Manufacturing realities tilt Ohio toward Trump
Electoral history has shown that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, at least for Republican presidential hopefuls.
No one from the GOP has managed to reach the White House without carrying Ohio in a presidential election. And since President Theodore Roosevelt triumphed in the election of 1904, Ohio has voted for a losing presidential candidate only twice. Both times, the state voted for a Republican candidate, while the Democratic nominee won overall.
And walking into Election Day, Ohio appears to be tilted toward GOP nominee Donald Trump. The RealClearPolitics polling average favors Trump at +2.2. That's hardly a lock, but Ohio has mostly favored Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton since mid-September.
The GOP candidate's relative success in the state up to this point is telling, especially when one considers the strategy he has employed to rally his troops. While campaigning throughout Ohio, GOP nominee Trump has regularly hammered the politicians who he says have allowed the state's manufacturing sector to diminish over the years, and his slight lead in the state's polls ahead of Election Day suggests his message is resonating in a state home to several old steel and industrial towns throughout the Rust Belt.
"Every time you see a closed factory or wiped-out community in Ohio, it was essentially caused by the Clintons," Trump said at a recent event in Springfield, Ohio. He bashed Clinton for her support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many politicians and analysts suggest played a role in the evaporation of regional manufacturing and production jobs.
But just how far has Ohio manufacturing fallen? The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains state manufacturing employment data going back to 1990. That year, Ohio held more than a million manufacturing employees who accounted for nearly 21 percent of all those employed in the Buckeye State.
Manufacturing payrolls dipped in the early 1990s but consistently hovered north of 1 million until 2000, when Ohio industry took a nosedive. By 2010, payrolls were down nearly 40 percent from where they sat a decade earlier. Manufacturers then accounted for less than 12 percent of all Ohio employees.
Recessions in the early and late 2000s undoubtedly factored into the decline, but many also point a finger at NAFTA – which was signed by President Bill Clinton back in 1993. NAFTA's ultimate economic consequences are still debated by economists, as some have argued that it played only a minor role in a domestic manufacturing erosion that was exacerbated by technological innovation and the Chinese economy's rise to prominence.
"China's emergence as a great economic power has induced an epochal shift in patterns of world trade," a group of researchers wrote in a paper published earlier this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research. "These impacts are mostly visible in the local labor markets in which the industries exposed to foreign competition are concentrated."
The steel industry, for example, was once a crucial component of the domestic economy, and its exodus from the U.S. hit cities like Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, particularly hard. The percentage of Cleveland's workforce employed in industrial positions in 1930 was second among U.S. cities only to Detroit, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University.
But then Chinese steel rose to prominence. Back in 1980, the U.S. produced more than 14 percent of the world's crude steel, according to the World Steel Association. China accounted for a little more than 5 percent of production. Fast-forward to 2014 after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, and the Asian economic titan's share of global production rose to nearly 50 percent. The U.S., meanwhile, pumped out a little more than 5 percent.
In Ohio, specifically, raw steel production plummeted more than 49 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2012 study commissioned by Cleveland State University. Over that period, Ohio's total U.S. market share of production dropped from 16.3 percent to 10.4 percent.
"You take a look at what's happening to steel and the cost of steel – and China dumping vast amounts of steel all over the United States, which essentially is killing our steelworkers and our steel companies," Trump said during the second presidential debate last month in St. Louis.
It's worth noting that the Obama administration has already taken action against Chinese steel importers. The Commerce Department announced new Chinese steel tariffs earlier this year as a result of what it described as unfair and predatory Chinese steel import prices.
But Trump has repeatedly suggested he is the only one savvy enough to battle with China over trade, and his message appears to be resonating with Ohio voters. An October CNN-ORC International poll found that more than half of the state's voters – 53 percent – think Trump would be better than Clinton at managing the economy. Another 51 percent said Trump would be preferable at handling "trade with other countries."
"They call it the Rust Belt for a reason, because everything's rusting and rotting. They lost their jobs," Trump said at an August campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio. "The people of Ohio are special people, and they're smart people, and they know what's happening to them."
But to call manufacturing down and out in Ohio would be grossly selling the state's industrial sector short. Manufacturing employment has actually climbed nearly 11 percent since 2010. Industrial jobs still sit well shy of where they were in 1990, but the number of people working in one particular sector isn't the only way to measure economic success.
Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western, points to productivity and the overall value of goods produced by Ohio manufacturers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows manufacturing productivity gains have regularly outpaced the national average in recent years, which has allowed workers to generate more products without necessarily working longer hours.
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"When productivity increases, that means the number of workers needed to make a given number of tons of steel goes down," she says. "So if steel's now cheaper because there's more productivity, you find more uses to it. So the firms that make the steel in the U.S. gain market share, so the number of tons of steel demanded could go up."
Helper says computer manufacturing has driven a lot of the productivity gains on paper – slightly skewing the data – but it's still tough to ignore the strong numbers coming out of Ohio's industrial operations. Manufacturing accounted for nearly 18 percent of the state's gross domestic product last year. It was still the largest of 20 sub-sectors profiled in the state's GDP report, and Ohio's $108.1 billion of manufactured goods trailed only California and Texas in terms of production.
Goods production in the state actually climbed 28 percent between 2000 and 2015, all while payrolls contracted. These productivity gains were heavily influenced by technological innovations that put typically labor-intensive work into the hands of machines.
Helper compares the equipment used by some Cleveland steel and mining plants today to "an aircraft control tower, with all the computer screens and stuff going on." She says there are "very few workers" at some factories, and even clothing production plants that have historically been more labor intensive are "pretty automated" in the area.
"You never thought you'd have a lot of automation with the way men's pants are made, but there's actually a lot of automation in that. And it's automation you wouldn't see, probably, in Mexico or China," she says. "They're in business and doing well because they can compete on quality and fast response."
In fact, Ohio manufacturers are actually believed to be having a hard time finding qualified employees to work open manufacturing positions.
"We're facing a real significant demographic challenge. What's generally happened economically is really massive investment into new technologies, both in our factories and in our products. Much more sophisticated technologies that require a higher level of skill," says Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers' Association. "There's a lot of side shows going on in this election, unfortunately. But both candidates have recognized the importance of manufacturing to Ohio's or to the nation's prosperity."
So with manufacturing production on the rise in Ohio and high-skill openings up for grabs, why is Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric hitting home? After all, the state's unemployment rate sat at just 4.8 percent in September – below America's national 5 percent that month. It's not like the state as a whole is experiencing widespread unemployment.
Helper says politicians have historically focused on the total number of people employed, rather than taking a more holistic approach that includes productivity considerations. So it's not terribly surprising to hear Trump's ominous industrial diagnosis. But she says she has identified a worrying "bifurcation" in pay that has set up a feast or famine dynamic, depending on which type of manufacturing job an individual possesses. Such a dynamic helps to support the case that the state's industrial sector is broken.
"On average, manufacturing jobs continue to pay more than other jobs, and it doesn't matter how you cut the data," she says. "On the other hand, a third of production workers in manufacturing make so little that they qualify for public assistance. Somewhere around 10 percent of manufacturing workers are temporary workers, and those people make significantly less money than the regular workers."
Worker pay is also important to keep in mind for another reason – the jobs that have replaced manufacturing are mostly at the lower end of the salary spectrum. Manufacturing work for decades was considered a gateway to the middle class as it paid respectable wages. Even now, manufacturers' average hourly earnings clock in slightly higher than the national private-sector average.
But mostly service-driven jobs have replaced manufacturing employment in Ohio, and those roles often don't pay nearly as much. Retail trade and hospitality positions, in particular, have gained in recent years. And those workers don't typically make nearly as much as manufacturing workers do.
Ohio's labor market has been reshuffled in recent years, and it hasn't necessarily been to the benefit of the state's old manufacturing workforce. And given that shift – which forced many in the industry to either take lower wage-positions in a similar field or take on a low-paying job in a completely different industry – it's easy to see why Trump's doomsday rhetoric is resonating with Ohioans despite the state's relative industrial strength.
Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report