From both a public health and economic perspective, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on our country. More than 210,000 people have died, more than 435,000 individuals have been hospitalized, and more than 10 million jobs have been lost nationally. The US economy was 10 percent smaller in June than it was last December and is not projected to fully recover until some point in 2021 at the earliest.
Despite these shocking numbers, there is substantial variation in people’s understanding of the significance of the pandemic. A recent Gallup Panel observed a major partisan gap in attitudes and behaviors related to COVID-19. Democrats are much more likely to approach COVID-19 with caution. Republicans tend to be less worried about getting the coronavirus and are more ready to return to normal activities.
One possible explanation for this variation is the difference in the severity of the pandemic and recession at the local level. Here, we review labor market data and COVID-19 data at the state level from February through September and find significant variation depending on states’ political leaning.
State-Level Economic Variations
To help understand how states’ economic conditions may shape voters’ views, we examine labor market trends in red, blue, and swing states. Using data from FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 Election Forecast, we identify states based on which candidate is most likely to win the popular vote. Twenty red states are expected to go for President Donald Trump, and 23 blue states (including DC) are expected to go for former Vice President Joe Biden. We identify swing states as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Clearly, job loss has been less severe in red states than in blue states. Red states have seen a –4.7 percent change in employment versus the –8.6 percent change in blue states. Hospitality and leisure employment dropped 14.1 percent in red states and 28.1 percent in blue states. The change in the unemployment rate (a 2.4 percentage point increase in red states versus a 5.5 percentage point increase in blue states) also indicates that red states have fared better during the pandemic. Other labor market statistics are similar. For example, the labor force participation rate dropped 1.9 percentage points in blue states but only 0.9 percentage points in red states.
Meanwhile, labor markets in swing states are generally reflective of national trends. Overall swing state employment dropped 6.1 percent while US employment dropped 7.0 percent. Swing state hospitality and leisure employment dropped 20.6 percent, similar to the overall US drop of 22.8 percent.
State-Level COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths
Blue states have also experienced a far more severe pandemic than red states in terms of COVID-19 deaths. Death rates per 100,000 residents are 40 percent higher in blue states than in red states (71.2 deaths per 100,000 residents versus 50.9). Of the 210,529 total reported COVID-19 deaths, only 32,846 have occurred in red states.
Cases per 100,000 residents in blue states exceeded red states by a factor of two or more through June, when case counts began to surge in the Sun Belt states. Hospitalization rates were threefold higher or more during that time. However, the pandemic has been worsening more rapidly in red states in recent weeks. Figure 2 compares COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths per 100,000 residents in red, blue, and swing states since March.
Figure 2: Blue States Experienced an Earlier and More Severe Outbreak
Like the labor market data, COVID-19 data in swing states are comparable to national trends. The US case rate is 2,453 per 100,000 residents, and the death rate is 64.1 per 100,000 residents. Only hospitalization rates in swing states are notably different (lower) than the national average.
Swing States Up Close
While swing states as a group tend to reflect the overall national trends in labor and COVID-19 data, there is significant state-by-state variation. For example, nonfarm employment in Pennsylvania dropped 8.4 percent, a larger impact than in 14 of the blue states. Similarly, some swing states, such as Florida, have experienced notably high COVID-19 case rates. Rates in Iowa are both high and have been rising quickly in the last few weeks.
Overall, swing state trends hold up even under different groupings. For example, excluding Texas from the swing state list still results in blue states experiencing more job losses, higher unemployment, and a larger decrease in labor force participation. COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents also remain nearly 35 percent higher in blue states than red states.
A critical question is how these data may drive polling — and eventually election outcomes — in the United States. Ultimately, voters’ decisions will likely be more informed by what is going on locally than in the country broadly. If the state-level economic and COVID-19 data help explain the differing views on the pandemic between Democrats and Republicans, the rise in COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks in red states and some swing states represent another headwind for President Trump.
This article was first published by the American Enterprise Institute.