Trump’s Working-Class Revolt

GOP proved skeptics wrong, rewrote electoral map, and won counties that had been blue for decades

To explain Donald Trump’s surprise victory Tuesday, look no further than Trumbull County, Ohio.

Situated north of Youngstown, the economically distressed county is filled with the kind of blue-collar, less-educated white voter that the president-elect always said would scramble the traditional electoral map. It had not voted Republican in a national election since Ronald Reagan’s landslide in 1984.

“We had not voted for a non-incumbent Republican since 1928.”

It had not even been competitive; no Republican presidential candidate had even cracked 40 percent since then, and President Obama won 60 percent of the vote there in 2012.

“We had not voted for a non-incumbent Republican since 1928,” said Randy Law, the county’s Republican Party chairman. “The biggest difference was the messenger. And he spoke to folks in our area and the things they are concerned about.”

Neighboring Mahoning County was much the same story. It is an even stronger Democratic stronghold, having voted for the party’s nominee in 10 straight presidential elections. Democrat Hillary Clinton extended that streak to 11, but Trump came within 3 percentage points — closer even than Reagan in 1984.

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Trump replicated those results in other working-class counties. He became the first Republican since Reagan to win Macomb County, Michigan, where the term “Reagan Democrats” was coined. He won Monroe County, Michigan, which had voted Democrat five of the previous six elections. He became the first Republican since 1988 to win Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and the first since 1984 to win Erie County, Pennsylvania. And he came within 3 points of winning longtime Democratic-voting Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.

All of those counties — identified by LifeZette as counties to watch on Tuesday — have lower than the national average in the percentage of non-Hispanic whites with four-year college degrees. Those counties largely are responsible for Trump’s narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio — which made him president.

“You had a greater appeal to voters without a college degree in white, working-class areas — blue-collar Democrats,” said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. “This is going to be a matter of political science research for years.”

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at Kansas University, said it is noteworthy that Trump fared better than expected among more upscale white voters, too.

“White college-educated people voted for him,” he said, adding that Trump appealed not just to people suffering hard times but better-off voters concerned about their future.

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Meanwhile, Loomis said, Clinton failed to turn out core supporters in sufficient numbers, despite a vaunted get-out-the-vote machine.

“We have two extensive experiences with Hillary Clinton running for president as a favorite — and in both cases, really a heavy favorite,” he said. “She doesn’t connect … What we underestimated is Trump’s visceral connection with his constituency. And Hillary had very little of that.”

Loomis said Trump succeeded with people who are not easy to turn out to the polls. Voters frustrated about their economic prospects gravitated to Trump’s message on trade, even if many economists insist that trade is not responsible for their problems, he said.

“That didn’t matter,” he said. “And it’s a relatively simple narrative. ‘You’ve been sold out by trade policy and the elites.'”

Law, the Trumbull County GOP chairman, said Trump’s style drew voters — but added that it was more complicated than a cult of personality.

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“The message is big, though,” he said.

Law said Republican registration in his county grew from 14,400 to 32,300 due to people wanting to vote for Trump in the GOP primary in March. He beat the state’s governor, John Kasich, in Trumbull County in that contest.

That carried over, Law said, noting that since October, he heard from a steady stream of Democrats saying they were going to vote for Trump.

“They’d say, ‘We’re union members; we’ve voted the way we’re told. Give me a Trump sign’ … It wasn’t one anecdotal thing,” he said. “It went on every day.”

It is notable that in Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey also won Luzerne and Erie counties in his re-election bid. And Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who blew out former Gov. Ted Strickland in his race, performed even better than Trump in the state’s working-class counties.

But Kopko, the Elizabethtown College professor, noted that Pennsylvania’s voters did not cast ballots indiscriminately for Republicans.  Democrats won statewide races for attorney general, treasurer, and auditor general. He said the question going forward is if Tuesday was merely an “odd, one-off election” or the start of a lasting change in voting patterns.

“It’s going to take another election or so for us to know that,” he said.