Out of the thousands of counties in the United States only 206 hold a special distinction. These counties backed the winner of the last three Presidential elections. In other words, they backed Obama in his landslide win in 2008, stuck with him in 2012 and then switched allegiances in 2016 (note: this says nothing of how they voted in the last two midterms).
Despite casting only 7.5 million votes, a mere 5.5 percent of all votes cast in the election, many were located in crucial states. For example, 31 of these counties were located in Iowa. The Democratic popular vote margin declined by 2.1 million from 2012 to last year and more than half of that margin, 51 percent to be exact, is attributable to these counties. In other words, Trump won these 206 counties by a whopping million plus votes.
Unsurprisingly, many of these counties were located in the strongly Trump Midwest. Among the most notable were Racine County, WI, Trumbull County, OH and Dubuque County, IA.
What drove these voters to Trump from Obama, a candidate vastly different in temperament as well as style, has just begun to be studied. But, Obama and Trump both ran as populists against an establishment that was culturally disconnected from voters. For Obama, it was painting Romney as a heartless plutocrat. For Trump, it was painting Clinton as a cosmopolitan, elitist who had forgotten what average Americans cared about.
Obama/Trump voters were most numerous in the Midwest but not all these counties neatly fit that pattern. For example, fully half of all the counties in Maine were “pivot” counties that flipped to Trump. Several were located in blue states and a few even in purple Colorado and Virginia.
Despite the lack of clear data on why these voters flipped so significantly to Trump there is some evidence why they did. Part of it is historical electoral perspective, the candidates in the last few elections and the shifting socio-economic landscape.
Electorally, these voters never fit neatly into either party’s ideological camp. They closely resemble Reagan Democrats (in fact, Macomb County is one of these pivot counties). They supported Reagan in his two bids when the national Democratic Party drifted left, stuck with Bush in 88, and ran to Perot in 92. Indeed, many counties in Maine, Pennsylvania and the Midwest where Trump won big had large Perot vote shares.
Fast forward to 2000, after Bill Clinton, and Democrats again began to lose these voters. First, with Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. The one thing that kept them in the Democratic fold was the GOP’s focus, arguably insane, on adherence to free trade regardless of its impacts. In 2008 and 2012 Obama played on this dynamic to portray himself as their defender.
But, even as Obama was winning many voters in “pivot” counties the Democratic Party was being undone by socio-economic factors. Obama was fortunate to have run against a “old white guy” and a “heartless plutocrat” but many Democrats were not as lucky. The relentless leftward drift of the party by 2010 had cost them long-time support in the Midwest and the South. Such a drift contributed significantly to GOP gains in 2010 and 2014. While Obama was winning two elections, his party was being crushed down-ballot for the national party’s failures.
Such a dynamic was already in play as early as 2010. For an example, look no further than Ohio’s gubernatorial contest. Former Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland, who once represented coal country’s 6th Congressional District, was running for reelection against former Congressman and bank executive John Kasich. Kasich managed to win election despite being painted as a uncaring elitist (though by a narrow 2 percent). If local connections could not do it for Strickland then, it should have been clear Democrats were in deep, deep trouble.
Last year, Strickland ran for Senate in Ohio. He lost by over 20 points and did not even manage to carry his old Congressional District. In fact, he won only four counties in the entire state.
Obama’s victory in 2012 tended to obscure Democratic struggles with these kinds of voters. But, by 2014, and after, it should have been clear Democrats were losing these voters on cultural issues. The Midwest was getting redder as a result. Trump smartly exploited these issues in his campaign.
Trump obviously did not run as a conservative during the campaign. He recognized many of these voters were left of center on fiscal issues but alienated from the party on its incessant focus on cultural issues. Trump, thus, ran on defending entitlements, nonpartisan but popular issues such as defending the little guy, draining the swamp and protecting US interests overseas, and fully exploited Clinton’s tone deafness on many communities feeling like they had been left behind. This is causing Republicans to twist into contortions in Congress to gel their ideas for free markets and limited government with these more fiscally centrist voters who believe the government should provide healthcare and benefits for them.
As I recently noted, Democrats hopes to peel back many of these “pivot” county voters are a long shot. These voters support Trump and are giving him a wide leash. Despite their left leaning fiscal views, they don’t show much receptivity to supporting any Democrat. As a result, Democrats like Ted Strickland who should do well with these voters, instead find themselves casualties of their party’s failure to address its shortcomings.