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When former Vice President Joe Biden launched his bid for the Democratic nomination, he did so in front of a crowd of union workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Quite frankly folks, if I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here in Western Pennsylvania,” Biden said.
Biden might be onto something.
Pennsylvania is one of a few Rust Belt states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, that used to be a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In 2016, it flipped red.
Since then, manufacturing and the economy have made a comeback in many parts of the Rust Belt. How will the rebound shape Democrats’ chances of taking the White House in 2020? Are blue-collar workers buying what Democrats are selling?
Some Democratic candidates would say “yes.”
In the 2018 midterms, Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota won many of the areas Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016. They did so by running on education, healthcare, infrastructure and the economy.
It’s this last issue — the economy — that might have the greatest influence on Democrats’ chances of reclaiming the Rust Belt.
In the past two years, states like Michigan experienced increases in wages and manufacturing jobs. And many who lost their homes to foreclosure under former President Barack Obama purchased new homes since President Trump took office.
Economists and businesses say this comeback began before President Trump took office. Regardless, he’s taking the credit.
But the president’s tariffs on Chinese goods and the ongoing trade war are hurting some manufacturers. Now, it’s more expensive to build a car in the U.S. due to steel tariffs. If the president follows through on his threat for a 25% tariff on Chinese automobiles this spring, it could raise the price tag for U.S. cars as well.
“The cumulative effect of current and potential U.S. trade actions on automobiles and auto parts could cause new car prices to rise by $2,750 on average,” according to a report by the Center for Automotive Research.
It seems like those in the Detroit region would dislike those proposals, because the area is the heart of America’s automotive industry. But in Macomb County, north of Detroit, the trade war is bolstering the president’s support.
“That’s how Trump negotiates,” Brian Pannebecker, an autoworker in Macomb County, told 1A Across America. “Mexico and China don’t want to change. Trump has to inflict some pain to get them to the table.”
Pannebecker is not alone. “Party doesn’t mean much here,” Bryan DeHenau, owner of BCD Construction in Macomb County, said. “At the end of the day, the only thing people care about is what their paycheck looks like.”
Recently, that paycheck has looked a lot nicer. And more people are receiving them.
“We had people who had given up,” DeHenau says. “They got hooked on opioids because there was no work. Now, these people are trying to kick the junk and get back into the job market. I see it every day.”
Macomb County, Michigan offers a unique perspective into 2020. Its blue-collar electorate tends to vote for the best economic message, regardless of which party delivers it.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg coined the term “Reagan Democrats” there in the 1980s to describe blue-collar voters who backed Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Voters in this same area supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 before swinging overwhelmingly in favor of President Trump in 2016.
Still, President Trump won Michigan by his narrowest margin of victory: 10,704 votes. There are high school football stadiums that seat more people.
“It used to be cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico,” then-candidate Trump said at a Macomb County, Michigan rally in 2016. “Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint!” He’s made many stops there over the years to hammer his economic message.
DeHenau says people in Macomb County remember which candidates show up and which don’t — and they have long memories.
“We remember the promises [George H.W.] Bush and Bill Clinton made about NAFTA more than a quarter century ago,” he says. “This is the stuff people talk about at barbecues here.”
Blue-collar voters in this region agree on a distaste for NAFTA. Many blame free trade with Mexico and Canada for economic decline in the region.
Many others are thrilled to see a president stand up to China.
Some economists say automation and robots are more to blame for a long-term decline in manufacturing jobs than China or NAFTA. Obama also mentioned this in his farewell address.
U.S. productivity has increased steadily since 2000 while manufacturing jobs have declined. Nevertheless, President Trump’s attacks on NAFTA and China play extremely well in the area. Vice President Mike Pence visited Macomb County in April to show voters the president is working to pass a new NAFTA through Congress.
“We want him to deliver,” Pannebecker says. “But even if he doesn’t, at least he’s fighting for us.”
“I keep thinking it can’t get worse. But it gets worse every day.”
There are also Michigan voters like Sean Crawford. He grew up in Flint, Michigan as a fourth-generation autoworker. He took a job at the GM assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan in 2016, following the Flint water crisis.
Two years later, GM announced it was closing several plants, including his. Crawford sold his home in Macomb County and moved back to the Flint area so he could work at a GM assembly plant.
That’s the reality Crawford and many blue-collar workers in Michigan have been living for decades.
“Detroit was one of the best places in the country in the 1970s,” Crawford told us. “I was born in ‘82. All I’ve seen since I was born was the decline. I keep thinking it can’t get worse. But it gets worse every day.”
He gives no credit to President Trump for a manufacturing comeback in Michigan. In fact, he blames corporate tycoons like the president for much of the decline he’s lived through.
Crawford voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but says he only did it because he dreaded a Trump presidency. He would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders if he could — and turns out, a lot of people in the area felt that way.
Support from autoworkers propelled Sanders to an upset primary victory over Clinton in Michigan. Crawford says the Democratic Party’s treatment of Sanders is what caused Clinton to lose Michigan in the general election.
“A lot of people turned off after Sanders got screwed in 2016,” he says. “They just didn’t show up to vote. That’s why I left the Democratic Party.”
Sanders is not blind to his popularity among working-class voters. He’s targeting the Midwest in his primary bid with ads that call out President Trump and General Motors.
“Today our message to General Motors and the other corporations is: If you are not a good and responsible corporate citizen, do not think you will get federal contracts,” Sanders says in a campaign ad full of sweeping music and blue-collar iconography.
Sanders’ popularity in Michigan hinges on the fact that many blue-collar union workers believe American capitalism heavily favors wealthy corporate interests. They point to the Flint water crisis, Detroit’s bankruptcy, high healthcare costs, failing schools and deteriorating roads as clear examples of a crumbling social pact with government.
To someone like Crawford, President Trump embodies the problem.
“He’s a spoiled little rich kid. He’s never had to work for anything in his life,” Crawford says.
Many union workers also look favorably upon Sanders and his platform. They’re much more open to the type of New Deal era social programs he champions, like Medicare For All.
In 2008, Obama won Michigan by promising the government would bail out the auto industry and make healthcare affordable. Many of the voters who liked the idea of larger government soured on Obama when he began pushing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“That would have sent everything to Korea,” DeHenau says of TPP. “Trump was the first to say I’m going to stop these trade deals and kick NAFTA and TPP to the curb.”
He says Hillary Clinton came out against the TPP, but voters in Michigan didn’t believe she was genuine. Others felt she carried Bill Clinton’s baggage of supporting NAFTA.
Looking ahead to 2020, Joe Biden’s strength is that he appeals to the blue-collar union workers who backed Trump. But some doubt he has the same political juice he once had.
“Biden could have won here 20 years ago,” Pannebecker says. “By the time this primary is over, he’s going to commit to things that will totally destroy his chances of winning in the Midwest.”
Pannebecker calls today’s Democratic primary a “race to the left.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be early favorites in the Midwest. The two Midwesterners have more recent ties to Rust Belt workers than Biden, but lack his name recognition.
Klobuchar says her popularity with Minnesota districts that backed Trump is evidence of her appeal to rural and working-class voters. And Buttigieg has appeared on social media to lay out his plan for protecting American workers from automation.
For now, Democrats are still crafting their message to blue-collar voters in the Midwest.
Voters in the Rust Belt are still feeling out the candidates, too. Many are living through the best economic conditions they’ve seen in their lifetime. And even if these voters don’t give full credit to President Trump, they might not be willing to make a change.
“I have evolved into a Trump supporter,” Chris Vitale, a Chrysler employee in Macomb County, told us. “Democrats haven’t really done much here in a long time.”
Show produced by Across America producer James Morrison. Text by James Morrison.
1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.
- Shawn Donnan Senior writer, Bloomberg; @sdonnan
- Bryan DeHenau President, BCD Construction LLC, a licensed building company located in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, Michigan
- Kathleen Gray Political reporter, Detroit Free Press; @michpoligal
- Dustin Dwyer Reporter, Michigan Radio; @dustindwyer
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