This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Trump signs in her backyard. Trump magnets on her refrigerator. Trump buttons on her dining room table. Kathy Miller is the Mahoning County chairwoman for Donald Trump.
While handing out Trump signs in June at a Republican headquarters just south of Youngstown, Ohio, she was approached by a woman in her late 80s, who said, “I have never voted Republican in my life. Give me the biggest sign you’ve got.”
In economically struggling communities like Mahoning County – where most steel mills have closed – many white, working-class Democrats are voting for Trump, registration records and 2016 presidential primary results show.
“They’re just all fed up,” Miller said. “It may be the economy for some, it may be the school systems, it could be health care, it could be immigration, education, it could be anything. They’re just fed up with the direction of our country. Mr. Trump showed up at the right time.”
According to a November 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll, 72 percent of Americans and 78 percent of white working-class Americans believe the country still is in a recession. A News21 analysis of the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago also found that in 2002, the percentage of white Americans with hardly any confidence in the executive branch of the federal government was just under 20 percent, the lowest it had been between 2002 and 2014. By 2014, that number was nearly 50 percent.
“The disenfranchised voter who has lost their job as a result of policies affecting the coal industry and other heavy manufacturing jobs are feeling very frustrated with Washington,” said Rex Repass, founder and CEO of Repass, a national public opinion research and strategic consulting firm. “Even though many are historically Democratic counties, they have become very red and very angry.”
In Tennessee, after a clothing factory outsourced jobs and operations to Mexico, a county that voted Democratic in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections went Republican in both 2008 and 2012.
In Mahoning County, Ohio, as its county seat Youngstown labors under the loss of the steel industry, more than 6,000 voters have switched from Democrat to Republican this year.
Similarly, frustration over closing steel mills and rising health care costs has swayed nearly 5,400 voters to switch parties in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
And in one Kentucky county where residents frustrated with the demise of the coal industry voted about 31 percent Republican in the 2000 presidential election, they voted more than 72 percent Republican in 2012, even though a majority of its voters remain registered Democrats.
Clay County, Tennessee, which borders Kentucky, used to be home to four garment factories. Celina, the county seat, had two.
The largest of these factories was children’s clothing factory OshKosh, which employed between 1,500 and 2,000 from the 1950s to the 1990s. In a county with a population of between 7,000 and 8,000, everyone worked there or knew someone who did.
“Just about everybody who wanted a job, if they’d work, they had a job at OshKosh,” said Doug Young, director of the county’s Three Star Initiative, a program focused on improving the county’s infrastructure to bring jobs to the area.
The factory shut its doors in November 1996 and moved its operations to Mexico, taking advantage of the cheap labor options the North American Free Trade Agreement provided. The agreement’s purpose was to establish a free-trade zone in North America by lifting tariffs on a majority of goods the U.S., Mexico and Canada produce and trade with one another.
Almost overnight, unemployment spiked to nearly 30 percent as hundreds of northern Tennessee residents lost jobs.
Racoe Inc., a military fabric cutting company, moved into the old OshKosh factory in December 1997. Only six people now work in the 66,000-square-foot building.
The county worked to recover from the loss, and logging is now a valued industry in the heavily forested area. Log trucks pass through the small downtown several times an hour.
Unemployment in Clay County, which is nearly 97 percent white, has petered out to a little more than 5 percent in May 2016, just over the May national average of 4.7 percent.
Yet the county still has a 24 percent poverty rate and historically Democratic voters are switching to the Republican Party. In March’s Republican primary, Trump won Clay county 57.1 percent to Ted Cruz’s 17.1 percent and had more than double the votes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Timothy Scott, the former Democratic chairman in Clay County, said older people come to retire in Clay County because of nearby Dale Hollow Lake, which attracts 3.2 million visitors to the county annually. Scott said more of these retirees tend to vote Republican, but he still attributes much of Trump’s appeal to his rhetoric.
“I think his popularity is (because) just everybody is mad, and he is saying what they feel,” he said. “There will be a lot of Democrats voting for him.”
While older generations have been moving into the community, Scott said young people in the area are leaving because there aren’t jobs once they graduate.
Young said Clay County voters feel ignored by politicians who they believe aren’t doing anything to bring jobs back to the area. “I really do think it’s this attitude that we lost our jobs and nobody’s really come to help us,” Young said.
In the Rust Belt of Ohio and Pennsylvania, steel was the dominant industry. But as steel companies outsourced their labor to mills in China, voters also grew frustrated with the job loss.
“When the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s … this region was literally not prepared for the shutdown of the steel mills,” said Bertram de Souza, a political columnist for the Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown.
Forty years after its steel mills closed, Youngstown’s poverty rate is just over 40 percent.
“The opportunities aren’t here,” said Frankie Susany, 50, who grew up in the Youngstown area and now works there as a small-business owner. “What used to be a thriving city in Youngstown is brown fields, abandoned mills, abandoned buildings, abandoned factories.”
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message resonates with Susany, who said that when he grew up, young people who worked in the steel mills had great lives. They drove new cars and had their own places to live right out of high school.
Now, with that steel industry gone, Susany believes voters need to cast their ballots with future generations in mind. “That’s what this election is about,” he said. “If we don’t change it now, our grandchildren are never going to know the America that (people my age) grew up in.”
In the March 2008 primary, just under 14 percent of registered voters in Mahoning County – where Youngstown is located – voted Republican. During this year’s state primary in March, more than 48 percent of the county’s registered voters cast a Republican ballot, and poll workers had to print additional Republican ballots. More than 6,000 voters then switched from Democratic to Republican this year.
Leo Connelly Jr. is a Vietnam veteran and former salesman who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Republican this year to vote for Trump in the primary. “I was sold on the fact that Obama could turn this country around,” he said. “We don’t want to get fooled again.”
In Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, which is 94 percent white with nearly a 10 percent poverty rate, 5,400 voters switched to the Republican Party to vote for Trump in the primary. The region’s steel factories shut down in the 1980s, and residents remain bitter about the job loss, said Blair Adams, a third-generation owner of K Castings Inc., a manufacturing plant.
“The steel industry as a whole, the big foundries that pour the molten metal, they’re gone,” he said. “All these people that are in this manufacturing area are definitely shifting (parties) because they understand that their jobs are at risk.”
For generations in Kentucky’s coalfields, including the town of Hindman, families spent most of their lives working underground in the mines. As those jobs disappear, Democrats are looking to options outside their party for change and the chance for an improved economy.
“What’s happened here (is) a catastrophe on top of a disaster,” said Mimi Pickering, a filmmaker with Appalshop, a media training center in nearby Whitesburg. “The last few years we’ve lost a great number of coal mining jobs, but really the coal economy has been declining and the employment in the industry has been declining since the 1950s.”
As coal became more scarce and expensive to mine in eastern Kentucky, coal companies moved to states such as Montana and Wyoming, where the work is easier and cheaper. The companies also started to use advanced mining technology, eliminating the need for a large number of miners.
Meanwhile, the government put environmental regulations into place, encouraging states to switch from coal to natural gas as a power source. Kentucky residents such as Ballard Combs, an 81-year-old former coal miner from Knott County, see Obama as the face of these changes.
“I loved the mines,” said Combs, who worked underground most of his adult life. “Obama shut them all down.”
But since 2008, the county has increasingly voted for the Republican presidential candidate. Both Combs and his father were Democrats, but he’s voting for Trump.
Knott County Clerk Ken Gayheart said registered Democrats come into his office daily to switch their registration to the GOP. When the coal companies left, Gayheart said no industries moved in to fill the vacancy.
“These old hills were never worth much,” Gayheart said. “We don’t do anything, we don’t make anything here in Knott County.”
“Eastern Kentucky is in tough shape, but a lot of rural America is in a tough time,” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies in nearby Whitesburg. “Something needs to change. That’s the point for the residents on the Trump side.”
Pervis Jacobs, 65, grew up in Hindman, Kentucky. He’s a lifelong Democrat, but he’s voting for Trump. “I feel like I have no choice,” said Jacobs. “I just don’t like the Democrats’ policies anymore.”
Many Trump supporters criticize increasing government regulations, President Obama’s health care law and immigration.
Nick Patterson, joint operating officer of Honest Abe Log Homes and president of Barky Beaver Mulch in Clay County, Tennessee, said the companies used to employ about 500 people and now employ 130.
“I think one of the things that’s so key in this political conversation over the last couple years is our overhead per employee has increased drastically,” he said. “It has come from federal regulations.”
Patterson said China’s economic situation has hurt his small business because there’s not enough domestic business. Over 50 percent of his produced lumber will end up overseas.
Leslie Rossi, leader of a grassroots movement for Trump in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, said she was initially drawn to Trump because he said he would repeal Obamacare. Rossi, a landlord, painted one of her rental houses red, white and blue to support the GOP candidate.
“Obamacare didn’t work, and it’s just been a burden,” Rossi said. “People still don’t have health care, and the people that did are paying more than they’ve ever paid. It’s changed in such a worse direction.”
Rossi also said she believes immigrants take benefits that Americans, especially veterans, should be receiving. “How can you bring an immigrant in and give them free health care, and people that are American citizens that fought for us, you’re just not giving them the things they need,” Rossi said. “It’s sickening.”
Lawfully present immigrants in the U.S. are able to purchase health care, but undocumented immigrants are not eligible to purchase coverage unless they apply on behalf of documented individuals, according to HealthCare.gov.
Veterans are eligible for coverage through the Veterans Health Administration.
A News21 analysis found in 2014, just over 48 percent of white Americans thought the number of immigrants should be reduced, according to data from the General Social Survey. Only 13 percent of the same demographic believe the number of immigrants should be increased.
The survey also found in 2014, nearly 29 percent of white Americans think immigrants take jobs away, and roughly another 7 percent strongly agree.
Patterson said Trump is seen as a political outsider, especially to those who have felt ignored by typical politicians.
“When you get to the federal level, I think people do feel like they’ve not been listened to because you’ve seen policies being handed down that have not helped them,” he said. “I think some of the campaign promises that were made on that have simply not been true. And I think that affects people.”
Miller, the Mahoning County chairwoman for Trump, said Americans should forget politicians. Trump appeals to her because he’s a businessman, and Trump’s business background will create jobs and improve the economy.
“We need someone who understands business, can get things done, understands how the economy works (and) has employed people,” she said. “I think that’s my biggest beef with our regular politicians. … And I think Mr. Trump, he’s done it all.”
Scott, the former Democratic chairman in Clay County, Tennessee, said Republican candidates always talk about social issues such as immigration, gun control and gay rights, but the discussion this year seems louder than in past elections.
“(Trump’s) demeanor has brought a lot of these people out,” said Scott, who isn’t voting for Trump. “He’s made them vocal. He gives them courage.”
Miller said his supporters are seeking a definitive change, one they believe they will find in Trump.
“I think the generation like mine, we’ve seen it all. We’ve heard all the promises and we’ve just decided we’re done,” she said. “We just want a country that works, we want jobs, we want to protect our borders, we want to have a life for our children.”
Taylor Gilmore contributed to this report
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.