In their first presidential debate on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump and Joe Biden zeroed in on a sector of the economy that’s getting plenty of attention this campaign cycle: manufacturing in the Midwest.
Those are the votes that could very well tip the balance in November and both candidates tried to depict themselves as the champion of this hard-pressed sector.
“They gave up on manufacturing,” Trump said of his opponent’s time as vice president. “He blew it,” Biden shot back about Trump’s manufacturing record.
Both candidates highlighted Ohio – where they were debating – and neighboring Michigan.
The actual jobs challenge for both states is, of course, more complicated and long term than either candidate might want to admit. Recent history also shows that manufacturing jobs have lagged behind other sectors of the economy, regardless if a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House.
‘Right here in the state of Ohio and Michigan’
During one of the many heated exchanges, Trump claimed he was the one who had brought both states back. “Ohio had the best year it’s ever had last year,” he said. “Michigan had the best year they’ve ever had.”
Like many things the president said during the debate, it wasn’t backed up by the facts. Just measuring by number of jobs, the apex for Michigan and Ohio was in the early summer of 2000.
Neither state has matched those figures since, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the population of each state has steadily grown, making the jobs picture even more challenging for the average worker.
A new high seemed to be within reach in February with reports of 5.60 million jobs in Ohio and 4.46 million jobs in Michigan. But the bottom soon fell out when the recession took hold.
The manufacturing picture has been even more grim over the years. Ohio’s manufacturing jobs peak over the last 30 years came in 1990, Michigan’s high was in 1999.
Around 2000, both states began shedding thousands of manufacturing jobs each month and the declines continued pretty much unabated all the way through the end of the Great Recession, nearly a decade later.
During the economic growth of the Obama and early Trump years, both states added some manufacturing jobs, but it didn’t keep pace with other sectors of the economy. Even before the current recession, employment in the manufacturing sector in both states was 30% down from its 1990s era highs.
‘I brought back 700,000 jobs’
During the debate, Biden highlighted his role in saving Chrysler and General Motors during the financial crisis. In 2009, as vice president, Biden played a central role in helping the auto industry recover from the crash. “I’m the guy that brought back the automobile industry,” he claims.
Michigan, indeed, saw a slightly more robust manufacturing recovery before the coronavirus recession began, but still lagged the rest of the state’s economy.
Trump went even further and claimed, “I brought back 700,000 [manufacturing] jobs” across the country. That’s a claim he has made before and has been refuted by fact checkers who note this was not even true before the recession.
Biden, for his part, stretched the truth when he claimed that “even before COVID, manufacturing went in the hole.”
As of February 2020, 483,000 manufacturing jobs had been added during Trump's presidency. Through August, 237,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost – on net – since the month Trump took office.
Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.