Image by Gage Skidmore.
A few days ago, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Trump’s win in November was a “historic victory” and was so bigly that it was on par with Reagan’s 1980 landslide. It goes without saying, Pence suggested, that Trump had definitely “secured a mandate” for a conservatopia like we’ve never seen.
Putting aside the small point that Reagan beat Carter by eight million votes and Trump lost to Clinton by three million votes annnnnnd that Clinton would have won the archaic electoral college as well if not for the GOP’s voter suppression efforts, the reality is that Trump’s “historic victory” came by winning Dem strongholds within what was supposed to be Clinton’s firewall in Rust Belt state.
Trump overcame key firewalls within the firewall states. Pence is right, though: We should listen to the voters who ultimately provided Trump with his convoluted “win.”
Pence is right, though: We should listen to the voters who ultimately provided Trump with his convoluted “win.”
In 2012, the ominously named Clinton County, Iowa’s easternmost county, re-elected President Barack Obama by a whopping 23 percentage point margin—trailing only the University of Iowa’s liberal Johnson County as the largest Dem voter margin.
Even though Obama lost seventeen more counties than he had in 2008, he was able to win Iowa with a relatively comfortable six-point margin largely by holding big leads in all ten of the counties that line Iowa’s shoreline along the Mississippi River.
Most of these river counties, which are part of the western edge of the Midwest’s Rust Belt, have voted Democratic since Dukakis and two, Dubuque and Des Moines County, have voted for a Democrat even in the Reagan wave elections.
In 2016, not only did these Democratic stronghold counties not provide a counterweight to Trump margins in typically Republican counties, but Trump actually won nine out of ten of Iowa’s Mississippi counties.
Dubuque voted Republican for the first time in sixty years and Clinton County went from delivering Obama a 23 percent edge to delivering a Trump 6 margin of victory. Losing these Democratic strongholds was the single biggest reason Trump took a state that had voted Democratic in six of the past seven elections.
This same story played out across the Rust Belt, including in three states that Clinton lost by razor-thin margins, and proved to be the tipping point for Trump:
- Wisconsin’s Kenosha County has gone Republican since the Nixon wave of 1972. In 2016, the same county Obama won by a thirteen-point margin just four years ago fell to Trump. This blue-to-red flip cost Clinton about 10,000 votes or nearly half of the 22,000 votes that cost her the state. Add in another nine counties that have been in the Democratic column since Dukakis, if the Clinton camp had been able to keep the map blue, they would have had more than enough votes to secure a victory.
- Michigan’s Saginaw has been in the Democratic column since it went for Dukakis in 1988. In 2016, it went from delivering Obama a twelve-point blow-out to going for Trump. This deep blue to red shift cost the Clinton camp 13,365 total votes, slightly eclipsing the 11,612 margin it lost by statewide. Add in three other counties that have voted Democratic since 1988, but went for Trump this year, and Clinton would have comfortably had another state in her column.
- Pennsylvania’s Erie has been Democratic since 1988. Luzerne and Northampton counties have voted Democrat since 1992. All of these counties moved from blue to red in 2016, costing the Clinton camp approximately the same number of votes as the 66,000 Trump margin of victory statewide.
There are a lot of theories as to why these blue counties turned red in 2016. Sexism? Large groups of people Trump successfully baited with his xenophobia and racism? That was definitely part of it.
Mostly, though, the voters in these counties, like voters everywhere, typically respond to politicians that they feel are on their side, fighting for them.
So, if you’re in an area that peaked economically decades ago, you want to make America great again. You want to make your town great again. And in comes this guy who says he is going to use government regulations to bring back factories that have been sent overseas, use government regulations to break up monopolies, end job-killing mergers, and generally be the “new sheriff in town” who stands up to big corporations. That sounds very appealing.
It also sounds a lot like what voters in these areas found appealing from Democrats is the past.
This year, however, the Democrats put forth a candidate who looked a lot like Republican candidates of the past. On trade, Trump was successfully able to paint “the Clintons” as the authors of bad trade deals that many of these voters have seen ravish their communities. And even though Trump is a billionaire CEO who is horrible to his workers, the lasting impression of Clinton was of someone hopelessly beholden to Wall Street, big banks and anyone else who wrote six-figure checks to her, her campaign, or the Clinton Foundation.
Clearly, on the tipping points of these tipping point states, Trump appealed to voters by running to Hillary’s left on key economic issues. Trump was like the ultimate political twofer—he had the Republican “job creating” super powers annnnd he had Democratic “government regulation” super powers to make corporations do the right thing. Clinton, on the other hand, just seemed to be saying over and over again how bad a person Trump was, which, while troubling, is secondary when you or your town is desperate for good jobs.
If there is a message that should be gleaned from this election, it’s that Trump won a handful of important areas by promising to be the President who stands up to big corporations and rebuilds trade-ravaged communities by bringing back good-paying, stable jobs.
This is very unlikely ever to come pass and seems more and more like a bait and switch with every new CEO and banker he appoints to his cabinet.
But, it is the mandate of the areas that won the election, whether Trump and the rest of his swamp listen or not.
Lounsbury is a political reporter based in Madison, Wisconsin, and a regular contributor to The Progressive.