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Pa. hit a record low in unemployment. Will that help Trump win again in 2020?

Polls show widespread disapproval of President Donald Trump. But the economy is humming along in many respects. Will that help Trump carry Pennsylvania again?

Tammy Painter of Bethlehem, Pa., holds a sign for President Donald Trump outside the Steel Stacks Event Center in Bethlehem, where Democrat Bernie Sanders held a town hall meeting in April.
Tammy Painter of Bethlehem, Pa., holds a sign for President Donald Trump outside the Steel Stacks Event Center in Bethlehem, where Democrat Bernie Sanders held a town hall meeting in April.Read moreWilliam Thomas Cain

WASHINGTON — Most voters really don’t like President Donald Trump, the polls say.

But those same surveys show that many like this: Unemployment is the lowest in 50 years, the stock market has soared, and wages are rising.

If economic gains continue, those factors could be the defining elements of the 2020 presidential campaign.

“His job performance is extremely negative, and his favorability is negative, and there’s real intensity to it,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who helps run the bipartisan Battleground Poll. “What Democrats have to be most worried about is the economy. There we see the president getting very solid job performance ratings and the Democrats being far behind.”

The question of economic strength is particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, one of the most critical swing states, and a place Trump won in 2016 with promises to revive old postindustrial towns.

There are signs of progress: The Keystone State hit an all-time low in unemployment in March, 3.9 percent. Meanwhile, the state’s job count lifted to a record 6.2 million.

“Pennsylvania is having one of the best economic years in its history, with lowest unemployment EVER,” Trump tweeted April 29, just ahead of a Pittsburgh rally for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Democrats argue that the headline numbers, though, have not brought tangible benefits for middle-class workers.

“The stock market is roaring, but you don’t feel it,” Biden said in a Pittsburgh Teamsters union hall.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) also stopped in the Steel City last month and reached out to the blue-collar voters who helped tip the state to Trump. The president, Sanders said, had betrayed working people by pushing to repeal the protections of the Affordable Care Act and signing a tax bill that mostly helped the wealthy.

“We will not accept the massive levels of income and wealth inequality that exist in America today,” Sanders said.

So where does Pennsylvania stand?

Measuring the economy in a political context, of course, comes with caveats. For one, individual experiences shape perceptions, regardless of trends.

“What the objective economy looks like isn’t necessarily how voters interpret the economy,” said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Democrats note that Trump inherited a steadily growing economy and declining unemployment. And there are many ways to measure performance.

In some counties, for example, the unemployment rate has dropped steeply, but few new jobs have been added. (The contrast could be explained by people moving away, dying, or leaving the workforce.)

It’s also impossible to predict how long the surge will last. Trump’s tariff hike Friday escalated a trade war with China and added a dose of economic uncertainty after a week that had seen stocks slip. The tariffs have aided the steel industry but hampered other businesses that use steel and that employ far more people. Farmers also have struggled with retaliatory tariffs.

“Tariffs tend to have more losers than winners,” said David Buehler, an associate professor of economics at Penn State’s Harrisburg campus.

In a big state, economic gains and losses aren’t always equal

Beneath the statewide figures are significant variations.

“There is no ‘Pennsylvania economy.’ We are a collection of regions,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh.

Although every county has seen unemployment rates fall, some have enjoyed more gains than others. In what could be a concern for Trump, several of the long-struggling counties that decisively swung his way have continued to lag.

Job Growth in Pennsylvania Under Trump

Counties voting for Trump

The number of jobs in the counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 have increased by 1.6 percent during Trump's presidency so far, a rate that is lower than the statewide boost of 1.9 percent. Job growth has trailed the statewide rate in 29 of the 56 counties, and the number of jobs has declined in eight others.

Counties voting for Clinton

Job growth in the counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 has been 2.9 percent, higher than the statewide rate. Jobs in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties, which all voted for Clinton, have increased by 3.3 percent since Trump took office.

SOURCE: Pa. Department of Labor and Industry

Luzerne County, for example, saw a 32,000-vote swing toward Trump in 2016, compared with the 2012 presidential results. And the Northeastern Pennsylvania county has seen a sharp drop in unemployment, from 6.2 percent when Trump took office to 4.8 percent in March.

But its unemployment rate was still above the state average and ranked 58th out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Luzerne has seen a 1.3 percent increase in jobs since the end of 2016, less than the state average.

Nearby Lackawanna County, which also swung dramatically to Trump, has seen 800 new jobs, less than a 1 percent increase, according to state data.

Other parts of so-called Trump country, however, have seen significant gains.

In Western Pennsylvania, Beaver County, home to a massive construction project for a new Shell petrochemical complex, has added 1,800 jobs, a 2.3 percent increase from December 2016. Its unemployment rate has fallen from 6 percent the month Trump took office to 3.7 percent, 18th lowest in the state.

(The Shell facility, tied to the natural gas industry, was approved before Trump’s election.)

Westmoreland County, in the Southwest, also surged toward Trump in 2016 and has added 3,900 jobs, one of the largest gains outside of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and their suburbs.

Philadelphia gains jobs, but can’t shake persistent poverty

Philadelphia had seen a 4.4 percent increase in jobs as of March 2019.

But worries about inequality persist. A census report found the city’s poverty rate stuck at 25.7 percent in 2017, nearly the same as the 25.8 percent level in 2015. It had the highest poverty rate of the 10 most populous U.S. cities. Unemployment in March was 4.7 percent, higher than the state average.

After a lull, wages might finally be ticking up

Wages long lagged behind in the recovery, but in April the national average hourly earnings were 3.2 percent higher than one year earlier. That was the ninth straight month of growth over 3 percent. The greatest gains over the last year have gone to people in the bottom 25 percent of the wage scale, according to a New York Times analysis of public data.

It’s difficult to say exactly how that has affected Pennsylvania because regional wage data are reported more slowly. The most recent regional analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is from September 2018, when the average weekly wages rose 3.3 percent nationally compared with one year earlier.

Some parts of Pennsylvania did even better than that, including Luzerne (3.9 percent growth), Butler (4.5 percent), and Westmoreland (4.2 percent). Each of those, however, was still well behind the national average of $1,055 earnings a week.

Again, though, some counties where Trump surged, such as Lackawanna (2.3 percent) and Northampton (2.3 percent), trailed. Erie saw 0.8 percent wage growth, ranking it 327 out of the country’s 350 largest counties for that time span. In Philadelphia, wages grew by just 1.7 percent.

State data from Pennsylvania’s Center for Workforce Information & Analysis show that in the first full fiscal year under Trump, July 2017 to June 2018, the state’s average weekly wages rose to $1,048.73, or 2.29 percent. In the seven full fiscal years under Barack Obama, by comparison, average wage increases beat that mark three times, and fell short four.

Meanwhile, the number of workers earning the minimum wage or less fell to an estimated 96,300 people in 2018, the lowest since 2006, according to Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage Advisory Board.