This post was updated on February 26, 2021 with new data.
Biden-voting counties equal 70% of America’s economy.
Even with a new president and political party soon in charge of the White
House, the nation’s economic standoff continues. Notwithstanding
President-elect Joe Biden’s solid popular vote victory, last week’s
election failed to deliver the kind of transformative reorientation of the
nation’s political-economic map that Democrats (and some Republicans) had
hoped for. The data confirms that the election sharpened the striking
geographic divide between red and blue America, instead of dispelling it.
Most notably, the stark economic rift that Brookings Metro documented
after Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory has grown even wider. In 2016,
we wrote that the 2,584 counties that Trump won generated just 36% of the
country’s economic output, whereas the 472 counties Hillary Clinton
carried equated to almost two-thirds of the nation’s aggregate economy.
A similar analysis for last week’s election shows these trends continuing,
albeit with a different political outcome. This time, Biden’s winning base
in 509 counties encompasses fully 71% of America’s economic activity,
while Trump’s losing base of 2,547 counties represents just 29% of the
economy. (Votes are still outstanding in 28 mostly low-output counties,
and this piece will be updated as new data is reported.)
Table 1. Candidates’ counties won and share of GDP in 2016 and 2020
Year Candidate Counties won Total votes Aggregate share of
2016 Hillary Clinton 472 65,853,625 64%
Donald Trump 2,584 62,985,106 36%
2020 Joe Biden 520 81,283,098 71%
Donald Trump 2,564 74,222,958 29%
Note: 2020 figures reflect unofficial results from 99% of counties.
Figures for 2020 represent results from 100% of counties for which 2018
GDP data are available. Some county equivalents have been consolidated
into counties to match the geography of BEA GDP data.
Source: Brookings analysis of data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,
Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, The New York Times, and
So, while the election’s winner may have changed, the nation’s economic
geography remains rigidly divided. Biden captured virtually all of the
counties with the biggest economies in the country (depicted by the
largest blue tiles in the nearby graphic), including flipping the few that
Clinton did not win in 2016.
By contrast, Trump won thousands of counties in small-town and rural
communities with correspondingly tiny economies (depicted by the red
tiles). Biden’s counties tended to be far more diverse, educated, and
white-collar professional, with their aggregate nonwhite and college-
educated shares of the economy running to 35% and 36%, respectively,
compared to 16% and 25% in counties that voted for Trump.
In short, 2020’s map continues to reflect a striking split between the
large, dense, metropolitan counties that voted Democratic and the mostly
exurban, small-town, or rural counties that voted Republican. Blue and
red America reflect two very different economies: one oriented to diverse,
often college-educated workers in professional and digital services
occupations, and the other whiter, less-educated, and more dependent on
With that said, it would be wrong to describe this as a completely static
map. While the metropolitan/ nonmetropolitan dichotomy remained starkly
persistent, 2020 election returns produced nontrivial movement, as Biden
added modestly to the Democrats’ metropolitan base and significantly to
its vote base. Most notably, Biden flipped six of the nation’s 100
highest-output counties, strengthening the link between these core
economic hubs and the Democratic Party. More specifically, Biden flipped
half of the 10 most economically significant counties Trump won in 2016,
including Phoenix’s Maricopa County; Dallas-Fort Worth’s Tarrant County;
Jacksonville, Fla.’s Duval County; Morris County in New Jersey; and Tampa-
St. Petersburg, Fla.’s Pinellas County.
Altogether, those losses shaved about 3 percentage points’ worth of GDP
off the economic base of Trump counties. That reduced the share of the
nation’s GDP produced by Republican-voting counties to a new low in recent
Why does this matter? This economic rift that persists in dividing the
nation is a problem because it underscores the near-certainty of both
continued clashes between the political parties and continued alienation
To start with, the 2020’s sharpened economic divide forecasts gridlock in
Congress and between the White House and Senate on the most important
issues of economic policy. The problem—as we have witnessed over the past
decade and are likely to continue seeing—is not only that Democrats and
Republicans disagree on issues of culture, identity, and power, but that
they represent radically different swaths of the economy. Democrats
represent voters who overwhelmingly reside in the nation’s diverse
economic centers, and thus tend to prioritize housing affordability, an
improved social safety net, transportation infrastructure, and racial
justice. Jobs in blue America also disproportionately rely on national R&D
investment, technology leadership, and services exports.
By contrast, Republicans represent an economic base situated in the
nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas. Prosperity there remains
out of reach for many, and the party sees no reason to consider the
priorities and needs of the nation’s metropolitan centers. That is not a
scenario for economic consensus or achievement.
At the same time, the results from last week’s election likely underscore
fundamental problems of economic alienation and estrangement.
Specifically, Trump’s anti-establishment appeal suggests that a sizable
portion of the country continues to feel little connection to the nation’s
core economic enterprises, and chose to channel that animosity into a
candidate who promised not to build up all parts of the country, but
rather to vilify groups who didn’t resemble his base.
If this pattern continues—with one party aiming to confront the challenges
at top of mind for a majority of Americans, and the other continuing to
stoke the hostility and indignation held by a significant minority—it will
be a recipe not only for more gridlock and ineffective governance, but
also for economic harm to nearly all people and places. In light of the
desperate need for a broad, historic recovery from the economic damage of
the COVID-19 pandemic, a continuation of the patterns we’ve seen play out
over the past decade would be a particularly unsustainable situation for
Americans in communities of all sizes.