The first few contests in the Democratic presidential primary race have been fought in states that are small and somewhat quirky economically. There aren’t many states where voters care as much about ethanol subsidies as they do in Iowa, or where culinary unions wield as much power as in Nevada.
All of that will change on Super Tuesday. The 14 states voting make up nearly 40 percent of the population, and an even larger share of gross domestic product, with all the demographic and economic diversity those numbers suggest.
Tuesday’s results, therefore, could give us our first hard data on how the economy is affecting the Democratic race. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has moved to the front of the pack by emphasizing his plans to tackle income inequality — will that message resonate more in places where more families are struggling? Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, has stressed his management experience — will that play better in wealthier, more highly educated places?
Fourteen states are a lot to keep track of. So we’ve broken them into four categories based on their long-term economic strength (represented in the chart above by their median household income) and their more recent performance (their job growth since the start of the Trump administration).
No such grouping is perfect, of course. And states are diverse places — even the richest ones have pockets of poverty. Still, if you keep these groups in mind as the results roll in, you should get a sense of how economic issues are playing out in the primary campaign.
Group 1: Going Gray
Super Tuesday states: Maine, Vermont
Similar states: Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia
There isn’t much doubt about who will win Vermont, Mr. Sanders’s home state. But these states, characterized by relatively low incomes and slow job growth, nonetheless reflect challenges facing a substantial part of the country.
At a time when economic activity is increasingly concentrated in cities, these states are predominantly rural: Maine and Vermont ranked first and second in the 2010 census in the share of their populations living outside metropolitan areas. At a time when the aging population is a concern nationwide because of rising health care costs and shrinking labor forces, these states are already old: 20.6 percent Mainers were 65 or older in 2019, a slightly higher share even than in Florida. (Vermont came in fourth at 19.4 percent.) And at a time when slowing immigration and low birthrates are limiting population growth, these states are already growing slowly or, in the case of Vermont, shrinking.
Maine and Vermont are (nearly) neighbors, but these issues transcend geography. Indeed, in terms of their economies, these states share less in common with the rest of New England than with Appalachian states like West Virginia and Kentucky and with Midwestern industrial states like Ohio and Wisconsin.
Group 2: The Rising Sun Belt
Super Tuesday states: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee
Similar states: New Mexico, South Carolina
These states are no richer, on average, than the states in the group above. But unlike Maine and Vermont, they have had relatively robust job growth in recent years, and their economic growth has been stronger as well.
These states are mostly in the South and Southwest, and while they are hardly homogeneous, they share certain advantages including a low cost of living and growing (and comparatively youthful) populations.
But they also face challenges, including low rates of college education (North Carolina is an exception) and relatively heavy exposure to the manufacturing sector, which has been struggling recently. And while Raleigh, Charlotte and Nashville are magnets for young graduates and the companies that want to employ them, few other cities in this group fit that description. That raises questions about how well positioned these states are to keep growing in an increasingly technology-driven economy.
Group 3: Brain Power
Super Tuesday states: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia
Similar states: Illinois, Maryland, New York
This group includes many East Coast states that are traditionally economic powerhouses — but that haven’t looked much like ones in recent years.
Over the long term, these states have a lot going for them. They are generally affluent and well educated, have world-renowned hospitals and universities and contain some of the country’s largest and most vibrant urban areas. They have diversified economies that don’t rely too heavily on manufacturing. Those assets helped them weather the last recession better than many other states.
But job growth in this group has been relatively weak under Mr. Trump, and their broader economic growth has also lagged. High living costs are also taking a toll: Most of the states in this group, including the three voting on Tuesday, have seen a net outflow of residents to the rest of the country in recent years, although immigration has allowed their overall populations to keep growing.
Group 4: Modern Miracles
Super Tuesday states: California, Colorado, Texas, Utah
Similar states: Arizona, Oregon, Washington
These states have been the winners in the 21st-century economy. They are already affluent, yet are still adding jobs at an impressive clip, with many of the jobs coming in high-paying, fast-growing sectors like technology and health care. These states for the most part have young, diverse and fast-growing populations, with a large number of immigrants. They are the beneficiaries of a virtuous circle: Their thriving cities attract young college graduates and skilled workers, which attract the companies that want to employ them, which attract more workers drawn by job opportunities.
But that kind of success brings challenges. California’s cities are dealing with a sky-high cost of living, nightmarish traffic jams and a full-blown housing crisis, leading some residents to abandon the state. Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City are dealing with similar problems, albeit on a different scale.
Outside their big metropolitan areas, these states are dealing with many of the same issues — aging populations, lackluster job growth — that states in other categories are facing. Elected officials, policymakers and nonprofit groups are struggling to ensure that their states’ economic success isn’t leaving lower-income areas and residents behind.