The Misunderstood Rust Belt Worker Vote, and its Importance in 2020, Explained
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Author: Dylan Scott
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Robert Noftz, a lifelong Republican who works at an Ohio manufacturing plant, is voting for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

 Caitlin McNaney for Vox

Robert Noftz is a voter Donald Trump should have been able to win in the 2020 election: He’s an anti-abortion Christian who works at a major appliance factory in northwestern Ohio. 

But Noftz, a lifelong Republican, is voting for Joe Biden instead.

In 2016, he really didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president — and he wasn’t sure about Trump — so he wrote in Marco Rubio. But he was still optimistic when Trump won. “I was kind of hopeful, now that he’s won, and he’s through being rude, I thought he might be a competent leader,” Noftz told me. “And I’ve been really disappointed about that. I don’t think he’s done that at all.”

Last year, Noftz actually thought he might vote for Trump in 2020. He liked the anti-abortion policies the president had pursued. The economy looked healthy.

“Then the Covid thing hit,” Noftz said, “and I saw the way he behaved.”

He was aghast that Trump said he knew more than the medical experts. His worst fears were confirmed. The Trump administration did deliver on some issues he cares about, but Noftz believes there are bigger principles at stake.

“As a Christian, I also care about other things: justice, people who are poor, people who are sick,” he told me. “The world’s not kind to everybody. I’ve got it pretty comfortable. A lot of people in the world are really suffering.”

Trump won whites without a college degree in Ohio by 24 points in 2016. New polls show the president and Biden tied with those voters.

 Caitlin McNaney for Vox

Clyde, Ohio, is located in the northwestern part of the state that swung dramatically toward Trump in the 2016 election.

 Caitlin McNaney for Vox

So now Noftz wears his Biden 2020 hat to work; he’s got a sign in his car window. And he’s noticed something these past few weeks in his hometown of Clyde, Ohio, population 6,213: Some people, working guys like him, seem happy to see his swag supporting the Democrat. That wouldn’t have been the reaction four years ago.

Manufacturing workers from the industrial Midwest are remembered as the critical voting bloc in 2016. Those people, many of whom had voted for Barack Obama, swung for Trump. Some of them just didn’t like Hillary Clinton. But they also saw Trump as a businessman who could restore America’s luster. These voters are crucial in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

But rather than cementing his relationship with these voters, which would have helped his reelection bid, Trump seems to be seeing the opposite happen. Trump is further behind in the polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2020 than he was in 2016. And after winning Ohio by 8 points against Clinton, he’s effectively tied with Biden in the polls now. 

Many voter trends, particularly the defection of suburban women to Democrats, explain Trump’s apparent weakness. But in the Midwest, his failure to build on this base — mostly white voters who are culturally conservative, many of them without a college degree, living in smaller communities — could be fatal. Even if Trump wins them in the aggregate, Biden is overperforming Clinton with these voters, and it’s a big reason why he’s the favorite heading into Election Day.

“The big difference is now you’ve got a record to run on. The Donald Trump record has not been a good record for working people,” Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, says. “Union members are going to look at the record and realize Donald Trump has broken his promise.”

Why the worker vote is so important in Ohio and the Midwest

The Rust Belt worker vote — the white working-class vote, the union vote, whatever you want to call it; even academics don’t always agree, and it’s a hard group to define — was pivotal to Trump’s big 2016 win. In Ohio, Obama had won union households by 23 points against Mitt Romney in 2012; Trump took them by 13 points against Clinton. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan also have a lot of these voters, and Trump’s big margins with them helped propel him to a narrow sweep of the Midwest and an Electoral College victory.

But 2020 looks a lot different, starting in the suburbs. Trump is losing a lot of the more educated voters in the Upper Midwest. He won white voters with a college degree in Ohio by 24 points in 2016; a new Fox News poll showed Trump and Biden effectively tied for those voters and tied overall in the state, a dramatic swing toward the Democrats.

President Trump holds a campaign rally in Circleville, Ohio, on October 24.

 Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To make up for those losses, Trump needs to expand his margins with other white voters. But he doesn’t appear to have done that. He earned 63 percent of white voters without a college degree in 2016; the recent Fox News poll from Ohio found him below 60 percent. A Baldwin Wallace University poll put Trump at 52 percent with those voters in the state, while he barely holds on to a 2-point lead over Biden with all voters statewide.

It’s a small shift, but a meaningful one given Trump’s other weaknesses. He cannot afford to lose any ground with the people who supported him last time.

As Kyle Kondik covered for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a Biden win in Ohio would be powered in part by the Democrat making up ground in the white working-class regions where Clinton struggled: the Ohio Ninth District, covering the area between Toledo and Cleveland, where Clinton did 15 points worse than Obama; and the Ohio 13th around Akron and Youngstown, where she was 21 points behind Obama. In the 2018 midterms, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown rebounded in the industrial areas around Toledo, where Clinton had struggled, on his way to reelection.

Trump’s support has eroded with these voters even more in Wisconsin. Trump won white non-college voters by nearly 30 points; a new Fox poll putting Biden ahead statewide found Trump up by only 5 points with those voters. (Baldwin Wallace found the same trend in the state, with Biden up 2.) The same seems true in Pennsylvania, where his 32-point lead has shrunk by roughly half, according to another Fox survey. (And Baldwin Wallace has Trump’s lead down to 5.)

It’s a shift that industrial union leaders say they’ve felt in the workplace.

“In the facility, things have changed,” Tony Totty, president of the United Auto Workers local in Toledo, told me. “You don’t get the Trump supporters talking him up as much anymore.”

There seems to be a drift away from Trump among Rust Belt workers

Totty remembers the tension in 2016 around the General Motors transmission plant where his members work. The union’s leadership may have endorsed Clinton, but the rank-and-file were much more pro-Trump. Totty would hand out campaign literature at the factory gates and sense the disdain. Some of the workers hadn’t liked Obama either, but this was worse.

“We’re really at a point where we just don’t talk politics because it’s so toxic,” he said. “We really went after each other.”

But in 2020, things seem more muted. The Trump supporters are less vocal. Totty is expecting more of his peers to quietly vote for Biden this time, or they might stay home. Noftz told me he was “surprised” by how many people at his work are voting for Biden.

These trends could build upon themselves, creating the environment for an important shift toward Biden with union voters. Laura Bucci, a St. Joseph’s University political scientist who has studied the politics of labor unions, says people in unions are more politically engaged. The mood around their workplaces could inform how people vote and whether they decide to vote at all.

“Turnout is an enthusiasm game,” she said. “How much did your friends push you to go vote?”

A Biden supporter stands outside the UAW Local 14 Union Hall in Toledo, Ohio, where Joe Biden held a rally on October 12.

 Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For some of these workers in Ohio, they have directly suffered the consequences of Trump’s failure to deliver on his campaign promises. More than one union leader mentioned to me a line from a speech Trump gave in 2017, when he told workers at the GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, not to sell their houses. He said manufacturing was coming back.

In the spring of 2019, the company announced it would be closing the Lordstown plant. More than 1,400 workers either lost their jobs or had to be transferred. About 200 of them moved to Toledo, where Totty works.

“Those people got displaced, They had to sell their homes,” he said. “Some of them were Trump supporters. They don’t support him anymore. They felt betrayed. They felt lied to.”

Manufacturing job growth in Ohio has been stagnant under Trump. The president’s much-hyped Foxconn project in Wisconsin, which he once promised would create 13,000 jobs, had employed fewer than 300 people by the end of 2019; the building that was supposed to be a new factory is now, according to a recent Verge report, “an empty shell.”

The trade deficit is up. He’s appointed Supreme Court justices who have ruled against organized labor rights. 

Trump’s record on health care and Covid-19 could hurt him with these voters too. Union members are sensitive to the same pocketbook issues as everybody else. Those workers generally secure their health insurance through collective bargaining, but they tend to be more progressive on the issue, even if they identify as Republican, according to a survey analysis by Miami University’s Kevin Reuning and union activist C.M. Lewis. 

Workers are certainly aware of rising health care costs. Totty said his union went on strike last year because the company wanted to raise their premiums to cover higher prices. They will likely be arguing over health care again in a few years when their current contract is up, he said, unless costs are restrained. 

Trump initially supported Obamacare repeal plans that would have left millions more Americans uninsured. Now he’s supporting a Supreme Court lawsuit to overturn the law without publicly releasing his own plans to cover people if that happens. Polls show that without publicly releasing his own plans to cover people if that happens. Polls show that without publicly releasing his own plans to cover people if that happens. Polls show that white voters and voters without a college degree trust Biden more than Trump on how to best protect people with preexisting conditions. 

They also trust the Democratic candidate more on the coronavirus response, the issue that is understandably a top priority for most voters.

“I think we should have been listening to the medical experts,” Noftz said.

The politics of union members has always been complicated

It’s hard to talk about the “union vote” or the “working-class” vote. There is polarization along educational, gender, and racial lines. The demographics of unions have been changing. With the erosion of industrial trade unions, union membership has become more concentrated among police, government workers, and teachers. 

Reuning and Lewis, in their survey, found that 31 percent of union members identify as strong Republicans and 29 percent identify as strong Democrats. The rest are somewhere in between. But even white Republicans have some unorthodox political views when they are part of a union: They are more likely than non-union white Republicans to have a positive view of socialism and Medicare-for-all, for one. (They also have a rosier view of capitalism.)

“They identify as conservative, but then when you ask them about a specific issue, they tend to be more liberal,” Reuning told me. “They’re still gonna vote for Republicans because of other issues. They’re more culturally conservative. People are complicated.”

In fact, there is evidence that the decrease in union membership could be contributing to white Americans becoming more Republican. David Macdonald, who studies political science at Florida State University, published a paper this summer on the interaction between those two trends.

“White union members are more likely to identify as Democrats than their non union-affiliated counterparts in ... the industrial Midwest, a former bastion of organized labor,” he wrote. 

He found that union membership led to people of all genders and all levels of education to be more Democratic than they otherwise would be. So as union membership falls among certain groups, they are becoming more Republican. 

Noftz is emblematic of those trends. The factory where he works is not a union shop. He’s been a registered Republican since the 1990s.

Noftz considered voting for Trump in 2020. “Then the Covid thing hit and I saw the way he behaved.” 

Caitlin McNaney for Vox

But he is also, in 2020, a reminder of the nuances of the Rust Belt worker vote so often idealized but also misunderstood in political punditry. When Trump was acting more like a normal Republican, Noftz was warming up to him.

But then the president clashed with scientists during a public health emergency. He insulted people. He didn’t rise to the occasion. Instead of voting for Trump, as he had considered doing, Noftz made a video testimonial for Republican Voters Against Trump.

For many of these workers living through economic stagnation and now a global health crisis, the president hasn’t lived up to his promise. And without them, Donald Trump will struggle to win reelection.

“The mishandling of the pandemic has made matters worse,” Tim Burga at the Ohio AFL-CIO told me. “There’s no question that there’s been union members moving away from Trump.”

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