With just over 90 days left until the election, it’s worth taking a close look at the political trends in one of the regions most important to the outcome of the 2016 election and potentially just as important in 2020—specifically, the five northwestern Pennsylvania counties bordering Ohio (Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence, and Beaver) and some of the nearby metro areas on both sides of the state line. This region was part of the Democrats’ vaunted “blue wall” that crumbled in 2016. Formerly dominated by staunch Democratic union workers, in 2016 this region flipped to the Trump-led GOP.
Take the northernmost of the five counties, Erie. In this county with a population of about 270,000, Obama beat McCain by 25,000 votes in 2008 and beat Romney by about 19,000 votes in 2012, but Clinton lost to Trump by about 2,000 votes in 2016.
It was a pocketbook issue in these counties. According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, between 2000 and the 2016 election, Ohio’s Trumbull County—part of the Youngstown metro area, where many western Pennsylvanians used to work—“lost nearly 40 percent of its total payroll,” a total of $1.7 billion no longer in the workers’ pockets. Two-thirds of those jobs disappearing were in manufacturing.
Four years ago, Trump campaigned like a rock star in this part of the country, betting smartly that one really big campaign event has more impact than 40 more traditional stops where he shakes hands and kisses babies in local diners. And Trump’s message resonated for these people looking for economic salvation.
By contrast, Trump’s 2016 opponent was a no-show. “Erie County and the rest of the region felt ignored by Hillary Clinton, because she didn’t set foot in this area during the campaign,” Robert Speel, a political science professor at Penn State Behrend in Erie, told me. “If she had come here once or twice, she would have won this county and likely the state. It is very obvious now.”
And when Trump did come to western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, he was less an intellectual policy determiner than a snake-oil salesman—and the crowd bought it. In June 2016, at a rally outside Pittsburgh, Trump said “I am going to talk about how to Make America Wealthy Again. . . . Many Pennsylvania towns once thriving and humming are now in a state [of] despair. . . . This wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn it all around—and we can turn it around fast.”
In August 2016, Trump told an Erie crowd “I’m going to bring jobs back to Pennsylvania,” adding that Pennsylvania had lost a third of its manufacturing jobs to other countries and that “we’re not taking care of our miners.” In October 2016, he told a crowd at a rally near Youngstown that, incredibly, “I consider myself, in a certain way, to be a blue-collar worker.”
It was all about job growth—and that message worked in 2016. In Ohio, Trump won by about 442,000 votes, so his winning by a total of about 2,200 votes in the combined Youngstown counties (Trumbull and Mahoning, where Obama won by about 57,000 in 2008 and again in 2012) didn’t make much of a difference there. But in the five Pennsylvania counties on the northwest Ohio border, with their combined population of about 710,000—counties that Obama won by a total of 19,000 in 2008 and 3,500 in 2012—Trump won by 58,000 votes. Recall that Trump’s margin in the entire state was just 44,000.
But what is happening now in the region is a sense of tiredness. “The craziness of last three years is exhausting people, and when people talk of Youngstown as being this big swath of red voters it is way overblown,” says David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist. “He came here and told people jobs are coming back and not to sell their homes and he was the one who was going to do all that.”
“Think about that,” Cohen continued. “People who had been on the losing ends of jobs for 50 years were listening to some showman telling them he is going to reverse it all. They were desperate and bought in. But of course, it didn’t happen, and there is an awful lot of resentment toward him right now.”
Ohio has lost about 84,000 manufacturing jobs from January 2017 to April 2020 (a loss of 9 percent), while Pennsylvania lost about 60,000 (also about 9 percent). In Youngstown there has been a loss of 3,900 jobs over that time period, and 500 jobs in the smaller Erie. This doesn’t count the 300 workers laid off in April at the Erie-based Wabtec Corp., a train-locomotive manufacturer formerly owned by GE, and still the largest employer in Erie with 1,200 employees after the layoffs (at its peak, the Erie plant employed about 18,000 people).
Back in October of last year, longtime Youngstown resident Monica Beasley-Martin—a local pastor and substitute school teacher whose husband had been laid off from his GM job—were $5,000 behind on the mortgage and considering leaving the area.
“Right now, [we] can’t afford to do anything,” she told a local newspaper. “I feel like [its] the dog that’s chasing its tail but never catches it. I honestly don’t know what exactly I’m gonna do. I know I can’t continue in this situation. . . . This is the time I thought I’d be doing other things—just kind of slowing down and enjoying my life.”
“Chasing their tail but never catching it” has been a longtime problem in this part of the country. The manufacturing jobs had been leaving for decades, and most people 65 and over still remember “Black Monday” in September 1977, when a Youngstown giant steel mill closed its doors without warning and 5,000 workers instantly lost their jobs
While some commentators at the national level interpreted Trump’s 2016 victory as a referendum on the nation’s changing economy—the shift from 20th-century manufacturing jobs to service-sector and high-tech employment in the more globalized 2000s—in places like Erie and Youngstown, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan was much more important. It seemed like a lifeline to people who had been drowning for a long time.
That’s why some gave a side-eye look to Trump when he told a Youngstown crowd six months after his 2017 inauguration that the time when jobs were leaving Ohio was ending. “Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t sell your house.” He said this as talk was circulating that GM’s huge Lordstown plant might close. And indeed, GM ended its production at Lordstown in March 2019. About 4,000 jobs were gone.
The importance of these two states is quickly moving to the forefront. The Democrats had until recently seen Ohio as firmly in the hands of the GOP and a lost cause; now they see it as in play. The Biden campaign has recently begun running ads in Youngstown and Toledo.
The Youngstown-born-and-raised actor Ed O’Neill, who is known for playing middle-aged working guys like Al Bundy on Married With Children and Jay Pritchett on Modern Family—and who once had a tryout as a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers—put it succinctly on a recent Ohio Democratic party podcast tweeted out a few days ago: “This guy is nuts,” O’Neill said of Trump.
A retired Scranton trucker put it even more vividly in a recent Politico story on Pennsylvania voters: Trump was supposed to Make America Great Again, but “now look at us! We’re going down the shitter, and he’s the one flushing.”
This year, the question in this part of the country has morphed from being whether Trump is a viable candidate for political leadership and economic revival to whether he has the basic rationality and human decency needed to lead the country through the crisis of the pandemic. Some polling shows Trump falling way short on that question.
In a June survey taken in Erie County, 54 percent of the respondents found that President Trump was “ineffective” in addressing the local “economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” And this view of the president comes from a county that has had low numbers of deaths and infection cases—only 16 deaths and 954 cases total as of this writing.
In a mid-July poll of Pennsylvania voters, Monmouth University broke out ten swing counties amounting to about a quarter of the total vote in the state—counties where the winning margin for either candidate was less than 10 points in 2016. Clinton won those combined counties (one of which is Erie) by a close 48.6 percent to 47.4 percent margin. In this poll, in those same ten counties, Joe Biden has a 46 percent to 37 percent margin. That is enough to win the state.
The Monmouth pollsters note that “a weak spot for the president is his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.”
The pandemic has put on the back burner a number of smaller job-growth projects that Trump has focused on. One is a “cracker” plant northeast of Pittsburgh that will make plastics from Marcellus Shale natural gas polyethylene; the other is to repurpose the former GM Lordstown plant into a maker of battery-powered pickup trucks. Both have long-term question marks because of the uncertainties in the transportation and energy industries, and neither is expected to start up in any way before mid-2021.
One of the major reasons for the change in political thinking in this region is that with decline of manufacturing jobs over decades—and the rise of jobs in education and medicine over that same time period—women are replacing men in a political leadership shift.
“Older female voters are more suspicious of him now in this area, much more so than they were in 2016,” says Lara Putnam, a professor of political history at the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote about this in a recent policy paper. “Women may have voted for him with reservations in 2016, but have put up with him for too long and are changing their minds.”
“Part of the reason is the occupational advantage women have at this time,” she told me. “Hospitals are where it is happening for political discussion. Education institutions are where networking is taking place. Women are more of the breadwinners now, and are dominating the political discussion much more than they used to.”
But politically, there seems to be some stabilization 90-some days out. Part of the reason for Biden’s rise in the polls is that his campaign strategy seems to be taking a step backward in thinking. Not everyone in the Rust Belt is struggling, but even those who are retired and semi-comfortable still see their communities hurting economically, and where they live is eroding slowly. Hence, geography is very important in this part of the country (pride and history), and the Democrats are finding policy messages that are based on that sense of place.
It is the best way for Democrats to win outside the major cities, and Biden’s team seems to understand that in this important stretch of Pennsylvania-Ohio borderland. They are taking a national political plotline and making it local, energizing local voters to have an awareness of responsibility. Trump isn’t doing that in these states.
“Trump was able to pull out a compelling story for the people in this part of the country in 2016; they lost jobs and he spoke to them personally,” Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania told me. “He’s in trouble now because he didn’t deliver, even before the COVID-19 epidemic ravaged job growth even further.”
“And this is a politically very important place,” Smith continued. “It is diverse and no one section stands out. It’s vital because it is like a microcosm of the country. Neither party can really win without them.”