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How These Seven Counties Could Shape the 2020 Election

They're full of working-class voters who went for Trump in 2016. But he hasn't done much for them lately. Or at all.
March 4, 2019
How These Seven Counties Could Shape the 2020 Election
A young attendee responds as Republican candidate for President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally at Erie Insurance Arena on August 12, 2016 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

In August 2016, at a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, presidential candidate Donald Trump said “We’re going to bring back our jobs to Pennsylvania. We’re going to bring back our jobs to the United States.”

Two years later, the now elected president said something similar at an Erie midterm election rally last October: “Big things are happening. Remember the previous administration said you can’t bring back manufacturing jobs? They said you’d need a magic wand. Well, I guess we had one.”

Last week, the 1,700 workers at General Electric’s century-old railroad locomotives manufacturing plant in Erie – which has been recently merged with another large U.S. rail industry company (Wabtec) – went on strike. This is the first strike at this Pennsylvania factory in 50 years, and it is the biggest manufacturing plant strike since Trump took office.

The new company wants to introduce mandatory overtime, arbitrary work schedules, wage cuts of up to 38 perent for recalled and new workers, and the right to use temporary workers at lower wages as well. So the Erie workers do what Midwest workers historically do in such situations: they strike.

This strike is built up tension coming to the surface. About a year ago, GE moved about 225 locomotive production jobs from its union Erie plant to its nonunion Fort Worth, Texas, manufacturing plant.  Suffice it to say that the talk of “magic wands” in economic growth and bringing back manufacturing jobs isn’t playing well right now in this city on the south shore of Lake Erie.

What does a strike like this have to do with the nation’s political thermometer about 20 months from the 2020 election? At first glance, not much, given that jobs come and go and corporate mergers usually leave some winners and losers in the dust left behind. And Rust Belt cities like Erie are in transition; changing technology and population loss means what they once were is slowly going away and probably isn’t coming back.

But when you peel back the layers of the onion on all this, there are signs that job loss and the building acrimony could work against Trump in this part of the country. Unlike what many in the coastal media think, this isn’t a part of the country where the people just plow cornfields and play football and spend too much time in church. Many people  are here because their families moved there generations ago because the money that came from screwing lug nuts into car tires made for a comfortable lifestyle. In terms of capital, this was the Silicon Valley of the last century, where, instead of computer chips, these people made big metal things that made little metal things and the country ran on that.

And they belonged to unions that treated politics like a Mafia family used the police and the courts during Prohibition, and even used the union strength in the Midwest to give money to organized crime to build Las Vegas.

Trump got these Midwest voters on his side because he promised they would get their identity back – and a big part of that was the old-fashioned, lunch-pail carrying, hard-hat wearing, dirt-under-the-fingernails working class they thought was being taken away from them. Trump showed in person to tell them that, Hillary Clinton didn’t.

But the relationship between Trump and his working class supporters in three key states – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – is coming under fire because this arranged marriage between old union members and a billionaire hasn’t come as advertised. Last year, Scott Slawson, the union chief leading the railroad locomotive maker strike this week in Erie, expressed the major problem.

“A lot of people have the belief that politicians have stopped listening to what the average working people are saying, and it’s time to put a businessman in charge of our country, because they know how to run a business,” Slawson said in an interview in 2017.  “And then there’s the other side of that that says, no, that’s far from the truth. Do you put a billionaire in office to fix problems that were created by billionaires?”

“Donald Trump came here and he promised a lot of people that he would restore jobs in the United States,” said union boss Scott Slawson. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, and people will take a desperate position even if it’s not in our best interest sometimes.”

And some still think the 2016 election result in states like Pennsylvania were an aberration of sorts. “Donald Trump campaigned in Erie and said he cared and that Pennsylvania and the federal government didn’t,” said Robert Speel, a political science professor at Penn State’s University’s Behren Campus in Erie. “Union workers understood that because they had been saying that forever. But Hillary Clinton never came here and the locals joked she was uppity for partying with people in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and not with people in Erie.”

“But the voters believed Trump when he said the manufacturing jobs will be returning, and I am sure these same voters will be looking at his record on that next year and come to a conclusion about that before voting.”

The key to Trumps’ victory was taking those three Midwest states by a total of 77,000 between them and gaining 46 electoral votes. If he had lost those three (and the pre-election polls said he was going to), and the rest of the states voted the exact same way, Hillary Clinton would be president.

While the media is obsessed with national polls on Trump’s approval ratings or the importance of the Democrats’ Green New Deal program, the political end game comes down to the usual scoreboard numbers: who gets the votes in the states that matter. And those states, once again, are not likely to be New York, Texas, California, or Alabama.

So at Bulwark, we did a little experiment. What is the least number of counties in these three states that Trump would have to lose to change the whole national dynamic for the presidential election in 2020? In other words, assume all the other counties in the country voted the same way they did in 2016, what is the least number of counties that would need to flip against Trump to have him lose.

Really simple politics, actually. Find counties that voted one way in 2012, another way in 2016, and Trump loses if they go back and vote the same way they did in his reelection bid 20 months from now.

Amazingly, it would take a flip in only seven counties in these three states to have Trump lose. There are 3,142 counties or county equivalents in the United States, and President Trump could lose in 2020 if 3,135 counties voted as they did in 2016, and seven counties don’t.

First, the state numbers. Trump won by 10,704 in Michigan, 44,292 in Pennsylvania and 22,748 in Wisconsin. Former President Barack Obama beat challenger Mitt Romney by a combined 970,000 in those three states.

Within those states, here are the seven counties that could hold the key to 2020: Brown, Racine and Chippewa in Wisconsin; Macomb in Michigan, and Erie, Luzerne, and Northampton in Pennsylvania. These were chosen for one basic reason: they weren’t the big urban areas that the media often overplays in their importance in presidential election, but instead were more of that suburban/exurban, strongly Democratic places that were key to Trump’s victory.    

Yes, this is hypothetical. But hypothetical with a little thought. (When I mentioned this to an old-time union guy in Michigan, he joked, “We could probably buy those seven counties’ votes for not too much money.”). What we can speculate upon, though, is that if the numbers that Trump won by in these counties switch in 2020 and vote Democrat, and the turnout number get higher in these counties as we saw in the 2018 midterms, those changes in these seven countries will  move the needles enough to move those states from R to D.

Fair warning: Predictions this far out arenever exact. Some who voted in 2012 won’t vote in 2020 (some are dead), and the numbers don’t always flow back and forth exactly. But a decent measuring stick to use, as a rule of politics, is that the votes one loses go to the other candidate and don’t vanish into thin air.

So if these voters go back and vote like they did in 2012, the difference in Pennsylvania would be 32,219 votes in Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre), 20,968 for Erie County, and 11,624 in Northampton County (Bethlehem). A total change in Pennsylvania of 64,811 in these three counties. In Wisconsin, the change would be 11,518 votes in Brown County (Green Bay), 5,944 in Chippewa County (Chippewa Falls)*, and 7,701 in Racine County. A total change of 25,163 votes.

In Michigan, you could pick numerous counties, given how tight the race in 2016 there was. We picked Macomb County, just north and east of Detroit. Trump won Macomb County by 48,349 and Obama won there by 16,103 in 2012, so the difference would be 64,452. Far above the 10,704 Trump won Michigan by.

These counties do have some commonalities. All seven have employment in the fields of health care, education, retail and food service that are above the national average, and those fields tend to vote in higher percentages for Democrats than Republican.

Those workers in “liberal fields” also outnumber those who work in more conservative industries, such as manufacturing, construction and warehousing/transportation. In all seven counties, the Dem-leaning worker categories are 25 percent to 50 percent higher as a percentage of the workplace than the conservative leaning workers.

Immigration numbers for all three states and all seven counties are much smaller than national average as well. Five of the seven counties have a percentage of “foreign-borns” that are less than half the national percentage (13.4 percent). And the racial makeup of these seven counties is virtually unchanged since 2000: 80.4 percent of their populations are white, four points higher than the national average.

“It will be interesting to see how things play out in these counties,” said Diana Mutz, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Trump got elected for blaming other people like Obama and Clinton, but now he is the one in power getting blamed by many. Support for free trade has never been higher. Immigration is seen as less threatening. It’s harder to sell voters that the system being rigged against them when you are the system.”

In a paper published last year titled “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote,” Mutz explained why white voters who have few minorities and immigrants living nearby see them as a threat.

“Racial status threat and global status threat are technically separable, but they are difficult to distinguish in practice …Racial status threat makes perfect sense occurring immediately after eight years of leadership by America’s first African American president. It is not racism of the kind suggesting that whites view minorities as morally or intellectually inferior, but rather, one that regards minorities as sufficiently powerful to be a threat to the status quo.”

On the other hand, all seven counties have an older population than the national average. And aside from Erie County, the other six are at or below the national poverty rate average. The economy in these counties has become more stable in the past two years. And as far as education goes, all seven counties are below the national average (30.9 percent) of the population that are college grads, a plus for Trump.

What staying-power pocketbook economics means this time around is tough to unwind. Trump said this at the Erie rally in 2016: “So even though you say we want, as an example, General Electric to produce more, if they don’t want to or if for some reason one of the donors of crooked Hillary Clinton doesn’t want that to happen, even though it’s great for Erie, even though it’s great for you, even though it’s great for the state of Pennsylvania, then it’s not going to happen, folks. It’s not going to happen.”

There is a difference in how voters view the economy now, and that is what makes predicting the electorate tougher than in the past. “When we ask people about how they think the economy is doing, they now respond less about how they are doing personally but how it is nationally,” said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University. “Trump has moved the economy from the personal pocketbook to one that is built into the issues of national security and cultural change.”

“What we hear more now from voters than we ever did before is that we have to blow it up and try something different,” he said. “Even when everything seems fine.”  

In the end, maybe the electorate isn’t thinking about “Crooked Hillary” as much as they used to. Two years later, General Electric has moved jobs out of Erie to Texas and now has 1,700 workers on strike over pay cuts. GM announced late last year about plant closings, including the Warren Transmission plant in Macomb County (350 workers will lose their jobs there).

Yes, there are plants adding jobs in different parts of the country, but job loss does have more regional importance during elections.  

In Luzerne County, Valmont Industries in Hazelton will be shutting down its longtime steel utility pole making plant, with about 180 losing their jobs. Schutt Sports in Northampton County is closing down its football helmet reconditioning plant, with about 200 out of work.

And in Wisconsin, the uncertainty of the entire FoxConn expansion project might be a major player in that state in the 2020 election. Trump backed the Taiwan-based electronic giant’s expansion into Wisconsin, and their promise of 13,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs got them an estimated $4 billion in public subsidies. They’ve switched gears a bit, however, and FoxConn now thinks of their Wisconsin project as more research and development and less LCD component making. Most of those FoxConn jobs were to be created in Racine County, but also with a few hundred support jobs in Brown and Eau Claire* counties. What happens to Trump in the November 2020 election could be tied to what FoxConn does between now and then.

“I think what happens with Foxconn will be an issue in Wisconsin, and it will be tough for Trump to deal with it if things go bad because of how he campaigns,” said Barry Burden, director of the Election Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.  “The involvement of Trump in the FoxConn plans tipped the balance early on, and he was here for the groundbreaking.”

“But FoxConn is attached to him, and the voters certainly will attach is success or failure to him in the election,” Burden said. “It has become too big an issue here. And Trump has little room for voter change. It’s funny, but he might have to do like FoxConn is doing to win these three Midwest states again. He might have to re-orient.”   

Correction, March 4: The article originally stated incorrectly that Chippewa County was home to Eau Claire, and stated later that FoxConn jobs slated for Eau Claire would be in Chippewa County. Eau Claire is in Eau Claire County.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.