Battleground states that handed Donald Trump the presidency four years ago are seeing higher-than-average layoffs amid an economic downturn wreaking havoc across the country — a dynamic that could hold major implications for November’s election.
Job losses are piling up in places like Michigan, where more than one in four workers applied for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, according to a POLITICO analysis of Labor Department data. In Pennsylvania, another key Rust Belt state that voted for Trump in 2016, nearly one-fourth of the workforce has filed an unemployment claim since mid-March. Ohio is seeing more than 17 percent of workers filing jobless claims, outpacing the national average of 16.1 percent, as is Minnesota, a state Trump narrowly lost.
One of the only major battlegrounds seeing a lower claims rate than the national average is Wisconsin, according to the analysis, which compared claims filed to the number of employees on states’ non-farm payrolls in February. But with more than one in eight workers filing for benefits there, it’s still a dramatic rise for a state that for years boasted an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent or lower, trending below the national average.
The numbers are likely to continue rising for weeks, as states work through a backlog of applications and race to dole out benefits to gig workers and others who are newly eligible for aid. They’ll remain elevated as long as restaurants, retail stores and other non-essential businesses remain shuttered. And even once some areas of the country begin to reopen, it could be months or years before Americans are back to work at the same levels as before — undercutting Trump’s plans to hang his re-election bid on leading the economy to a robust recovery.
Instead, Democrats across the country are already working to make the remainder of the 2020 campaign a referendum in part on the economic fallout from the coronavirus, and whether more could have been done to avoid shutdowns that threw more than 26 million Americans out of work in just over a month.
“The economy is in a freefall now. And I don’t think it had to be this bad,” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.
Some state-level Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for a staggered reopening of businesses, arguing that continued shutdowns in Michigan and elsewhere are no longer necessary and only making job losses worse. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In Florida, the country’s largest battleground state, laid-off workers have consistently encountered issues over the past few weeks trying to file applications for unemployment, struggling to access aid in a state where it was already difficult to do so. A POLITICO analysis shows about 13 percent of workers there have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, less than the national average. But as of last week, only about 6 percent of applicants had received benefits payments through the broken system, ranking it among the worst in the country for fulfilling claims.
That payout level now sits at less than 16 percent, according to statewide data. Political ramifications have been swift: Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and close Trump ally, is one of the few big-state governors who has seen his approval ratings drop over his handling of the pandemic.
“It’s the most consistently negative aspect of this whole situation in Florida, the unemployment benefits system not working,” said Susan MacManus, a political analyst in the state and former chair of the Florida Elections Commission. “If you’re a single parent, if you’re a head of a household, you’re not going to forget this.”