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The Rust Belt sees Trump as the new Obama

Change! Univision News traveled through America’s declining industrial belt to find out why Trump won and heard time and again that voters wanted anything but the status quo.
23 Nov 2016 – 04:36 PM EST
Brian Reynolds, a Trump voter, in Erie, Pennsylvania Crédito: Ana María Rodríguez (Univision)

RUST BELT, U.S.A. - It is Friday night in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Presque Isle Downs Casino bustles with residents and tourists. With 48,074 square feet for gambling, it is hardly a mammoth Las Vegas-style casino. But since opening in 2007, Presque Isle Downs has injected a burst of new life into the eroding economy of Erie.

This part of the Rust Belt, once a manufacturing powerhouse, is now looking for a second life in tourism and gambling. The need for change is also reflected in politics. In the presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Erie, which traditionally votes Democrat, helped elect the Republican.

Anguish over becoming irrelevant mixed with nostalgia for better days was key to Trump’s victory in Erie and other decaying towns and cities in the Rust Belt, the northern Midwest area that runs along the Great Lakes and borders Canada.

“We are down to the bone and our bones are decomposing,” said Brian Reynolds, 58. A veteran who had not cast a voted in more than 20 years, he voted for Trump. He put his hopes in the Republican candidate because of his promises to create manual jobs in the region.

Reynolds lives off a $700 a month disability pension and his savings, but gets excited about the opportunities that may emerge for the young and unemployed. “We’re going to rebuild America. How does that sound? Everyone will participate,” he said in an interview at his house, where he lives alone with Eddy, his terrier.

On his front porch is an American flag and -- two weeks after the election -- a Trump campaign sign, which reads "Make America Great Again."

Not far from his home, to the south, lie miles and miles of abandoned factories. This is a quintessential image in many once-powerful cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and smaller cities in the Rust Belt.

Talking to a score of voters in these northern states, there is a clear longing for change, sometimes even to a desperate degree. Expectations are high for what a Trump presidency might bring and echo the hopes expressed for Obama eight years ago when this region stared into the abyss of the Great Recession.

In traditional Republican areas, a vote for Trump was simply retaliation against eight years of a Democrat in the White House. But in Erie, a vote for Trump was a new bet.

“It was a great election. I liked seeing so many people participate -- people who didn’t care about politics before,” said John as he filled up his Harley Davidson at a gas station in Kenosha, Wisconsin. John said he had lost several jobs in factories that moved to China or Mexico. “People here are losing their jobs one after another.”

The Rust Belt has the highest concentration of counties that voted for Obama once or -- like Erie and Kenosha -- twice. This time around they supported Trump.

Millions in the working-class in Wisconsin (Democrat since 1988), and Michigan and Pennsylvania (since 1992), had repeatedly voted Democrat before this election.

And Trump added their neighbors, as well: the swing state of Ohio (which voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012), and loyal Indiana (which has voted Republican in 12 out of the last 13 elections). Of the states in this region, only Illinois continued trusting the Democrats. Clinton won there by about 16 percent, much like Obama four years ago.

Trump’s populist and nationalist message resonated with those voters who attribute the slow and incessant industrial decline to trade deals that opened commerce up to other countries. NAFTA, the 1994 agreement with Mexico and Canada, is a curse word for many in this area.

Still, compared with the conviction that many felt when casting their votes for Obama, some Trump supporters in the region seem to have jumped into the unknown. Voters commonly explained their choice as “the lesser evil.”

“I hadn’t made my decision until I had the ballot in my hand,” said Frank Carmichael, editor of a weekly publication in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I imagined Hillary in the Oval Office and I already knew what to expect. She would have been four more years of the status quo.”

In the same way many in the South doubt Trump can carry out his promise to build a border wall, people in the North are skeptical he will be able to return prosperity to the region.

“Maybe the future isn’t in manufacturing,” said Mitchell Craven, 42, who voted for Trump in Elkhart, Indiana. He recently vacationed with his wife in San Francisco, and was amazed how almost everyone there seemed to have a job in the tech sector.

Craven began working in Elkhart’s motorhome factories when he was 14, making $30 an hour. He looked for a job in other sectors when salaries began to drop (today the average wage for a beginner is $17 an hour) and currently works for the federal government.

“I don’t think wages will go up. At the end of the day, it’s the young executives who decide how much to pay,” Craven said.

“A lot of people are going to be disappointed,” he added. “The more I talk about it, the more I ask myself why I voted for him.”

It would not be the first time the Rust Belt is disappointed. Ken, who works at a gun store in Macomb, Michigan, voted for Obama in 2008. “I was really expecting change, but only two years later I already felt disillusioned. In 2012, I voted for a third-party candidate.”

Although factory jobs continued to erode under Obama, the region’s economy also experienced great progress during his presidency.

Still, few credit Obama for the recovery after the Great Recession, not even in places like Elkhart, where the automobile industry remains strong. Despite a drop in wages, unemployment in Elkhart is 3.6 percent -- below the national average of 4.9 percent.

Trump dominated in the Indiana county winning almost 42,000 votes, or 64 percent. Obama failed to win the county in either of his elections.

A key reason behind Trump’s victory in the region was the apathy that Clinton generated among Democrats and others who voted for third-party candidates.

Clinton, born in Chicago, was seen as elitist and distant. Many were angered by her lack of visits to the region during her campaign. While Trump visited Wisconsin six times, the Democrat never visited Wisconsin. Clinton went to Michigan six times compared with Trump’s 13.

In the Midwest, many are resentful of the financial and political elite of the East Coast. Although Trump is from New York, voters here trusted his message railing against established interests.

“All she did was go to the big cities. But that worked better on the East Coast with the rich folks,” Valery Novotny, 67, a retired nurse in Amherst, Ohio, said. “She neglected us. She spent more time with celebrities in concerts.”

Clinton visited Ohio 17 times, Trump 26.

Novotny voted for Obama twice and then became disillusioned with the president. She still considers herself a Democrat even though she voted for Trump.

On a sunny, mild evening in the middle of November, Novotny paints a bleak picture of her city: factories that move abroad, drug and suicide epidemics, very little money. Novotny bought her house for $125,000 in 2009. It is now valued at $84,000.

“I didn’t make my decision at the last moment. I thought about the important issues, the things that have gone badly over the last eight years. She was not the right choice,” Novotny said.

She has her fingers crossed, hoping the Trump experiment works. “Maybe having a businessman could help us. Maybe this country needs to be managed as a business and not as a political machine.”

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