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How Three Counties Can Help Us Understand Trump’s Shellacking

The president’s inability to appeal to key midwestern counties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin could hinder the party’s chances in 2022—and beyond.
December 11, 2020
How Three Counties Can Help Us Understand Trump’s Shellacking
MIDLAND, TX - JULY 29: President Donald Trump speaks to city officials and employees of Double Eagle Energy on the site of an active oil rig on July 29, 2020 in Midland, Texas. Trump began his visit to the Permian Basin at a fundraising event in Odessa and concluded in Midland for a tour the oil rig and to discuss energy policy. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

Given Donald Trump’s hold on the GOP—and his rather raucous pursuit of election fraud and tweets and the occasional rally—circular firing squads are more likely to wear red than blue these days. The MAGA base hates the GOP now, Fox News Channel is losing ground to Newsmax, and, most importantly, hardly anyone wants to admit that Trump got drilled.

Poor losers like Trump are usually the center of these conundrums: he and his supporters insist that they were right even as they got shellacked, while others in the party are loath to turn their back on him given his capture of the GOP base. Given the fact that the election fraud lawsuits filed on behalf of Trump have hit the end of the road, the party now has to decide where it wants to be in the 2022 midterms and 2024 general election. They find themselves stuck: the party has been Trumpified but Trump himself is, obviously, toxic to a majority of the population.

Political pundits are, by and large, missing some basic changes in voting that were key to Trump losing. In particular, they need to look at three counties to see how genuflecting before Trump in coming years will make Joe Biden’s re-election much easier.

These three counties are in the Midwest “Blue Wall” states: Allegheny County (home of Pittsburgh) in Pennsylvania, Oakland County (suburban Detroit) in Michigan, and Dane County (home of Madison) in Wisconsin. Trump won the three states that house these counties by about 77,000 votes combined in 2016. They were the three states that he flipped, and they put him in the White House.

This time Trump lost these states by about 250,000 combined votes. While some in the Trump circle have tried to say the race was lost in these states in the big cities (Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee), it wasn’t. For example, in Philadelphia County, Biden beat Trump by about 4,000 fewer votes than Hillary Rodham Clinton did. In Allegheny County, Biden beat Trump by about 40,000 more votes than Clinton did. In other words: Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 or so votes in 2016, and Biden just about made up that amount in one county.

Dane and Oakland counties performed similarly: All three counties came close to making up Trump’s statewide numbers from 2016, helping make president-elect Biden the winner.

What was the difference? Three things: Trump’s campaign failed to recognize that the suburban population changed; women’s earnings have gone up in the Midwest states and they are often now the primary breadwinners in their households; and midterm successes increase turnout by generating new voters, as seen by the fact that 2018 midterms in these counties moved the needle in 2020.

Trump and his campaign missed the fact that the African-American population has increased in the suburbs (almost half of the black population now lives in the suburbs), which caused an unintended counter mobilization. In Oakland County, for example, the suburban population in the southeast corner is much more urban and much more African-American than it was 10 or 20 years ago. This county was 93 percent white in 1980; it is 75 percent white now. Trump’s racial politics—like his ominous suggestions that milquetoast African-American Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) would destroy the homes of white families—play differently in these counties today.

Another change missed by Trump is that Oakland County’s economy has been driven by what they call “Automation Alley”: research at the nearby University of Michigan, combined with foreign trade and immigrant/science contributions, powered by the big money from the automakers. Trump flicked at some of this occasionally, but largely ignored it. Given that 59 percent of the foreign-born population in this county is Asian and most likely working in automobile research, huge tariffs and anti-China rhetoric are not winning messages.

Women in the Rust Belt are now earning more and are a bigger part of the total economic picture than ever before. Consider that manufacturing jobs are 75 percent male while health care and social service workers are 75 percent female. Now consider that all three states have seen manufacturing jobs either stay flat or decline, while healthcare jobs have risen steadily.

The swing in actual dollars is huge. In Pennsylvania, those who worked in durable goods manufacturing brought home $21 million in January of 2000, and $22 million in January of 2020. Compare to healthcare dollars: $30 million annually in January 2000, and $74.3 million in 2020. The point here is that Trump and the GOP often portrayed the women in the suburbs as mindless wine-box-consuming hausfraus, but what they missed is that they were more often than not the working parent who not only oversaw household spending, but earned quite a bit of what was spent too.

“Common sense suggests that suburban women were skeptical about Trump before the pandemic,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres said in a recent interview with Vox. “Having their lives utterly disrupted by school closings and trying to help 6- and 7-year-olds learn virtually while also holding down a job has simply exacerbated their preexisting skepticism about Trump.”

Lastly, the 2018 midterms influenced how these counties voted in 2020 due to new election data that can be used going forward.

Allegheny County had the big congressional redistricting race in 2018, in which moderate Democrat Conor Lamb won in a district that leaned very much right. (He was reelected in 2020.) In Oakland County, Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer won the usually red county by 17 points in her first race for the top spot, while the Democratic winners in the secretary of state and attorney general races also reversed the trend. Dane County has always been a Democratic stronghold, but the key in the Dems bouncing out Republican governor Scott Walker for Tony Evers was that they increased turnout from 72.9 percent in 2014 to 88 percent in 2018.

Trump never figured out that local issues with a federal component—freeway construction needs in Oakland County; healthcare and STEM research in Pittsburgh; and urban job training and park expansion in Madison—are big factors for voters. You get votes by sending money back to taxpayers in the form of spending programs where they live.

Some conservatives think they should be preparing legal responses to Biden’s promise to sign executive orders in his first month that could undo some of Trump’s policies on immigration, foreign policy, and restoring programs that have been killed. The public may not be in a mood for that.

“To be sure, Trump’s petulant refusal to concede is forcing a bit of a kabuki dance, particularly for McConnell and GOP members, to pretend that the election either didn’t happen or has yet to be resolved,” wrote Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. “But once that’s resolved, there really is a chance for at least a brief period of moderate stability and measured governing, simply because, for once, neither party is in a position to go too far. Any coalitions will have to be built from the center out, not from the left or right in.”

What the GOP refuses to acknowledge is very obvious to most everyone else: The media will stop covering Trump’s rallies; his MAGA base will diminish; and protests against elected officials will go away. The suggestion that election fraud caused him to lose will subside quickly. People will be seeking stability rather than chaos, and there will be more counties like Dane, Oakland, and Allegheny than not in the next few years.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump will have no good answer for the following question as time goes on: “What have you done for me lately?” That’s usually measured in months and not years. This is why the idea of Trump running in 2024 almost seems like bad fiction: Not only is he a loser, he won’t be able to deliver anything to his voters aside from in-person spectacle in the form of rallies. Consider the attention span of the American public these days and then think of how Trump will be perceived in 2024.

Republicans have a choice. Take some short-term heat from Trump and his most dedicated fans by ditching him now. Or carry him around the party’s neck like an albatross, alienating voters in must-win suburban counties in 2022 along the way—which would in turn imperil their chances in 2024 of defeating Biden’s reelection efforts.

Daniel McGraw

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