Economy trumps Covid in Ohio and Florida

Voters in key swing states feel better off than in 2016, giving Donald Trump some hope of staying in the White House

Trump and Biden

Joe Biden’s bid for the White House rested on making the US election a referendum on the President’s handling of coronavirus – but the economic concerns of voters helped deliver Donald Trump the key prizes of Ohio and Florida.

The mid-western “Buckeye State” has been taken by the eventual winner every year since 1960, while no candidate has made it to the Oval Office without winning the Sunshine State since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.

The famous maxim of Clinton’s strategist James Carville in that race – "the economy, stupid" – looks to have held true this time around in both key battlegrounds.

Ohio was always going to be a neck and neck race as the pre-election polls put barely a cigarette paper between the contenders, but the Trumpian promise of bringing back jobs to a Rust Belt State dominated by struggling manufacturing and steel industries won out with voters.

The final exit polling by the New York Times in Ohio showed voters preferring Trump over Biden to handle the economy by a margin of 56pc to 42pc. More than half of voters – 54pc – believed the economy was in good shape, down from 2018 but still a big improvement over 2016, when the score was 34pc.

Trump's working class and rural base in the State backed him strongly, with 44pc of voters overall saying they were better off than four years ago, compared to 19pc feeling worse off. 

Experts said the electorate also appeared to give Trump more credit for his pre-Covid record rather than delivering a verdict on his handling of the pandemic.

Those votes came despite Ohio being blighted by closures, such as the shutdown of General Motors' Lordstown plant two years ago, and around 300,000 fewer jobs overall in the State than before Trump took office, at 5.2m. Unemployment is also tracking higher than the national average.

In manufacturing, however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the State adding around 11,500 jobs between January 2017 and January 2020, at 698,300. Covid-19 cost almost 100,000 jobs but the sector has bounced back to stand just 26,000 below January 2017.

Michael Pearce, US economist at Capital Economics, said: "It really comes down to a split between people judging Trump on his record before the pandemic and judging it in its entirety. If you were to set coronavirus aside, it would be pretty clear that most voters are better off than they were before. Wage growth for low income workers was pretty solid pre-pandemic."

That is borne out by the Atlanta Fed’s national wage tracker, which shows the salaries of the lowest paid quarter of the workforce rising more strongly than the national average under Trump.

Florida’s decision to stick with Trump also has its foundations in economic recovery, as well as a fiercely fought ground campaign playing up fears of a left-wing Biden among the Cuban and Venezuelan American voters, who came out strongly for Trump. 

The NYT exit poll showed 36pc of voters putting the economy at the top of their list of the five biggest factors in deciding their vote, almost double the 19pc that regarded Covid-19 as their chief priority. And like Ohio, 42pc of voters considered themselves better off than in 2016, in contrast to 20pc who said they were worse off.

James Knightley, chief international economist at ING, criticised the polls for "giving us a deceptive signal" and said: "The assertion that Biden was a 'socialist' was allowed to gain traction, with Democrats slow to push back and make their case.

"Elsewhere it looks as the silent Republicans were more prevalent, with economic competency holding greater sway in voter thinking than the response to the pandemic."

Florida has been one of the hardest hit States from Covid-19, with 17,000 deaths so far; but in a region much dependent on services and tourism, Republican governor Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses in September, as well as banning fines against those who refused to wear masks.

The intervention angered Democrats at the time, accusing him of playing politics with the pandemic, while case numbers have recently begun creeping higher again.

Pearce adds: "Florida has been one of those who opened up sooner as they had more to gain, because they have been unusually dependent on those service sectors. That may be one factor in the race – that Biden represents a return to lockdown and Donald Trump wants to open up the economy. Maybe at the margin you have got more people in Florida supporting that mindset." 

Voters may have preferred Trump's economic bullishness over Biden's Covid caution, but after a knife-edge night it remains unclear whether both states will be enough to take the President all the way back to the White House.