Election 2012: The Rust Belt

The mood in the Rust Belt -- a designation for states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan referencing their aging infrastructure and declining industry -- is one of resignation and worry. Ordinary voters repeatedly voice their dismay over the jobs market. Says Vince Lombardo, a high school teacher in Ohio: “It seems we’ve reached dead ends in so many fields and need a new approach.”

Doing field work for my next book on national elections, I recently toured the cities of Flint, Detroit, and Saginaw in Michigan, and Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown in Ohio. Along with western Pennsylvania, these cities were once the heart of American heavy industry (steel and autos). “De-industrialization" has since led to chronically high unemployment rates and a “land-that-time-forgot” landscape.

But whatever their current troubles, Pennsylvania and especially Michigan and Ohio may choose our next president. President Barack Obama will need to win at least two of these three states to retain the White House, as no Democrat has ever been elected president without substantial blue-collar support. Mitt Romney will need at least Ohio to win a majority in the Electoral College, as no Republican has ever been elected president without winning the Buckeye State. (Ohio was essential to George W. Bush’s one-state victories in 2000 and 2004).

In The Real Majority (1970), Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg argued that the “typical American voter was a 47-year-old machinist in Dayton.” That plant was probably closed long ago, but Ohio still contains lots of “typical” voters (now suburbanites) and ranks with Florida as one of the premier swing states.

According to union leaders I spoke with, over half of auto workers and nearly 75% of steelworkers have lost their jobs since the 1973 peak. Detroit once had over a dozen large auto factories, including the largest plant in the world -- Ford’s River Rouge employed roughly 40,000 people. River Rouge closed in 1983, and the Motor City now has only one major auto plant within the city limits. Youngstown had six large steel mills until the 1970s; they now have none operating.

As the local economies withered, social problems multiplied. Cleveland ranks as the fourth poorest big city in America, while Detroit topped the list in the 2010 Census. Flint and Detroit are the “most dangerous” cities in America.

As late as the 1970 Census, both Detroit (#5) and Cleveland (#10) ranked among the 10 most populous American cities. In the 2010 Census, Detroit had fallen to #18 and Cleveland to #45. Both cities have lost over half of their populations since their 1950 peaks -- and over 80% of their white, middle-class populations. Accordingly, they have become one-party Democratic strongholds. Back in the 1980s, Presidents Reagan and Bush could have carried Ohio and Michigan without winning a single vote in either Cleveland or Detroit.