NORTH LIMA, Ohio — Ron Spickler is sitting on the front porch of his modest Mahoning County brick home eating dinner and watching the world drive by the busy little state routes that intersect and pass his front door.
On his lawn are a variety of signs that tell the story of Spickler — at least, the political story. There is a Trump-Pence 2020 sign, a Trump flag, a Trump Country sign, and an Ohio for Trump banner. There is also a sign thanking healthcare workers for their service and, of course, a "Beware of Dog" sign for good measure. Spickler says children come by — he assumes they are children by the videos he has of them — and take his signs down constantly. He puts them right back up “just to mess with them.”
Spickler was a lifetime Democrat. He voted for Barack Obama, then switched to Donald Trump in 2016. He cannot wait to show up to vote for him in November and is quick to note the divide in this country. He hopes whoever wins will try to repair it.
Five miles due north at the Mahoning County Republican headquarters on Market Street, Sher Wenowitz has been there most of the day making calls, handing out Trump-Pence signs, and signing people up who walk through the door asking how they can get involved.
Wenowitz also voted for Obama, also left the Democratic Party in 2016, and until this year had never volunteered for a political campaign in her life. “I talked to my husband, asked him if we could get by if I retired, at least short term so I could volunteer at the campaign headquarters," she said. "He said, 'Yes,' and on December 31st, I put my real estate license on inactive and have devoted my time to getting President Trump reelected."
If there were an epicenter of the shift in our political parties, Mahoning County, Ohio, would be it. Mahoning County was the home of blue-collar working Democrats, both black and white, who worked the factories and manufacturing powerhouses that once dotted the valley like bulking dinosaurs peering out of the softly rolling hills.
A combination of automation, technology, and bad trade deals that benefited China and Mexico took those jobs away and left a scarred landscape not just stripped of factories, but of homes, barbershops, churches, and hope. It also eroded that support for Democrats over the years, not noticed until the stunning shift that played out here in November 2016.
Trump did not win ‘the valley,’ but he came shockingly close. Clinton won the county with 49% of the vote; Trump had 46.9%. In contrast, four years earlier, President Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney by 28 percentage points, earning more than 63% of Mahoning County’s vote.
This time, Republicans plan on making the shift whole. If Trump flips the county, it will become the poster child for the slow drift of the working class into the Republican Party.
While that shift does not guarantee Trump an electoral win, it does illustrate how much both parties have changed. Case in point: 200 miles due west in suburban Columbus, the results of the House special election in August 2018 showed another slim win, this time by Republican Troy Balderson in the 12th Congressional District, a conservative House seat that a Republican has never had to struggle to win.
Yet, he did. Balderson eked out a victory by earning large numbers of votes from the blue-collar, small-town, and sprawling rural areas, but those suburban voters closest to the city went for his Democratic rival.
Other Republicans in similar situations were not that lucky. In 2018, those kinds of suburban voters swept Democrats in the House and left pundits convinced they would not return back to the coalition Trump had crafted.
Both Ohio counties show America’s electoral trends that began incrementally in 2002, long before Trump floated down that escalator in August of 2015, and are a political trade created not by one man, but by years of the guardians of our culture in government, culture, entertainment, institutions, and the media isolating themselves in a cocoon of wealth, detachment, and disdain far from the people they serve, educate, entertain, and govern.
The national media missed this slow creep and mistakenly believed it was caused by Trump missing that the middle of the country had been moving away from the Democrats and them for nearly a generation. He was not the cause but the result of the Democratic Party becoming more focused on issues such as transgender bathrooms and not on jobs and trade deals.
Outside the Trump headquarters, the door here opens and closes repeatedly as supporters old and new make their way into their office to pick up a sign, or three for their yards, a Trump face mask, and, more often than not, offer to help the effort.
“I’ve been at this since 1992 in some capacity or the other, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” explained Tom McCabe, the county party chairman, emphasizing the last two words as he points to the busy office and packed parking lot.
Show up to watch, and you cannot miss the brisk activity. Show up and listen, and you cannot miss the enthusiasm.
McCabe is also blown away by the efficiency, investment, and bodies the Trump campaign has placed here in Mahoning for person-to-person voter contact.
“We've always told our candidates over the years, if you're going to do one thing, it's your shoe effort, and you knock on doors," he said. "It's that personal contact, because that retail poll ticks with door-to-door. And what we saw this time is different than in '16." He added that at times "'16 was a little chaotic because the Trump team didn't have that organization."
Not this time.
“I've never seen such a concerted effort and organization so focused on personal contact than I've seen in 2020, and it started September 1st of last year here in Mahoning County,” he said.
McCabe said four years ago, Trump’s near-win here gave the local party time to bulk up and start to field Republican candidates to run in a place Republican candidates rarely ran because of the overwhelming Democratic presence in the valley. Now, he says they too have a shot to reshape the political landscape down-ballot in this new, upside-down political world.
“It may be that these voters are simply lost to Democrats for the near future,” said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University.
Sracic explains Biden's inconsistency on trade is a big part of the problem, “He is running ‘Buy America’ ads now but voted for Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China and NAFTA.”
That kind of flippant pandering does not earn voters back.
“One of the mistakes people make when talking about places like the Mahoning Valley is that we think of Trump’s supporters as down-and-out white voters with no college degree who the globalized economy has passed by. Well, that’s a bit of a distorted image,” said Sracic.
“While many of Trump’s voters may lack a college degree, that doesn’t mean they don’t work for or maybe even own a small business, for example, a landscaping business or HVAC repair company. They appreciate the Trump administration’s pushback on costly regulations,” he said.
He added, “Or they may work in the many small manufacturing facilities that dot the valley who saw their companies do a little better prior to March of 2020."
In short, even if they are not directly affected by trade deals, they still blame these deals for the negative changes they have seen in their communities driven by the decline in large manufacturing employment and the steady work provided.
“They might have a job, but they want their kids to be able to find a job nearby," said Sracic. "Trump offered them that hope.”
Spend some time here listening to these voters explain the nuance of that complex sentiment in the context of their lives, and it’s not hard to contemplate their choices.
“These voters are not hung up on how Trump talks," said Sracic. "He delivered on the issue that they care about: trade. On that issue, he is the most honest politician that they’ve ever heard.”
Economists can argue about the significance of the changes to NAFTA in the new USMCA deal, but Trump had promised during the campaign to renegotiate the 1990s trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and he delivered.
Foreign policy wonks can complain about the strategic wisdom of withdrawing from the TPP, but again, Trump said he would withdraw, and he did withdraw.
Overall, in the face of COVID-19, analysts want to argue that Trump did not deliver, since people in the valley and across the United States are now suffering from record levels of unemployment.
“Well, the voters remember how well the economy was growing prior to March of 2020,” offers Sracic.
However, he conceded, “There are two issues that could hurt Trump’s reelection efforts in the Mahoning Valley: the closing of the GM Lordstown plant and COVID-19."
Lordstown, Ohio, located just over the line in Trumbull County, was the General Motors auto plant and one of the larger employers in the entire region that the company closed in March 2019.
It was a major economic blow to the Valley.
“That closing flew in the face of Trump’s commitment to improve the economic situation in the area," said Sracic. "It’s not an accident that when local Congressman Tim Ryan cast Ohio’s votes for Joe Biden on video for the DNC Convention, he did so outside of the closed facility."
“I’m not sure that using the closing of Lordstown to attack Trump will be effective," he said. "It was GM, which sells more cars in China now than in the U.S., and not Trump that made the decision to close the plant. Locals know that the plant has been on the chopping block for years. Trump obviously opposed the move and made public statements demanding that GM CEO Mary Barra reverse her decision. She ignored his efforts."
What’s easy to miss is that, rather than being a point of blame, it contributes to Trump’s narrative about what has gone wrong in the U.S. A quintessential American company such as GM with large luxury corporate offices located far from their plants forgets its roots and goes global, doing more business with China than the U.S., and opening factories around the world while closing plants in places such as Ohio and Michigan.
“Ironically, the closing of a manufacturing plant might actually increase support for Trump’s anti-globalization message,” he said. "This also goes to COVID-19. To argue that Trump is to blame for the explosion of cases and deaths in the U.S. assumes that Americans agree on a way that the virus could have been stopped. Masks and lockdowns, however, remain hugely controversial."
Sracic says the national press located far from this region and national Democrats holed up in the same bubble see a floundering president too preoccupied with bashing his opponents on Twitter to deal with a national crisis such as COVID-19, his supporters in the Mahoning Valley and in similar places may see a president who, for the first time in their lives, says what they believe about globalization and has actually delivered on some of his explicit promises.
“Democrats seem to think they steal these voters back by arguing, on the one hand, that Trump is incompetent, and on the other hand, that Democrats also want to protect American jobs and have a better plan [than] Trump. These are going to be hard sells,” said Sracic.
“How was renegotiating NAFTA to provide more protection for labor incompetent? Because it didn’t go far enough? Is a politician like Joe Biden who voted for NAFTA, been in government for nearly 50 years, eight as Vice-President, while never changing a word of NAFTA, going to be able to make this argument effectively and believably?” Sracic wonders, adding: “The result could be even more votes for Trump.”