Blue state unemployment threatens to give Democrats national problems in 2022’s midterms. America has endured a devastating economic year; this has been especially true in many blue states with persistently high unemployment. Historically hard on the party holding the White House, next year’s election could be particularly so if those voters direct their unemployment frustration at congressional Democrats.
Unemployment is the lagging variable in America’s economic recovery. The overall economy essentially returned by 2020’s Q4 and surpassed its pre-pandemic level in 2021’s Q1. It will almost certainly register a fourth consecutive growth quarter in this year’s second quarter.
Contrastingly, the nation’s unemployment rate increased in June’s employment report, edging up from 5.8 percent to 5.9 percent. This is well above February 2020’s 3.5 percent pre-pandemic rate. Applying 2020’s higher labor force participation rate to today’s employment level, and the current rate would be an astronomical 8.5 percent.
High as today’s official rate is, many states’ rate far surpasses it. Viewing unemployment from such a state perspective also makes it a very partisan one. The states with the highest unemployment rates are politically Democratic.
Twenty jurisdictions (states and the District of Columbia) had May unemployment rates at or above the national rate and a 6.95 percent average rate. Of those, the top 11 had Democratic governors (or mayors). Overall, 14 of 20 also had Democratic governors and these states had a 7.2 percent average unemployment rate. If, as the official national rate, the rates in these 20 jurisdictions are really higher when today’s low labor force participation rate is factored in, then the real rates in some would be in double digits.
It was not just in their chief executive that these leaned strongly Democratic. Sixteen voted Democratic in 2020’s presidential election. Fourteen also have Democratic-controlled state senates and state houses.
These 20 jurisdictions’ high unemployment is not just a current condition from a slow recovery. They are a year-long condition. In May 2020, these 20 jurisdictions averaged 13.6 percent unemployment.
Qualitatively, the political exposure from such high and prolonged unemployment is obvious; it is quantitatively too. These 20 jurisdictions contain 230, over half, members of the House of Representatives. Currently, 152 of them are Democrats; only 78 are Republicans. They also contain 38 senators (D.C. does not have two senators); of these 29 are Democrats and 10 are up for election in November 2022.
Additionally, this politically skewed unemployment situation will come on top of the historically adverse impacts suffered by the president’s party during midterm elections. Recent history for their administrations is sobering enough for Democrats. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive takeaways from Arizona's audit results Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE lost 54 House seats and nine Senate seats in 1994, while Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010. Neither faced the unemployment headwinds currently prevailing.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill observed, “all politics is local.” If voters with such prolonged high unemployment see Democrats’control at their local level as more than coincidence but causation, this is a potentially huge problem in November 2022.
Certainly, Democrats’ clear dominance in these states indicates that these voters are strongly inclined toward them on issues. This would be expected in 2022 as well. Further, 2022’s midterms are well over a year away, so unemployment has time to recover.
Yet, the economy is not just any issue, and unemployment is not just any component of it.
The state of the economy is the most pervasive of political issues. It affects everyone and a bad economy hurts everyone. Also, the economy has no more fundamental component than whether a person has a job.
Voters in these blue states are inclined to forgive Democrats on issues. Still, asking them to forget is another thing. And asking them to forget what is well over a year of extremely high local unemployment is asking even more. Therefore, Democrats do not just need an overall drop in unemployment, they need it in the blue states where they are most politically and electorally exposed.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.