But the party’s efforts face a paradoxical hurdle: The economy can’t regain much momentum without the participation of big Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, where both local officials and average residents remain more skeptical about quickly unwinding social distancing measures.
Mayors in many of those metropolitan areas — particularly in states such as Georgia, Texas and Arizona with Republican governors committed to rapidly restarting the economy — have raised alarms about reopening too quickly.
“The concentration of the economy in bigger, denser, more science-oriented places becomes a real ceiling on effective reopening,” says Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program. “Metropolitan economic elites are well informed about the risk and may simply refuse to participate in what they may view as a precipitous opening. This is where behavior is going to have a large say, rather than political or policy positions.”
As former Atlanta Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed told me recently, “What the current environment shows is that Republicans need Democratic cities to drive the economy.”
This dynamic is the result of long-term trends intersecting with the course of the virus.
Large urban areas are also the center of high-end business services (like banking and legal), entertainment, travel, higher education and health care.
In many states, these trends have allowed the large metropolitan areas to soar economically so far past small-town and rural regions that analysts often describe local conditions as a tale of two states.
“It is a tale of two Texases,” the group wrote, “one, an urban powerhouse with a rising knowledge economy that craves more educated talent; and the other, smaller towns and open ranges whose legacy agriculture, manufacturing, and oil extraction businesses are contracting.”
The new Brookings data prepared for CNN show how widespread this pattern of metro concentration has become across America, including in the states that both sides consider most likely to decide the 2020 presidential election. Using federal Bureau of Economic Analysis data, Brookings at my request analyzed the share of employment and economic output generated by metropolitan areas of 500,000 people or more in nine states high on the 2020 target list for each party.
The results, Muro said, showed that “in virtually all cases the state is heavily dependent on at least one major metro and in most cases several.”
In Pennsylvania, for instance, larger metropolitan areas account for nearly 95% of the state’s economic output and 89% of its jobs. The Philadelphia metro alone accounts for nearly three-fifths of the state’s output and almost exactly half of its jobs.
The Phoenix area accounts for nearly three-fourths of Arizona’s output and jobs, with the total metro contribution (including Tucson) rising to about 86% of each. In Georgia, Atlanta provides two-thirds of the output and three-fifths of the jobs, with smaller metros raising those numbers slightly higher. In Texas, Dallas and Houston combine for about 55% of output and jobs, and the other large metros raise the share to about three-fourths of the total.
Large metros account for at least four-fifths of total economic output in Florida and Ohio, nearly three-fourths in North Carolina and about two-thirds in Michigan, where Detroit alone contributes about half. The big metros generated only a slightly smaller share of the jobs across those states, (except in Ohio where they contained slightly more.)
Only in Wisconsin, the least urbanized of the major swing states, did large metros account for less than half of the state’s economy, and even there the numbers for Milwaukee and Madison combined still reached 46% of output and 42% of jobs.
Economic experts across these states agree that they can’t regain cruising speed without a revival in these dynamic metro areas. For Texas, there will be no recovery “without those places restarting and getting out in front of this,” says Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ School’s Urban Lab. “We have this frontier mentality but at the end of the day we are an urban state. The growth triangle is what has kept the state moving and growing.”
Likewise, Jeff Rosensweig, who directs a program on business, public policy and government at the Emory University business school in Atlanta, says flatly that “there’s really no way the state can recover unless there’s a lot more activity going on in Atlanta.”
In Arizona, Maricopa County, centered on Phoenix, accounts for just over half of the state’s cases. In Michigan, where the outbreak appears to be finally ebbing, Detroit and its politically pivotal suburbs of Oakland and Macomb counties have accumulated almost two-thirds of the state’s cases.
Urban residents still feel cautious
In last week’s national CNN survey, for instance, only 36% of urban residents said they felt comfortable resuming their normal routines, much less than the 55% of rural respondents who expressed such confidence, according to figures provided by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta.
And while a slight majority of rural residents said in the survey that the worst of the outbreak was behind us, a 55% majority of urban residents said the worst was still to come. The two groups offered mirror-image verdicts on Trump’s handling of the outbreak, with three-fifths of urban residents disapproving and three-fifths of rural residents approving. On all three questions, suburban residents fell in between, though generally much closer to the urban respondents.
Little change in big cities
But the concentration of economic activity in the biggest cities suggests this is something of a pyrrhic victory for Trump and the GOP. In Wisconsin, local officials in Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two most economically vibrant regions, immediately reimposed stay-at-home orders. “The immediate implication” of the state’s most bustling economic centers opting out of reopening “is a very slow recovery” for Wisconsin, says David Ward, an economic consultant in the state.
Remaining closed isn’t an option for mayors in the states where GOP governors have precluded stronger local action. But Democratic mayors and county officials in urban centers such as Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Phoenix have publicly expressed concerns that the restrictions are being lifted too fast.
Reed, the former Atlanta mayor, predicts that economic activity in big cities will lag so long as mayors remain unconvinced that reopening is safe. “I think you will continue to see the public defer to the local mayor, and that’s the signal that everybody will be waiting to hear from,” he said. “So while the economy is opening, I don’t think there is anywhere near the level of activity you would have if the mayor of Atlanta or Houston or San Antonio were in line with the governor’s policies.”
Muro likewise expects a slow reemergence in the big population centers. He says he’s had repeated conversations over the past week with economic development groups in major metropolitan areas around the country that are skeptical of the rapid restart that Trump and many governors are promoting.
“I can tell you in the last 36 hours I’ve had multiple conversations with very senior CEO groups very, very concerned about what’s coming out of their governor’s office,” he said. “Metro business elites tend to prefer a science-based, prudent, graduated approach to these issues. … There is just a very visceral sense of caution.”
Cities bluer and small towns redder
For years, a cadre of conservative-leaning urban critics have predicted that residents and businesses eventually will flee the expensive housing and high taxes of the big-city centers and relocate to red-leaning areas on the metropolitan fringes.
But whatever the long-term prognosis, the economic dominance of the largest metro areas won’t diminish between now and November. And that means Trump can’t hope to truly revive the economy without more buy-in from the communities and voters who were the most skeptical of him from the outset — and have been the most badly battered by the outbreak this year.