A lot of different factors – including a multitude of federal and state policy decisions – go into a state’s economic health in general and its unemployment rate in particular. Even partisan control of a state may not tell us everything we need to know, given that some states have long-entrenched policies passed by a party that is presently not in power. Massachusetts and Maryland, for example, are still very much blue states in policy terms despite their Republican governors.
That said, state governors and the current state legislatures have had an outsized role in handling state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And a year after states began locking down, this much is clear: states with unified Democratic governments have significantly higher unemployment, on average, than states with unified Republican government. States with divided government fall in between. When we break down the BLS seasonally-adjusted unemployment figures for March, 2021, the pattern is striking:
Eleven states plus the District of Columbia have unemployment rates of 7% or higher, a full point above the national average of 6%. Not one has a Republican governor, and only two (Louisiana and Pennsylvania) have Republican-controlled legislatures. The other ten all have unified Democratic governance. By contrast, twenty states have an unemployment rate of 4.7% or lower; sixteen of those have unified Republican governments, one (Vermont) has a Republican governor, and two (Kansas and Wisconsin) have Republican legislatures (Minnesota has a Republican state senate). Maine is the only unified Democrat-run state in the country with an unemployment rate below 5%. The average Republican-controlled state has a 4.5% unemployment rate, more than a point below the national average, while the average Democrat-controlled state (including D.C.) has a 7.2% unemployment rate, more than a point above the national average. The average state with divided government falls in the middle, at 5.3%. (These are unweighted averages). The divide among states with divided government is less dramatic: 5.2% for states with Democratic governors and at least one Republican-controlled legislative house, 5.6% for states with Republican governors and at least one Democrat-controlled or equally-divided legislative house (in Alaska, the Democrats’ only foothold is divided control of the state house of representatives).
Elections matter, and they matter more in a crisis.