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Your guide to the economies in Super Tuesday states

Heidi Nelson Cruz, wife of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) waves on stage at Gilley's Dallas the day before Super Tuesday February 29, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Candidates have spread themselves out over the U.S. in the lead up to Super Tuesday where twelve states will hold primary voting.  Stewart F. House/Getty Images

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The week has started with a mad dash as the remaining presidential candidates held rally after rally ahead of Super Tuesday. Eleven states will award hundreds of delegates, mostly in the South, and the contests aren’t winner-take-all, so everyone’s trying to get a piece of the action.

All this election cycle we’ve brought you stories about how regular folks are experiencing — or not experiencing — the economic recovery, so we called up experts in each Super Tuesday state to get the lay of the land and figure out what’s on voters’ minds as they head to the polls this week.

Super Tuesday State Economies

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“The Yellowhammer State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


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Manufacturing, particularly auto manufacturing, has driven Alabama out of the recession. It’s the second largest employer and the biggest GDP driver.

“We are a relatively poor state, by income measures, but I would also say we are a happy state,” said Sam Addy, senior research economist at the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “One of the things that is often lost when we say we are a poor state is how far we’ve come.”

But the state’s in a tight spot, Addy said. The state employs a significant portion of Alabamians but revenue has been falling and taxes aren’t going up anytime soon. That’s lead to cuts and Addy said it’s holding Alabama back.

The state’s had visits from several leading candidates this cycle, but Addy says few of them have given Alabama much to hang their economic hats on. When Sen Bernie Sanders visited last month, for example, he tried to connect with black voters by comparing his fight for “economic justice” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for workers’ rights.

“You know how the calendar goes. Right now is the time for expressing emotions,” Addy said. “The feelings period is now, the head will come in later.”

“The Last Frontier”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Alaska made it through the recession relatively unscathed — tourism took a hit, but it’s slowly recovering no thanks to the strong dollar. But state revenue is tied up in Alaska’s deeply embedded oil industry, and the government has run up a $3.5 billion budget deficit as prices have fallen.

“The recession from a few years ago is nothing near as serious as what we’re in now,” says Dan Robinson, head researcher for the state department of labor.

The state’s other big driver, fishing and seafood manufacturing, has remained fairly stable thanks to a solid international market. Politicians don’t make it up to Alaska often, but when they do it’s usually to talk about drilling or the environment.

“Alaska’s a symbol, I think, for a lot of national issues,” Robinson said. “Even if you’re in Connecticut and you’ve never been to Alaska, it means something to you, it might represent something to you.”

“The Natural State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

The fracking boom helped stave off the worst of the recession, but Arkansas has limped through the recovery, losing jobs even as the nation was regaining stability.

“Arkansas in 2015 had a pretty good year, at a state-wide level,” said Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic research at the University of Arkansas. “But of course that state-level masks a lot of variability.”

The northwest corner has enjoyed job growth disproportionate to the rest of the state thanks to Wal-Mart, which is headquartered there, along with suppliers, business services, construction and more in its orbit.

“There’s just a large ecosystem that’s anchored by the retail behemoth Wal-Mart,” Deck said.

“With Wal-Mart remaining strong the rest of the economy has been able to do it’s own thing, and keep trucking along.”

Meanwhile rural areas have stayed flat, and manufacturing, key to the state economy, hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the country.

“The Centennial State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

The shale boom was good for Colorado as it pulled out of the recession, but now the state’s in flux. Mining is a relatively small part of state employment, but layoffs slowed the state’s growth rate from around four percent to around three percent. Still, Colorado department of labor chief economist Alexandra Hall said the impact has been contained, while the rest of the state enjoys low gas prices.

“Because of the positive side of that, Colorado’s economy has really been going strong for a number of years now. I think that’s what people living in Colorado are seeing, in fact their biggest concern is probably housing in the Denver metro area.”

The vast majority of the state lives and works in the Front Range urban corridor north and south of Denver, and the city has attracted a lot of young workers. Rents surged last year but there are signs construction is beginning to catch up.

The other big green elephant in the room is the marijuana industry. It hasn’t played a huge role in the election so far — though Cruz distinguished himself by saying the government should recognize states’ legalization. The industry is difficult to measure, Hall said, but seems to be booming since recreational use became legal in Colorado two years ago.

“Certainly, if you drive around the Denver metro area… you’ll see the entrepreneurial spirit around the marijuana industry is in full bloom,” she said.

“The Peach State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

While many of the Super Tuesday states are stinging from low oil prices, Georgia is seeing the benefits. Jeff Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, says there’s reason to be optimistic after a tough couple of years.

A number of big development projects are coming to fruition, he said, and the home market is starting to bounce back, lifting the state’s large home materials industry. The benefits are compounded by the oil glut, both at Savannah’s port and Atlanta’s busy airport.

“It’s all upside for us,” Humphreys said. “We’re a big consuming state partly because of the fact that we have such a huge transportation and logistics cluster.”

Like many states, the recovery has concentrated around urban areas while rural Georgia has lagged. Atlanta in particular is attracting tech jobs, and those new residents have long commutes — another benefit from cheap gas.

The state’s labor commissioner Mark Butler, who is a Republican, said many Georgians are fed up with the government, and small businesses owners in particular are feeling burdened by regulations. Some candidates have travelled through Georgia, he said, but they’ve only been talking in broad strokes.

“You don’t hear a lot of candidates .. trying diving deep,” he said.  “A lot of big national politics has been pushed to little snippets — even shorter soundbites then we were used to.”

“The Bay State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Massachusetts largely runs on brain power, with an well-educated workforce and lots of high-paying jobs in tech, health, life sciences and education. They weren’t as hard-hit by the recession and they’ve recovered quickly, said Mark Melnik, director of economic and policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute.

“There’s been different buzzwords for these things over the years — the knowledge economy, the innovation economy,” Melnik said. “A lot of that is driven by having a population that has advanced education.”

It follows that the Boston metro area, with its many elite schools and jobs, has been carrying the rest of the state, including other cities. That’s been a focus of the state government, and the Donahue Institute, Melnik said.

Massachusetts is a blue state with a Republican governor, and John Kasich has concentrated his efforts there in recent weeks. The Ohio governor is presenting himself as a more moderate, pragmatic alternative to the rest of the GOP field.

“Land of 10,000 lakes”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Growth has been slow but steady during Minnesota’s recovery, in part because high agricultural prices buoyed the state throughout the recession. Minnesota grocers and manufacturers also enjoyed multiplier effects coming out of the Bakken oil boom in neighboring North Dakota without taking the brunt of the bust.

“I always tell my students, ‘It’s always better to sell shovels to gold miners than to pan for gold yourself,’ that’s what Minnesota was doing,” said Louis Johnston, an economics professor at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

But the state’s economic health is divided. Finance and insurance companies are among Minnesota’s biggest employers, and they’re keeping urban economies strong along with the state’s medical technology sector.

As a swing state, Minnesota has seen most of the candidates come through, but it’s not always clear how engaged candidates are with the issues. On a recent visit to Hibbing, Minnesota, Sanders did mention the plight of miners in the northern, rural parts of the state.

“The Sooner State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Oklahoma is struggling. The state’s oil industry saw huge layoffs as crude prices tumbled and the effect rippled through the economy.

“I think there’s a good argument to be made that we were actually in recession the first half of 2015,” said Lynn Gray, the state’s economic research and analysis director.

Modest growth in retail, food and hospitality employment have helped mitigate that job loss, and the state’s economy is more diversified than it was during the ‘80s oil bust, but Gray said that’s not enough. In the short-term at least, the only thing that can help Oklahoma is higher oil prices.

“I’ve even had individuals who don’t have any connection with the oil and gas industry [tell] me they feel guilty when they fill up the tank,” Gray said. “When they’re paying $1.20 there’s the joy of ‘Wow, this doesn’t cost anything,’ but ‘I know what this is doing to my neighbors.’”

Sen. Marco Rubio addressed the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association last fall, saying that as president he’d repeal the ban on crude exports and roll back carbon emissions regulations.

“The Volunteer State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Tennessee has enjoyed steady 2 percent employment growth the past several years, though it’s not always evenly distributed.

The Nashville area has attracted many young skilled workers, said Bill Fox, director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Memphis is a major shipping hub and the headquarters of FedEx, though it hasn’t performed quite as well.

Like much of the nation, Tennessee is seeing a shift to more durable manufacturing jobs, at auto plants in particular.

“You still have a set of people who worked in the non-durable manufacturing industries, people who were involved in construction and so forth, who are not ever going back to those industries,” Fox said.

That’s increased demand for education, and the state started the Tennessee Promise initiative to expand opportunities. The program provides free community college to high school graduates who have already applied to a number of scholarships.

“For Tennessee to be successful in the long-term we simply have to have a continually better [educated] labor force than we traditionally have,” Fox said.

“The Lone Star State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

The Texas miracle may be over. It’s not like the Bakken, or, well, Texas in the 1980s, but there’s no doubt the state’s remarkable economic growth is starting to slow down, thanks in no small part to tumbling oil prices.

“The canary hasn’t totally fallen off its perch down there in the coal mine, but it’s kind of wobbly,” said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

The economy has diversified, particularly around the Austin tech scene and the health industry in Houston. It’s created a “three-legged stool” and kept the economy fairly stable even as the state has trouble with tax revenue, says Ray Perryman, head of the economic advisory firm Perryman Group.

Beyond the oil fields, Perryman said many Texans and politicians have overlooked a key issue for 2016: Not just immigration, but what happens if undocumented workers are forced out. Perryman estimates as much as 10 percent of Texas’ workforce is made up of illegal immigrants.

“If we were to suddenly have mass deportations and an inability to fill those positions, it would be a big dislocation to the state economy,” Perryman said. “The bottom line is, I don’t think that economic reality resonates in the dialogue in this election.”

“The Green Mountain State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Vermont has the smallest economy in the nation, and its growth is quite muted at this point in the recovery.

“One thing we’ve seen historically is that Vermont doesn’t run as cold during economic downturns, and it doesn’t run as hot in economic upturns,” said Mat Barewicz, from the Economic Labor Market Information Division at the state department of labor.

The state is known for tourism, agriculture and maple syrup, but Barewicz said those industries complement a solid manufacturing base and rich history in higher ed. Tourism contributes to about 10 percent of Vermont’s economy, and it’s having a tough season without much snow. The market has stayed stable even as the strong dollar keeps international tourists away elsewhere. That’s because when times are tight, many in the region will opt to take a short car ride to Vermont instead of a big vacation.

“The Old Dominion State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Virginia is lagging. Jobs have come back since the recession but they’re not as good as what the state lost, said Terry Clower, director of the Center of Regional Analysis at George Mason University. A lot of that is thanks to the sequester — professional services and contractors have had to shift to relying less on federal dollars.

“This region and this state are always going to have a large component of federal employment and federal procurement spending,” Clower said. “You just don’t want it to be so dependent because at this point nobody sees a scenario where federal government spending increases — unless Bernie Sanders becomes president and gets Congress to go along with him.”

The defense industry down in Norfolk is also watching the election closely, Clower said, because while Sanders proposes expensive programs, most GOP candidates want to increase military spending.

“The Cowboy State”

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Unemployment Rate (Dec 2015):


Election Outlook:

Wyoming’s best-kept secret is all the fossil fuels hidden beneath all its natural beauty. It’s the Cowboy State but Wyoming is coal country, producing more than the next six states combined.

“We’ve kind of been tossing and turning on the sea of energy prices,” said Robert Godby, director at the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy.

That’s meant layoffs, and a whole group of workers who have picked up and left the state. Tourism is stronger than ever but not enough to offset the loss of high-paying energy jobs.

Even if the market improves, nationwide sentiment is turning against fossil fuels and coal in particular, so the industry may be further hampered by carbon controls, depending on who wins in November.

Wyoming is reliably red with just three electoral votes, so not many candidates have come through, Godby said, though staffers with Hillary Clinton’s campaign have met with state officials to discuss energy policy.

“Certainly there’s a tension there, but you know if you talk to people honestly they recognize that there’s might have to be something done about it,” Godby says, but it can be a different story when your own job could be in jeopardy. “Then that second part comes in: ‘What about me?’”

Additional reporting by Sarah Menendez and design by Paul Brent. Icons by Yi Chen, Sergey Demushkin, Nick Abrams, Alex Tai, Oliviu Stoian, Will Deskins and Edward Boatman via the Noun Project.

Correction: A previous version of this story briefly conflated Texas’ and Tennessee’s unemployment rates. The text has been corrected.

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