Let's begin with a riddle: what do Mississippi and New York have in common? Or Oregon and Florida? Or Louisiana and Maine? Or Massachusetts and Utah? In what category is Nevada tops in the nation, and North Dakota last? What key statistic appears to have no connection to the coming vote in the Presidential election?
The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is simple, and, to me, quite shocking: the unemployment rate. In the midst of one of our most bitter debates on business climates and the role of government, what kind of state you live in appears to have almost nothing to do with your chance of finding a job. Even more amazing, your local unemployment rate has very little to do with how your state is likely to vote in November.
Let's start with a basic statistic and a fundamental fact: our national unemployment rate, 8.3%, is extraordinarily high several years into a recovery--unprecedentedly so since the Great Depression, which was much worse. But that rate is very far from uniform across the country, and an unemployed worker's chances of finding a job are much, much better in certain places than others. The median state unemployment--that is, the figure for the state in the middle of the table--is 7.6%, indicating that unemployment is higher, on the whole, in more populated states than less populated ones. Five states have unemployment rates of 5.0% or less--a figure which, not too long ago, would have been regarded as acceptable. Four of them are quite rural--North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Vermont--and at least two of them, North Dakota (the nation's leader at 3.0%) and Oklahoma, are in the midst of energy booms. But politically, these states cover the entire perspective, from darkest red (Oklahoma) through purple (the Dakotas, certainly in state elections) to Vermont, probably the most liberal state in the country. And this pattern continues from one end of the table to the other. (The data I am using is here.)
The states with unemployment from 5.3 to 5.9% are somewhat more similar. They are Iowa, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Virginia. Virginia is the most urbanized state that we have encountered so far, and one that includes a great many federal employees. It is also the first from the old Confederacy on the chart, and the last one we will see until no. 19, Texas. Four of them are definitely in play in this election and they are all relatively rural. But when we get into the six per cents, further anomalies emerge. Dark red Utah, with 6.0% unemployed, is virtually tied with Massachusetts, at 6.1%, the solid blue, once-industrial state with by far the lowest unemployment as we speak. Then come Kansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico and Delaware--two red and three blue. Twelve states have unemployment rates in the seven per cent range--still, let us remind ourselves, below the national average. They are Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Idaho, Louisiana and Maine (the median states), Alaska, and Pennsylvania. I was very surprised that Maryland's rate is a full point higher than Virginia's, since I would have thought the federal government employed a larger proportion of its population, but so it is. This is a more urban group, all in all, than the states we have looked at earlier, and it doesn't include any dark blue states, but it's the most significant group electorally. The election will be decided in large part in Ohio and Pennsylvania and both of them have lower than average unemployment. In Ohio, that is largely because of the auto industry bailout that Mitt Romney opposed.
Moving into 8.0% or more--and in fact, nearly all these states are slightly above the national average--we find Indiana, Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, Florida, the District of Columbia, and Illinois. Five of the first six are pretty solid red (Indiana is not going to vote for Obama again), five of the last six are reliably blue, and Florida, the biggest state in population we've run into so far, is very close. The nine percenters are perhaps the weirdest list of all, beginning with Mississippi and New York, tied at 9.1%, and continuing through Georgia, North and South Carolina, and New Jersey. New York, with one of the largest state governments in the country, has the same unemployment as Mississippi, with one of the smallest. Significantly, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the homes of the 1% from the financial industry, still have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and Chris Christie's much-touted budget cuts--including his rejection of a new Hudson River tunnel--do not seem to have done any good. Then, trailing the field, are California (10.7%), Rhode Island (10.8%), and Nevada (12.0%)--three states that on the surface appear to have very little in common.
If some one were to use this table to start a spreadsheet and add columns for per capita income, spending on education, per cent of population in prison, minority population, illegal immigrant population, state taxes as a percent of income, percentage of houses in foreclosure, and state employees per capita, I suspect that some striking patterns would emerge, and we might get some practical ideas about exactly what needs to be fixed in our economy. The table very obviously fails to support Republican campaign rhetoric: small-government, low tax states do NOT at the moment have higher employment, but neither, as a group, do the blue states on the two coasts. But I am most depressed, in an odd way, by the lack of correlation, except in a few key cases like Ohio, between unemployment and how people are going to vote. Cultural and, yes, racial factors and clearly more important determinants of presidential voting than the state of the local economy. States at every point in the table will divide fairly evenly in the coming election. I do think a Republican victory would do more harm to the economy than a Democratic one, but if you really want to know who has a clue about how to fix the economy, the answer, clearly, is: no one.