Column: The competing economic visions of Biden and Trump — one looks ahead, the other back

By Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

In this election cycle, it's tempting to see every aspect of American life in partisan terms, including its economic divide. But there's an aspect to the economic picture that doesn't get enough attention despite the impulse to view everything through a red vs. blue prism.

It's not merely the split in manufacturing vs. service or information sectors often noticed by analysts, with Trump and the Republicans favoring the former and Democrats - Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 - the latter. Rather, it's the split between economically productive vs. relatively unproductive areas.

The divide could be seen clearly in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution observed then that "no election in decades has revealed as sharp a political divide between the densest economic centers and the rest of the country."

To put it in raw numbers, Muro and Liu determined that the 487 counties won by Clinton produced 64% of America's economic activity (measured by 2015 gross domestic product). The more than 2,600 counties won by Trump generated only 36% of GDP.

Most of the nation's most economically weighty counties went for Clinton, with the exception of Maricopa County, Ariz. (Phoenix); Tarrant County, Texas (Fort Worth); and Suffolk County, N.Y. (a suburb of New York). Clinton swept the most economically important counties of California, including Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Orange and San Diego.

The GDP gap appears to have widened. Muro's data show that by 2018, the counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 had increased their share of GDP to 66%, while Trump counties slipped to 34%.


Democratic strength in the largest counties has been growing since 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush won 57 of the 100 largest counties. Four years later, Bill Clinton won 73. Barrack Obama won 88 and 86 of those counties in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton 88 in 2016.

Reducing these statistics into a forecast for the upcoming election, however, isn't a simple matter.

"That part of America may not be the most productive," political analyst John Judis told me, referring to the less economically productive regions, "but it's still extraordinarily numerous. Because of the Electoral College, it's extraordinarily important."

The economic divide, however, does provide a guidepost to the campaign strategy of Trump and the GOP.


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