By Robert Maxim, Mark Muro
Last month the Metropolitan Policy Program partnered with the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) to release The State of the Heartland: Factbook 2018, a by-the-numbers look at economic and social conditions in the interior U.S.
Using the WFF’s definition of the region, we looked at trends in 19 diverse Heartland states and concluded that the region is doing relatively well on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections.
Far from “American carnage,” the region enjoys key strengths in advanced manufacturing, agriculture, and other exports. Meanwhile, the Heartland’s employment rate and cost-of-living adjusted median earnings—critical measures of wellbeing—actually exceed the rest of the country. And those measures are rising in the region—meaning more people may be living more comfortably.
All of which raises the question of what the improved state of the Heartland means for the looming elections, and in turn for the nation’s future, given the Heartland’s centrality in U.S. politics.
The Heartland matters inordinately for this year’s midterm elections. In the Senate especially, the Heartland plays an outsized role because the chamber gives each state equal representation. While the region accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s population, it is represented by 38 senators.
Of the 13 close “swing” races that are likely to decide control of the Senate, six lie in the Heartland, according to The Cook Political Report. And while the region matters less for control of the House of Representatives, still nearly one-third of House swing races are in the Heartland. Given that, it will be difficult for either side to control Congress without success in the region.
Regarding state gubernatorial elections, the Heartland is again going to be central to next week’s election by a series of competitive races in the region. Of the nation’s 36 gubernatorial elections, 13 feature Heartland states, and seven of those are swing races.
Consequentially, the Heartland is going to be a major focus when it comes to determining the contours of power in the next few years. In that sense, it will be a big deal if the improved economic conditions in the region at all influence outcomes of the vote by tilting votes toward either the Republicans or the Democrats.
As to what this all might mean for where things are heading, findings from the “State of the Heartland” factbook suggest a number of potential implications—for the Heartland, and for the nation.
For the Heartland, the elections—both at the national and state level—have immediate bearing on the region’s urgent need to address its acute human capital and innovation shortcomings.
As the factbook notes, the Heartland’s current good times are shadowed by grievous shortcomings on the kinds of capacities that are most essential to long-term, broad-based prosperity. These shortcomings range from the region’s lower bachelor’s degree attainment (compared to the rest of the nation) and significant racial attainment gaps, to its weak R&D flows and its relatively thin roster of top-level, fully-funded research universities. Such human and innovation capacities are now the core drivers of long-term economic performance for cities, states, and regions. Whether or not those elected to lead Heartland states are inclined to work relentlessly to promote equitable educational opportunities or invest in university-based innovation and technology transfer is a huge question. The region’s future hangs on it.
Yet how the Heartland votes will also matter enormously to the entire nation. Notably, any under-performance of one region matters to all regions. In this regard, any deficit of social inclusion, educational attainment, or tech-transfer performance in the Heartland represents an underutilization of assets for the nation as a whole.
The inclinations of the next cadre of Heartland leaders will, in this regard, matter intensely for addressing the many cross-cutting issues the country is facing. This begins with the most fundamental one: Will the next group of Heartland leaders push back against the current outbreak of hate and political division nationwide?
From there, Heartland leaders will also play a major role in the multitude of discrete policy decisions in need of sound federal responses. Federal funding is crucial, for example, to drive innovation with basic and applied research activity in both the Heartland and elsewhere. Likewise, federal resources and coordination are needed to address the opioid crisis gripping the Heartland and the country as a whole. Congress will also play an essential role in steering the country toward a more sensible trade policy that couples reduced barriers to exports with radically stronger investments in skill development and adjustment support for displaced workers. Finally, there are the longstanding federal issues that the Congress has been unwilling or unable to address, such as preserving and expanding coverage gains in healthcare, investing in desperately needed infrastructure upgrades, or humanely reforming our immigration laws.
Across a multitude of issues, Heartland leaders and outcomes will have a significant impact on the lives of Heartland and non-Heartland residents alike. Wise leadership will matter to ensure that the country can secure the investments and partnerships—in R&D, skills, the safety net, and other areas—that it needs to unlock both the Heartland’s full potential, and America’s.
The Heartland sits at the heart of an epochal election. But what really matters is the policy that comes afterward.