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A trip to Trump Country: A pro-life voter says he couldn't support Clinton

The economic realities today in Elkhart County contradict the view that Trump won the Rust Belt because of the region's poverty and unemployment. Trump supporters there even acknowledge that the economy is growing thanks to Obama's stimulus spending.
23 Nov 2016 – 12:29 PM EST
Ed Neufeldt lost his job in a motor home factory and now has three part-time jobs. Crédito: Ana María Rodríguez (Univision)

WAKARUSA, Indiana – It's rare for a Donald Trump supporter to praise President Barack Obama, but Ed Neufeldt has good reasons to do so.

In early 2009, Neufeldt had just lost his job at a motor home factory when he was invited to introduce Obama during a visit to Elkhart County to promote the president's $800 billion stimulus plan to pull the economy out of the Great Recession.

Elkhart was bleeding jobs, and its unemployment rate would hit a record 20 percent the next month.

Some Republicans opposed the stimulus package at the time. Some argued that the auto industry, which had brought decades of prosperity to Elkhart and other parts of the Rust Belt, should be allowed to die.

Today, Elkhart's recovery appears almost miraculous. Unemployment in the county stands at 3.6 percent, well below the national rate of 4.9 percent, and it retains the title of world capital of motor home manufacturing. Obama returned to Elkhart in June to underscore the success of the stimulus package.

Yet most voters in the county don't seem to appreciate Obama's work. Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in the presidential election tally Nov. 8, winning 64.1 percent of the votes cast. Obama also lost Elkhart in 2008 and 2012.

Neufeldt is now 70 and has three part-time jobs. It took him four months to find a job, when the local economy began to recover. Although he never got back his job at Monaco Coach, he acknowledged that jobs are now more available thanks in part to Obama.

“The improvements happened under his administration, so I give him credit for that,” Neufeldt said at the Wa Nee Walk In Clinic, where he works as a janitor. A photo of him with Obama sits on his desk.

When the president returned in June, Neufeldt met him again and gave him a stamp collection with the image of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.

"The president told me, 'Are you sure you want to give this away? This is worth a lot of money,'" said Neufeldt, still enthusiastic as he recounted his two meetings with the president.

“I really like Obama, and to some extent I agree with his green technology initiative. We need that in the United States,” he said.

Nevertheless, Neufeldt said his conscience did not allow him to vote for Obama or for Clinton. Respect for the fetus came first in his book.

“I am very pro-life. I don't want any abortion. Clinton believes in abortion, and to me that's like a murder,” he said.

The rest of his image of Clinton was also negative. “This county voted for Trump because people here see Clinton as corrupt, which is probably true,” he said.

Neufeldt said Trump's promise to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico is another reason why he won Elkhart and all of Indiana, where Democrats have won only one of the last 13 presidential elections. But he added that most of the undocumented migrants already in the country should be offered citizenship.

“I agree that people who broke the law should be deported,” he said. “But if they are hard workers, if they have been here for years and did not break any laws, I don't think it would be right to send them back. There should be a fast way to make them citizens.”

And if Trump's promised economic boom arrives, Neufeldt added, the country will not be able to do without undocumented migrants already here and more migrants yet to come, “If Trump creates as many jobs as he says, we will need migrants,” he said.

The economic realities today in Elkhart County contradict the view that Trump won the Rust Belt because of the region's poverty and unemployment. The jobless rate in Indiana now stands at 4.5 percent and the state ranks second in manufacturing jobs growth, after Montana.

But although the economy is doing well, many voters say it's not enough.

“I don't believe that wages here will return to what they were,” said Mitchell Craven, 42, who also voted for Trump. He made $30 an hour in a motor home factory in 2000, but now wages run around $17 an hour.

Craven, who now works for the federal government, voted for Trump because of his promise to renegotiate treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Mexico and Canada, which many people blame for the loss of jobs and wages.

But he added that Trump will find it difficult to turn back the clock. He recently went to San Francisco on vacation with his wife and was impressed by the region's job boom in new technologies.

“Maybe the future is not in manufacturing,” he said.

Neufeldt was making $22 an hour when he lost his job at Monaco Coach. Now he earns $11 an hour as a janitor and $10 an hour in two other jobs delivering bread. With his house paid for and a good pension, his drop in wages does not worry him too much.

“I am not making as much money working double the hours, but that's OK,” he said.

Maye Primera and Ana María Rodríguez contributed to this report.

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