Report from the Field: The Rust Belt’s Blues Turn It Red

(Photo: AP/John Minchillo)

Voters wait in line outside a polling place in Cincinnati on Election Day.

Mansfield, a former industrial town midway between Cleveland and Columbus, is the archetypal Rust Belt city, the heart of Trump country, and the epicenter of what went wrong for Hillary Clinton on November 8.

Founded in 1808, the town was rescued from marauding Indians during the War of 1812 by Johnny Appleseed, who ran barefoot through the woods for 22 miles to the nearest militia garrison for help. (Like Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s senior U.S. senator, I’m a proud graduate of Johnny Appleseed Junior High.) But there has been no rescue here from the forces of deindustrialization and immiseration that have swept through the Midwest since the 1970s.

When I was growing up in Mansfield the 1950s, it was a bustling manufacturing center and rail hub. Making things was the basis of its prosperous economy. The ARMCO steel mill, founded in 1914, was running at full capacity. The Westinghouse plant had nearly 8,000 employees—half the town’s total workforce—making appliances, alongside Tappan Stove (co-inventor, with Raytheon, of the microwave oven) and Dominion Electric. Other major factories included the General Motors stamping plant, Ohio Brass, and Mansfield Tire & Rubber.

Today, the city’s only heavy manufacturing employer is what’s left of the steelworks (now a division of AK Steel following Armco’s merger with Kawasaki Steel in 1989), which employs fewer than 400 workers. The appliance-makers and other manufacturers are gone. The biggest employers in town are the hospital, the county and city governments and school district, and the local prison.

Downtown is dilapidated and nearly empty; retail has moved to the big-box stores at the freeway exits south and northeast of town. Mansfield was the largest Ohio city to be declared in fiscal emergency by the state after the start of the Great Recession in 2008; the crisis alert wasn’t lifted until 2014. A heroin epidemic—there were 51 overdoses, including three deaths, in one week here this August, and the coroner’s office has run out of money for autopsies—has supplanted the meth epidemic. And where Johnny Appleseed Junior High, a beautiful example of WPA architecture, once stood, there’s just a barren field.

With a current population of about 47,000—73 percent white, 22 percent African American—Mansfield is the Democratic center (and county seat) of historically Republican Richland County. It was always a tough union town, with long-lasting labor disputes dating from the 1920s. The famous IUEW/IUE-led Westinghouse strike in 1956 was one of the longest in postwar history; ARMCO locked out the steelworkers at the Mansfield works for 39 months starting in 1999, and AK Steel did it again for more than a year starting in 2006. But now, all that’s left of Mansfield’s union presence is a retiree chapter of the UAW, and the few hundred members of USW Local 169 who work at AK Steel.


IN 2012, I WENT BACK to Mansfield with my sister to help get out the vote to re-elect President Obama. There was a Democratic field office on the town square, and two other staging areas for canvassing—one at a private home in a white neighborhood on the southern outskirts of town, and the other at an American Legion post in a black neighborhood near the steel mill in the north end. There were lots of volunteers; many of them were African American and young. We didn’t do as well as we had the previous cycle—McCain had carried the county by only 8,300 votes in 2008, a margin that Romney bumped up to nearly 12,000 in 2012—but there was a lot of energy, and the field office was packed and rocking on election night as we watched Fox News call Ohio—and the national race—for Obama. He carried the state by over 160,000 votes, 50.67 percent to Romney’s 47.69 percent.

This year was different. I spent the three weeks before the election in Mansfield doing GOTV for Hillary Clinton. The Democratic field office was in the same place. But there was only one other staging area—the one in the white neighborhood—and not many volunteers. And those of us who did show up were all old, and almost all white. Each week, we found ourselves way under our shift goals for calling and canvassing. Some nights there were only a couple of us making calls to recruit other volunteers and make sure Democrats knew how and where to vote early. When he monitored my calls to known Democrats, our relentless young field organizer took to berating me for being too easy on people who declined to volunteer. “There are only [X] days left to defeat fascism—surely you can spare a few hours to do that,” he coached me to plead—advice I ignored, sensing that his rhetoric was too harsh for these parts.

Most discouraging to me was the lack of enthusiasm among many of the black voters—especially younger ones—whom I met while canvassing. One mother of four adult children, standing in her front yard, told me only half-jokingly that she wasn’t letting her kids in the house if they didn’t vote. One of her sons, sitting on the front porch railing, yelled back that he wasn’t voting for either “fool,” and while I stood there, their banter turned to angry argument. (I saw her on Election Day at the precinct where I was a poll-watcher. She was there with one of her kids; the other three never did show up to vote.) Another group of young African American men sitting on another porch in the neighborhood dissed me for wasting their time; none was going to vote. “Obama didn’t do anything for me,” one of them said; why would Clinton?

As we now know all too well, Democratic early voting was down significantly in all of the key Ohio metro counties (around Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, and Toledo) that historically deliver Democratic margins big enough to offset the large Republican edge in southern and western Ohio. Turnout on Election Day was even further off 2012 levels. And African American participation was lower than in 2012 in both early and Election Day voting.

This was partly a result of GOP Governor John Kasich’s ongoing, and successful, voter-suppression efforts. After the 2012 election, the state eliminated “golden week,” a seven-day period at the beginning of the early-voting window when people could register and vote the same day. One federal court voided the change, but another reversed that ruling, and in August the Supreme Court declined to stay that reversal. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state also purged more than 200,000 predominately Democratic voters from the rolls, a move voting-rights advocates were able to reverse in court—but they won the challenge just three weeks before the election.

In the end, Clinton lost Richland County by more than 20,000 votes, 28.89 percent to Trump’s 66.1 percent, and lost Ohio by over 550,000 votes, 44 percent to Trump’s 52 percent. Compared with 2012, Democratic turnout was more than 6,000 votes lower in the county this year, and nearly 465,000 votes lower in the state as a whole.

There were similar, worse surprises in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And voter suppression wasn’t the only reason. It takes a lot of villages to get out the vote. But a lot of the villagers stayed home this year, rather than pitching in to help elect or even vote for Clinton. As Harold Meyerson and Gabrielle Gurley have pointed out recently, Clinton was never able to come up with a pro-worker message that resonated with Midwestern working-class whites, or that generated the same enthusiasm in the black community that Obama had. Clinton’s inability to marshal sustained and committed engagement from her own base turned out to be her candidacy’s most fatal flaw.

This story has been updated to reflect Obama's exact margin of victory over Romney 2012.

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