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Election 2012: The Rust Belt

A side effect of economic decline is a “brain drain” of talented younger people leaving when they can’t find work. For example: Columbus, Ohio, has an economic base of state government, insurance, and banking; Chris Mahler, a successful small businessman in the health care field, joked that “Columbus is now also the capital of Youngstown and Pittsburgh.”

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have all lost electoral votes to the Sun Belt since the 1980 Census: Pennsylvania and Ohio each lost seven and Michigan lost five.

Detroit, Cleveland, Dayton, Flint, and Youngstown have struggled the most with de-industrialization. Both Detroit and Flint were placed under financial “receivership” by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Toledo is surviving because the Jeep plant is producing a popular vehicle, and the city is also a major shipping port for Midwestern agricultural products. Akron has had modest success in transitioning to medical services.

“Our city, like many cities, is going through tough times, no doubt about it,” said a county clerk in Flint, Michigan. A receptionist in the Akron Board of Elections who still lives in the working class Goodyear Heights neighborhood says that she “misses the smell of rubber and soot in the air” from the tire factories that have closed since the 1970s.

People are definitely unhappy with the state of the nation, especially the economy, but most Democrats are not (yet) blaming President Obama.

These Rust Belt cities are highly Democratic areas. They voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 even as he was losing 49 states to President Reagan. If Obama is in trouble here, he would be in danger of losing 50 states. Very few white Democrats and virtually no minority Democrats that I have interviewed are currently defecting from the president -- the key question will be their level of enthusiasm and turnout. Obama inspired a record-breaking vote in 2008, when black turnout equaled white turnout for the first time, narrowly carrying Ohio and comfortably winning Pennsylvania and Michigan. But Democrats were demoralized and stayed home in 2010, while Republican voters came out enthusiastically. As a result, the GOP swept all three states.