Winning Back The Factory Towns That Made Trumpism Possible
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
The seismic shift that transformed American politics between the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the troubled times we live in today has many causes that politicos love to debate, but the geographic heart of this transformation lies in America’s classic industrial heartland: the small and midsized Factory Towns of Pennsylvania and the industrial Midwest. The cities, big city suburbs, and college towns moved considerably more Democratic in these states. The counties where agriculture dominates the local economy had higher turnout than in the past which made them more red, although that shift was nowhere near enough to overcome the Democratic gains in the cities and suburbs. But it has been the massive voting shift -- almost 2.6 million votes lost in net Democratic margin -- in the small and midsized manufacturing towns in these states that crumbled the “blue wall” of states that had gone Democratic in every election since 1992. That caused a state not lost by Democrats since 1972, Minnesota, to become a purple state instead of a blue one. That turned two 2008 50/50 states, Missouri and Indiana, into two deeply red states in recent elections. That turned two of the most purple battleground states in the country over the last 50 years, Ohio and Iowa, into states with a much redder hue. American Family Voices has undertaken a project to deeply study what is going on in these counties and with these voters. Since last fall, we have:
In conjunction with our friends at 21st Century Democrats, we released our initial study of these counties, studying voting trends, as well as trends in economic data, health care data, demographic data, and union density.
We conducted a baseline poll with Lake Research in a selection of these counties to study the overall political attitudes of these voters.
We conducted four focus groups with Lake with a mix of voters in these counties.
We commissioned TargetSmart to perform a deep dive on voter file, census tract, economic, and health care data in these counties.
We have had discussions with several hundred organizers, local elected officials, political operatives, staffers for political allies, and progressive movement allies who are from these states and do political work in them.
In our research, we have done a deep examination of these counties, looking at the following questions:
What are the factors that have driven these counties toward the MAGA movement?
How much of the shift could be explained by voters switching from voting for Democrats to voting for Republicans, vs Democratic voters being discouraged and not voting, vs Republican voters being energized and turning out in higher numbers?
Is it possible to shift the dynamics in these counties in order to energize more progressive-minded voters and win over more swing voters?
What are the issues and values that matter the most to these voters?
What are the progressive messages that resonate the most with these voters?
What are the organizing strategies that have the best chance of moving these voters back toward a more progressive-minded politics?
This is a challenging set of counties, with voters who are cynical as hell about politicians and government, but we believe that our research has found a path to winning them back to the progressive cause, with the right kind of message and the right kind of organizing.
Why these counties and these voters?
Given all the focus that pundits and political operatives have shown to turning out big city voters and, especially, to swing voters in big city suburbs in recent years, why have we taken on this particular segment of the country?
The first big reason is in the chart below. It is great that Democrats and their progressive nonprofit allies have done such a good job of GOTV in the last three election cycles that they have picked up 500,000 net extra margin in urban counties. It is equally great that the combination of Trump’s repulsion of suburban voters and Democratic Party efforts in the suburbs has produced a net gain of 500,000 votes there. That combination doubled the impact of the vote margin Democrats lost from the excitement about Trump and higher Republican turnout that had produced a net gain for the Republicans in the agricultural economy-based rural counties.
But the reason Democrats lost so much ground in these states in both 2016 and 2020 was because of the massive party shift in the smaller and midsized counties with a manufacturing base at the heart of their county economy. This economic dynamic changed the political equation dramatically in the most purple region in the country. We are determined to dig deep into these kinds of counties and work to figure out which factors really matter there, and how progressive forces can regain our footing and rebuild our strength in these places.
If Republicans build on their success in these counties and build bigger margins there in the years to come, PA and the Midwest will become far more red than purple. But if Democrats can succeed in making up ground in these Factory Town counties over the long haul, given the gains they are seeing in other counties, constituencies, and regions, they will finally succeed in building a long-term governing majority that they haven’t had since the long period after the beginning of the New Deal.
But there is another reason for focusing on these voters. These counties and these voters are the ultimate example of the change of working-class fortunes over the last 40 years. In generations before ours, the industrial heartland of America prided itself on being the place that built America -- our cars, our steel, our manufactured goods. High percentages of workers in these counties had good union jobs they took pride in, jobs they thought would be there for their kids. They had good wages and great health care. They thought their good pension benefits would keep them economically secure in their retirement.
But in the last couple of generations these working families have been hit with wave after wave of hardship that have shaken them to the core. Unions, often under aggressive attack by Republican governors and legislatures, have lost strength. Trade deals not written with workers in mind hit this region harder than anywhere. The financialization of the economy that created giant global conglomerates and benefited Wall Street and Silicon Valley sucked money out of these counties. The financial crisis and the opioid epidemic hit these counties like a ton of bricks. Covid was another big blow, followed by the gut punch of inflation.
Our polling and focus groups drove home to us the sense that this constituency is in a lot of pain, made all the worse by continuous uncertainty. Focus group participants were asking: “What is going to happen next?” They feel shell-shocked and abandoned by elected officials and others who are supposed to be helping them, and they don’t trust the media who is supposed to be telling them the truth.
It is no surprise that so many of the voters here want to flip the bird to the establishment and have gravitated toward a politician and rightwing movement that is angry, pugnacious, and scape-goating. If fascism and authoritarianism continue to rise in this country, it will be because more of the voters in the small and midsized counties of the manufacturing belt fuel its advance. The good news is that nowhere near all working-class voters in these counties have joined the camp of the hardcore rightwing extremists: there is still a big group in the middle, as well as more progressive voters we could better motivate and turn out.
If progressives and the Democratic Party can figure out how to engage these voters in the middle, and bring more of them back, we can stop Trumpism in its tracks. And if we succeed with these quintessential working-class voters, we will have a strategy and message that we can use throughout the working-class small and midsized towns in every region in the country. The question is whether there is any reasonable hope that we can win these working-class voters back.
Should we give up on Factory Towns?
The question needs to be addressed honestly: should the progressive movement and Democratic Party give up on these voters? The leaders of the party and progressive movement organizations would never say they were doing that publicly. But I have been in discussions with a significant number of high-level party and movement operatives over the last couple of years about these Factory Town counties, and even about some of the historic battleground states in the region, and was told some version of “we can never get these voters, counties, and states back to any significant degree,” so we should focus all our energy on big cities and big city suburbs.
The research in our report shows the duality of the situation with these working-class counties and voters. On the one hand, the challenges for progressive organizers, organizations, and Democratic candidates are tough, they are deep, and they are long term. These voters are highly cynical about the promises of politicians even when they agree with them on the issues, and they tend to view Democrats as too weak and incompetent to get anything done. The problems facing issue advocates, the Democratic Party, and their candidates in the years to come will not be easily or quickly solved because these voters are cynical that anyone cares about them or will do anything to help them.
Having said that, it is also clear from our research that giving up on these counties and voters is a big mistake. Yes, the voters here are cynical about the Democratic Party, but they are equally cynical about Republicans. More importantly, this is a very populist group of people economically, and the number one villain for these voters is Corporate America. They see the GOP as thoroughly in the pocket of wealthy CEOS and the corporations they run. These voters agree with most of the Democratic Party’s issue agenda, especially, but not only, on economics. Though Republican culture war appeals do have some resonance, their current MAGA spin feels too extremist to them.
Factory Town voters are very focused on economic issues. As Democrats in power deliver more tangible and noticeable economic benefits to these counties and voters, and then talk about what they have done, it will matter. They like progressive economic policies, they just don’t see elected officials who are effective at delivering them.
A major part of the reason that Democratic candidates have not been doing as well in these counties in recent years is that the Democrats here have been feeling ignored. This is key to understand about this electorate. Base voter turnout is down in these counties, and there is a lot of room to grow progressive and Democratic Party turnout -- including, importantly, communities of color.
One final big point here to those who are arguing that population growth is all in the suburbs and cities, so we don’t need to worry about these voters any more: as our TargetSmart report shows, Factory Town counties still represent 47-48% of the voters in the states we studied. In spite of metro area population gains, that percentage has not dropped much at all in recent elections. It may well drop in decades to come – people in their prime earning years, aged 30-65 years old, did drop as a percentage of the vote in these counties, which might indicate people starting to move away to look for work elsewhere.
View The Interactive Tableau Dashboard
Source: Target Smart Factory Towns Public Tableau Dashboard
The bottom line, though, is that almost half of these states' voters are in Factory Town counties, including a proportionally larger share of the region’s swing voters. That means it is impossible to build a governing majority without winning more votes here9 .
9 Key Takeaways
Policy choices -- and the history of those policy choices -- matter in Factory Towns.
One of the big challenges Democrats need to overcome in these counties is that voters are well aware that the policies of Democratic presidents in the last three decades have hurt them in a couple of their key concerns. Our focus group participants clearly remembered that Clinton had championed free trade deals, including NAFTA and bringing China into the WTO, and that Obama had also championed those kinds of deals, while not doing anything to improve past trade deals for workers. And Factory Town voters remember that Democrats – despite promises of accountability – bailed out Wall Street during the 2008 financial crisis, and that bankers emerged in great shape with bonuses intact. At the same time, these voters saw banks foreclose on their homes, in their neighborhoods, and received no meaningful help from Democrats.
Democrats have to overcome this negative legacy and start getting some tangible things done to help these working families, before anyone in these Factory Town counties loses faith in them again. If the party wants to win over these voters for the long run, this generation of Democratic elected officials will need to own up to the mistakes of past Democrats -- and be very clear that going forward, they will fight for working people. Some key observations:
1. White voters and people of color in Factory Towns.
I know when people think about smaller towns, many assume the voters there are almost all White. That was never the case, but even less so today. In the 2010 census, 19% of the people in rural America were people of color; now that percentage stands at 25%. And specifically in the kinds of Factory Towns we are studying, certain towns are becoming much more populated by Hispanic and other immigrant populations. In the meatpacking industry, as one example, many of the Midwestern factories have a large majority of Hispanic immigrant workers, and in big meatpacking towns like Sioux City, Iowa and Lexington, Nebraska, the Hispanic population has soared.
In the Factory Town counties in this study, about 79% of the residents are White and 21% are people of color. Not surprising for this region, the largest share among people of color is African-Americans at 8%, but one note that may be surprising to some is that the second highest people-of-color category at 7% is people self-identifying as either mixed race or “other,” i.e. not African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native American. When you add that 7% to the 4% who are Hispanic, it is clear that immigrant communities are already an important factor in these counties, and it is also clear from current trends that the numbers will grow.
In terms of the questions cited above about the tough things going on in people’s lives, people of color had higher percentages than Whites answering affirmatively about negative things having happened to them in recent years in all but two categories, ranging from 5% higher to 14% higher. In some cases, the differences were dramatic. For example, 12% of White voters in the survey said they had been recently foreclosed on or evicted, while 26% -- more than double -- of people of color said the same.
The people of color in the Factory Towns we polled are a lot like people of color elsewhere in America: they tend to be even more working class than the population as a whole and they tend to lean quite a bit more Democratic than Whites, but without much passion. Concerted Republican attempts to flip them are a real threat that Democrats must address. Top issues for people of color were inflation, where 40% said
it was their top issue vs 34% of Whites, and jobs/economy, where 31% said that was the top issue vs only 19% of Whites.
We decided in this first round of research to conduct focus groups only with White working-class voters. Our fear was that when we read focus group participants Republican culture war messaging, that people wouldn’t be as honest in their reactions. One of the big things we want to do in our next round of research is to conduct a more in-depth exploration of the attitudes of people of color, especially African-American voters and the increasingly diverse immigrant communities in these counties.
2. A mix of Republican motivation, Democratic discouragement, and a lot of swing voters.
The combination of conventional wisdom and the pre-existing ideological biases of DC politicos can make for a toxic stew when it comes to analyzing what is really going on in battleground states, especially among working-class folks foreign to many in the DC chattering class. Some are convinced that there are too few swing voters left in America; some that the White working class has deserted Democrats for good; some that higher turnout alone can save Democrats; while others believe that the entire story is all about voters who switched from Obama to Trump. But if you take a really serious look at public opinion research, the voter file, and other data, you will come to the conclusion that there is a really complex and interesting mix of factors at play.
In our TargetSmart analysis, it is clear that the change in Democratic net margin in the Factory Town counties was a combination of three factors, all of them a pretty big part of the equation:
Democrats not showing up to vote in 2016 or 2020 in as sizable the numbers they did in 2012 or 2008
Republican voting surging in 2016 and 2020
A significant number of voters who switched their vote from Obama to Trump.
There is no way to deny, looking at the TargetSmart report, that all three of these factors were important. The biggest factor, not surprisingly, was vote switching, but the combination of fewer Democrats voting and the Republican surge in these counties accounted for at least 20% of the difference in voting margins between 2012 and 2016/2020, and probably more, potentially as high as 40%. (We don’t know the precise number because the unaffiliated and un-modeled voters surged in 2016/2020 in these
counties. It is likely given the election results that a large share of these voters voted for Trump, probably making the number above closer to 49% than to 20%.)
This chart shows how many Democratic voters who turned out in 2012 did not in 2016:
We know that the big changes in Factory Town counties in the Democratic vote margin from 2012 to 2016/2020 were a mix of excitement among Republicans and Republican leaners for Trump, a depressed motivation to vote on the Democratic side, and a big number of voters who had either (a) voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, or (b) were not modeled as closely aligned with either party, but voted for Trump.
Democrats and their progressive allies can’t do anything about Trump-supporting people being more excited about voting than in prior years. Our strategy has to be focused on issues and messages that motivate both progressive and swing voters to turn out. Economic populism is the common thread for both voter categories, and a focus on economic issues is the way to win them over.
3. There is danger in the culture war, but economics trump culture wars.
The culture war arguments from the right wing certainly have an impact in Factory Town counties and with working-class voters. There is danger for progressives and Democratic candidates in ignoring these attacks. But based on the polling, focus groups, and conversations with local organizers, there is a strategy that not only takes the sting out of culture war arguments, but pretty clearly wins the day against them. Three observations:
First, in their zeal to fire up their base (and perhaps just because so many Republican candidates are true believer MAGA people), Republicans appear to be overplaying their hand in their culture war appeals. In all four of our focus groups, we included a Republican culture war message modeled on current GOP rhetoric.
In the focus groups, we tested nine different messages (testing them on a 0 to 3 scale, 0 meaning you hated the message and 3 meaning you loved it), including the Republican culture war message in all four groups, because we wanted a clear test of progressive economic messages vs rightwing culture messages. Of all the language we tested, the culture war message ranked last by quite a bit: its average score was only 1.06, whereas the worst scoring progressive message was 1.65 with the best of them being in the mid 2 range. Just to be clear: focus group testing is not as scientific as larger polls, so we want to qualify the numbers here. But the information we have points to the culture war message being weaker than a progressive populist message.
The discussion in the focus groups reinforced the idea that the culture war rhetoric was too extreme. Even some of the most conservative of the focus group participants, the ones who were most likely to defend Trump and attack Democrats, were uncomfortable with some of the language, defending teachers against grooming charges, for example.
Our orientation in the focus groups was testing the economic messages our polling indicated had the potential to work the best, so we did not engage in an overt testing of the culture war debate with focus group participants. However, it is clear from other research I have seen, and from conversations with activists and organizers in these counties and states, that when we engage the culture war arguments with thoughtful and values based arguments in response, most of the time we win the debate even with non-metro working-class voters. This is true on Critical Race Theory, on book banning/burning, on most LGBT issues, and a variety of other issues. The only area where we have a challenge winning the debate is the set of issues around the “chaos at the border” rightwing talking points.
Second, an argument based on populist economics (including health care) wins out over the culture war. In terms of the things working-class voters in these counties care the most about, are most focused on, are most passionate about, it is economics not culture war debates. Not only did the message testing numbers I discussed above point to that, but in the informal focus group conversations at the beginning of the groups, before we got into any specific discussions of politics or messages, participants were talking about the tough economic times they and their communities were facing, not culture war issues. In the polling, the economic issues were coming through as concerns to voters much more than anything else. And in my conversations with local organizers and activists from these states, most people don’t think the culture war is the primary reason Democrats are losing voters: they think we are losing because working-class voters don’t see us delivering for them economically.
Economics beats the culture war because Factory Town voters are struggling so much economically. A great many of them are on the edge financially, worried about the next layoff or health setback, struggling to make ends meet, and they just aren’t paying much attention to Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, or the latest Twitter feud.
I know that a lot of DC pundits are convinced that culture war trumps everything else for working-class voters, and that we are losing these voters because of the culture wars, but I am not seeing much evidence of that in our research.