WASHINGTON – Jobs are now growing at a faster rate in Trump country than they are in the Democratic-leaning urban and coastal areas that long had been a main driver of the U.S. economic expansion.
During the first 21 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the 2,622 mostly rural and exurban counties he won in the 2016 election added jobs at twice the pace they did during the previous two years under the Obama administration and at a slightly higher rate than the 490 counties that supported Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Red America overtook Blue America last May in 12-month employment growth for the first time in seven years, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of county-level economic data for Bloomberg News.
Although Blue America still leads in pay and economic output, the uptick in Trump country is crucial to the president’s re-election chances in 2020. The White House and many down-ballot Republicans are counting on the economy to compensate for the churn of controversies in the administration and the president’s low approval ratings.
Trump ran for office promising restore America’s greatness for “the forgotten people” in swaths of the U.S. hit hardest by the Great Recession.
The economy has helped him hold solidly to his political base, with the latest Gallup weekly tracking poll showing a 91% job approval rating among self-identified Republicans. Trump boasted of “blowout numbers” recently when the jobless rate hit a 50-year low of 3.6%.
The key for Trump is whether the trends can be sustained through the latter part of next year. The Brookings data don’t capture the recent cost of the president’s trade conflicts on industries, such as agriculture and export-driven manufacturing, that Trump-supporting areas depend on. Trade tensions with China worsened with the administration’s announcement that the U.S. plans to raise tariffs on more Chinese goods.
Trump’s policies also haven’t closed the economic gap between Red America and Blue America. Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas powered by advanced manufacturing, financial services, information technology and internet companies are still pulling ahead of rural and exurban regions in pay and economic output.
Trump counties, with 45% of the nation’s population, account for only a third of national GDP. In September 2018, workers in Red America earned only 72 cents for every dollar in the weekly paychecks of their counterparts in Blue America.
“Red places are winning a little, and might feel that, but even so they remain on the wrong side of the economic divide,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.
That’s reflected in the rhetoric of the Democrats seeking to challenge Trump next year, who mostly are focusing on Trump’s behavior in office and on income inequality.
“The economy is doing well,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week” program, adding the he doesn’t credit the president. “The truth is that half of the people in this country today, despite the good economy, are living paycheck to paycheck.”