On the brink of Super Tuesday, political attention has turned to Ohio, a state boasting a diverse economy that could confound Republican presidential campaigning.
Look west and you’ll find Mercer County, with 4.9 percent unemployment, nearly 4 percent below the national average. Turn south and you’ll hit Pike County and its 14.3 percent unemployment rate.
“If you’re trying to get a sense of ... how Ohio is going to vote, it really depends on where you are,” said Bill LaFayette, owner of Regionomics, an economic analysis firm in Columbus.
Overall, Ohio has bounced back from the recession more quickly than the nation, despite falling faster into it. How the candidates fare across the state’s assorted economic regions in Tuesday's primary could provide big clues about voters’ preferences in November.
Manufacturing is the largest share of Ohio’s economy, but it’s closely trailed by business services, government, health and education, real estate, finance, and insurance. Ohio's Job and Family Services Department reported on Friday that the state’s job gains in January were spread across industries, with leisure and hospitality seeing the biggest increase of 6,800; manufacturing, by contrast, gained 1,400. In other words, a diverse economy.
“It is kind of a microcosm of the whole country in terms of … industry, agriculture, urban areas, rural areas, farmland, mining, lumbering, high-tech, low-tech [industries],” said James Brock, an economics professor at Miami University in Ohio.
The diversity, however, didn’t shield Ohio from the worst of the 2007-2009 recession. In fact, the state was hit harder than the country as a whole. Its unemployment rate reached 10.6 percent in July 2009; the national rate peaked at 10.0 percent in October of the same year. Many of the jobs lost were in manufacturing, which began to decline in the early 2000s and, as in Michigan, accelerated its losses as the recession began.
Nor was Ohio spared from the foreclosure crisis despite largely sidestepping the housing bubble. Its rate of foreclosure was higher than the country’s, largely the result of the high unemployment and increasing number of homeowners underwater on their loans, said Daren Blomquist, vice president of foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.
As the country’s economy began slowly turning around, Ohio’s recovery tracked that of the nation closely, said LaFayette. But it gathered steam over the past year, eventually outpacing the U.S. recovery. As of December, the most recent month for which Labor Department data is available, Ohio’s unemployment rate had fallen to 7.9 percent, comfortably below the national rate of 8.5 percent. Just as it led the economy into recession, gains in manufacturing led Ohio's recovery, too.
GOP candidates looking to play into dissatisfaction with President Obama's handling of the economy should find sympathetic ears in some parts of the state; but in others, they may have to tweak their message to take into account the dramatic turnaround.