the current makeup of its delegation to the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, the partisan affiliation of its governor, and the partisan affiliation of the upper and lower chambers of its state house. Instances where there has been a change in partisan control since last November are indicated with an asterisk.

President. States that voted for Barack Obama indeed have higher unemployment rates. On average, 8.2 percent of their citizens are unemployed, an increase of 3.7 percent since the recession began. By contrast, the unemployment rate is 6.9 percent in the average McCain state, an increase of 3.7 percent. It also appears, however, that the depth of the recession in particular states may have been a factor in getting Barack Obama elected. Of the six states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and which currently have unemployment rates of 9.4 percent or higher, five — North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Indiana and Ohio — changed their vote to Barack Obama in 2008.

U.S. Senate. There is essentially no relationship between unemployment rate and the makeup of a state’s delegation to the U.S. Senate. States with two Democratic senators have an average unemployment rate of 7.7%, whereas states with two Republican senators and states with a split delegation each have an unemployment of 7.5%.

U.S. House. There is, however, a more noticable difference in the makeup of delegations to the lower chamber. States with Democratic-majority delegations have an unemployment rate of 7.9%, versus 7.1% for Republican-majority delegations. It would be more useful, of course, if we could examine this data on a Congressional District basis, but such information is not readily available. Still, this may be a small factor in explaining the differential response between the House and Senate Republicans toward matters like the stimulus.

Governor. Governorships frequently break with the overall partisan trend in a state: note that Rhode Island, Hawaii and California have Republican governors, while Oklahoma, Kentucky and Wyoming have Democratic governors. In any event, there is little relationship between unemployment rate and a state’s governorship. States with Republican governors have an unemployment rate of 7.7%, on average, and Democratic governors 7.5%.

State Legislatures. States in which the lower state house is controlled by Democrats have higher unemployment rates — 8.0% versus 6.7% for the Republican-led states. The difference is smaller when examining the upper chambers (7.8% versus 7.4%), as high-unemployment states like Michigan and Ohio still have Republican-controlled state senates. Interestingly, the eight states where the upper and lower houses are divided (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Virgina and Montana) are having a particularly difficult go of things, as their unemployment rates average 8.6% percent.

Conclusions? I’ll leave you to draw your own, but the fact that states which have been hit harder by the recession appear to have some greater tendency toward electing Democrats may be a small factor in shaping the contours of the debate.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.