Reporters who cover presidential politics seem think they’ve discovered a major paradox surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire, whose caucus and primary kick off the voting phase of the Republican and Democratic nomination campaigns: Although both states could well hand victories to populist candidates Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, both boast unemployment rates well below the national average.
A closer look at their economies, however, reveals a more complicated picture that could better explain the appeal of the Republican real estate magnate and the self-described Democratic Socialist Vermont Senator.
As tweeted by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, “As Iowa and New Hampshire voters surge toward populist candidates, the unemployment rate in each state: 3.4%, 3.1%.” Both are indeed below the national rate of five percent reported most recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and many of his colleagues re-tweeted these findings.
But job quality is a major concern of voters, too, and although Iowa has also excelled in this respect, New Hampshire has under-performed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average weekly wages in the United States overall rose by 7.80 percent before inflation between the fourth quarter of 2007 (when the last recession began) and the second quarter of 2015 (the latest available data for individual states). In Iowa, the improvement was a much better 9.40 percent. In New Hampshire, however, this measure of pay increased by only 5.68 percent.
Further, over a seven-and-a-half year period, those are pretty paltry numbers for both states, and the figures don’t even count the mild erosion that results from factoring in the official inflation rate. Even worse, these current dollar weekly wage figures had fallen for three straight quarters in both states. As a result, the appeal of populism becomes a good deal less mysterious.
Because weekly wages can change due to the length of the work week, it also pays to look at the hourly wage figures. Based on the weekly hours totals available for the two states and the nation as a whole, hourly wages in the United States advanced by 7.88 percent between the fourth quarter of 2007 through the second quarter of 2015. This rate was slightly faster than the weekly improvement, because the work week shortened from 34.53 hours to 34.50.
In Iowa hourly wages increased by 7.99 percent. This figure was somewhat smaller than the weekly wage improvement, as the state’s average work week lengthened from 34.26 to 34.70 hours. In New Hampshire, the work week lengthened, too, and also pushed the hourly wage advance down to 4.54 percent. Again, these figures are unimpressive over so many years, and could go far toward explaining the strong poll results racked up by Trump and Sanders.
Another neglected measure of state economic performance produces a more mixed picture – on exports, imports, and trade balances. Iowa is one of only 17 states whose international trade contributed to its growth. Between 2009 (when the current economic recovery began) and 2014 (the latest available figures) it not only ran a goods trade surplus, but that surplus widened – from $3.55 billion to $4.54 billion. New Hampshire, by contrast saw its merchandise deficit worsen considerably – from $3.26 billion to $6.99 billion – meaning that it subtracted from the state’s growth.
Of course, many factors, economic and non-economic, will determine the final Iowa and New Hampshire votes, and even when measuring state economies, overall data can obscure significant intra-state variations that can influence the electorates’ perspectives and turnout rates. But if Trump and Sanders perform as expected in these early contests, the wage and trade statistics will bolster the case that, jobless rates notwithstanding, the dreary U.S. economic recovery was very much on voters’ minds