Reviving Rust Belt city in Ohio not convinced by Donald Trump's message



The USA TODAY Network is spending time in eight counties in eight states, exploring the key electoral themes that could decide this fall’s election. Each week from now until the election, we will feature a different one. The series has so far looked at Waukesha County in WisconsinChester County in PennsylvaniaWayne County in MichiganMaricopa County​ in ArizonaUnion County in Iowa and Larimer County in Colorado. Today: Clark County in Ohio. 

Introduction

A swing county in the quintessential swing state

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — With just weeks left until Election Day, Kevin Doane remains undecided. Mostly.

“I’ll be honest with you. When it comes time, I probably won’t know until the end,” said the 63-year-old owner of a title company in this small Rust Belt city.

Doane grew up a Democrat but became a reliably Republican voter. This year, that streak may end.

“I know one thing: I won’t vote for Donald Trump,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

This is what passes for certainty in Clark County, where Springfield is the county seat and largest town. It’s a swing county in the quintessential swing state. In 2012, Clark County supported GOP candidate Mitt Romney, but by only 523 votes out of 64,301 cast for president.

Its purple-county status isn’t the only reason Clark County matters this year, either. For Trump to win the election, he must steal away blue-collar Democrats from Hillary Clinton — people who, like Clark County’s residents, generally are whiter, poorer and less educated than Ohio as a whole.

Ohio has a larger share of white residents without college degrees than nearly any other swing state. That’s why it has remained close or leaned a few points toward Trump while Clinton pulls ahead in other states.

In Clark County, it’s clear not all of these blue-collar voters are sold on Trump. His protectionist promises and rhetoric about job-stealing immigrants resonate with some of the county’s fence-sitters. But many others are turned off by his inability to campaign with discipline and stay on point on the topics they care about.

And despite what the stats — and Trump — may say, others just don’t feel the desperation he describes.

Even five years ago, beleaguered Clark County might have been more interested in Trump’s message, said Michael McDorman, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and a Springfield native with deep family ties to the manufacturing industry.

But now, the county is clawing its way out of its economic hole, diversifying with new service-sector jobs and rejuvenating its downtown. Even manufacturing is hiring again, bringing back blue-collar jobs.

“We’re starting to see a change in Springfield. We’re starting to see people believe in themselves again,” he said. “We’re starting to see us move forward and take some risk in order to move forward.”

The latest installment of USA TODAY Network’s “The Deciders: 8 Counties that Count in 2016” series looks at blue-collar voters in Springfield, Ohio.

‘That’s the path folks wish for’

As manufacturing declines, county’s residents suffer

Seven years ago, Cheri Crothers returned with her husband to Springfield, her childhood home. She found a city transformed, but not for the better. She reels off a list of manufacturers that disappeared.

“We were driving through Springfield, and there was closed-up Robbins & Myers; William Bailey’s gone, SPECO’s gone,” said Crothers, a Democrat. “A lot of these manufacturers that I remember as a child growing up here, that were so active, were not here anymore.”

Clark is similar to many counties in the country’s industrial heartland, where farmers worked the fields outside small cities crowned with factories. Its residents are proud of the plethora of churches in this conservative, blue-collar place, with a tradition of electing moderates of both parties.

For generations, Springfield was the archetype of a small Midwest industrial city. It made things and was proud of it. It offered good jobs to workers who didn’t have to go to college for stable employment at companies like International Harvester Co., at one time the county’s largest employer with 7,000 workers.

“The tradition was in the good old days, they didn’t go on to college — they went on to International,” said Warren Copeland. He is the longtime mayor of Springfield, professor of religion and urban studies at Wittenberg College and a veteran student of the area’s history, population and economy.

International, later renamed Navistar, once made farm equipment and later trucks. Its union workers voted reliably Democrat.

But by 2010, the company employed only a few hundred, and it was feared the plant would close. It didn’t and managed to add jobs in subsequent years. By the end of the year, it will likely employ 1,800 to 2,000 workers — a welcome change but a far cry from the old days.

While Clark County’s population has slowly declined since its peak in 1971, Springfield has held fairly steady since 2010 at about 60,000 residents, half the county’s population.

Copeland, the mayor, grew up in “John Deere country” as he calls it — Northwest Illinois, home to the powerhouse agricultural implement manufacturer. Much like Clark County, the people he knows from high school went straight to work at John Deere, good jobs they held their whole lives.

“When I go back to reunions there, they’re retired and they have pretty good retirement and they’ve had a pretty good middle-class life,” he said. “That’s the path folks wish for.”

It’s a path that, for many, no longer exists in Clark County.

‘Because of NAFTA’

Anger over free trade simmers years later

When Kyle Koehler talks about the late 1990s, the anger is fresh in his voice.

He owns the tool and die company K.K. Tool Co. in Springfield and represents Clark County as a Republican in the Ohio House.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, became law in 1994 and was hailed by both Republicans and Democrats as a tool to eliminate barriers to trade and investment between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

In Springfield, NAFTA is still a dirty word. While other factors lured away jobs and sometimes shut down entire factories, NAFTA bears some of the blame — and gets plenty of it.

Before NAFTA, Koehler recalled, you could walk into a home improvement store and pick up steel wool made by International Steel Wool and see “Springfield, Ohio” on the back.

“Because of NAFTA, that company packed up, went to Mexico and in a year folded and was gone,” he said. “It was a good, vital company that was in Springfield that provided jobs, and not only was it no longer in Springfield, it no longer existed.”

The company shut down in 2002 and reopened in 2010, but it never returned to Springfield.

The post-NAFTA job losses felt fatal to an economy centered on manufacturing. In 2000, 30% of the county’s gross domestic product, or GDP, came from manufacturing. In 2014, only 17% did.

Now, only two manufacturers — Navistar and Honda — break the top 10 private employers in Clark County, a list historically dominated by manufacturing. The county’s top private employers are now the local health care system, Community Mercy Health Partners, and a call center for insurance company Assurant Specialty Property, according to the chamber of commerce.

For McDorman, the chamber president, the last 15 years have been the aftermath of job losses that peaked at the turn of the century.

“We really hit rock bottom in 1999 or 2000,” he said.

But the aftershocks continued, even as Springfield began to chart a new path forward.

The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs gut-punched the area’s middle class. In 2001, only one in five of the county’s population earned lower-tier incomes. By 2014, a third of the population did, according to a Pew report released early this year. Median household income fell more than a quarter in 15 years, to $53,957 in 2014, according to a Pew analysis of U.S. Census data.

Doane, the title company owner, said he can’t bring himself to vote for Trump but understands why the candidate’s message might resonate with some voters.

“There’s a lot of unhappy people, and they’re just really unhappy with the system. And I think they think Trump is an answer,” he said.

Springfield’s economy is changing, and its emerging future bears little resemblance to Trump’s statements about a revival of manufacturing.

Speedway, the convenience store chain, is expanding its headquarters in Clark County, adding 450 jobs. EF Hutton, a financial services provider, opened its doors in late September and plans to hire more than 400. McDorman said a medical supply company is planning to relocate to downtown Springfield with 300-plus jobs.

Even manufacturing isn’t disappearing entirely. Koehler said his business is expanding and taking back work from China.

“Our heart and blood is manufacturing, but with people like EF Hutton coming to town, bringing white collar jobs, professional jobs, that’s important,” said Koehler, the state representative. “We’ve sort of diversified over the years.”

Manufacturing is still a thing. It’s just not the only thing.

‘Interesting debates’

Union workers remain a political force

Lynda Smith, the Republican Party chairwoman for Clark County, says “a lot” of Democrats are coming in to ask about switching to Trump. She doesn’t ask many questions.

“I just accept it and tell them ‘thank you,’ give them a sign and go from there,” Smith said.

Rep. Koehler, who is running for re-election, said he studied primary election results from March and identified 3,000 voters in the county who formerly voted Democrat but voted Republican in the primary. Those are prime targets for his campaign, regardless of whether they voted for Trump or against him by backing other Republican candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“I’m going to assume they’re voting for Trump because I can’t believe that for the first time they were going to vote for John Kasich for president,” Koehler said.

But Koehler wouldn’t say what he is hearing when he talks to party switching voters. Clark County backed Kasich for governor by a 2-to-1 margin in 2014 and favored Kasich over Trump by about 3 percentage points in the presidential primary.

Union workers, who generally vote overwhelmingly Democrat, remain a political force in Clark County. Jason Barlow, president of the United Auto Workers Local 402, which represents local workers at Navistar, said internal polling has shown some GOP union members are considering Clinton, while some Democratic members are considering Trump. On the whole, he said, the 1,200-member union is likely to break down along party lines as it has in the past. And the 4,300 union retirees might lean more toward Trump than usual.

“This election here, it’s been an anomaly,” he said. “Our membership has had … interesting debates, let’s just say that.”

The shift in Clark County’s economy means the blue-collar union bloc may not matter as much as it once did. The largest voting bloc in the county, according to GOP chairwoman Smith, is undecided voters.

It’s not hard to find them in Springfield.

Anne Robinette, 50, is a registered Republican. But this election, she’s in the undecided column.

“Hillary has too much baggage following her, and Donald Trump is too much of a reality TV show,” said Robinette, a collections manager. “He makes some good points but then he opens up his mouth again and all those good points go out the window, and I’m afraid he’s going to get us in serious trouble with his attitude.”

Once she enters the voting booth, how will she decide?

“It may sound cliche, but it’s a lot of prayers,” she said. “Hoping you get the answer that way.”

Also politically important in Springfield is the African-American community, which makes up about 18% of the population. Their numbers may be relatively small, but they are votes Clinton can count on.

Just ask the Chiltons, who were sitting on their porch on Springfield’s south side on a recent day. Springfield Assistant Mayor Joyce Chilton and her husband Paul, a retired 30-year employee of Navistar, recount how well African Americans in Springfield turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

This election, the stakes are just as clear, she said.

She recalls Trump’s central line in his attempts to attract African-American support: “What do you have to lose?”

“What do we have to lose?” she said. “One word: everything.”

‘Both sides of the fence’

Brothers seek help from Trump, but don’t support him

Under a baking sun on a busy Springfield street corner on a recent day, the Jarrell brothers hold signs. One calls for Obama to end the “VA cover-up,” referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The other reads, “Trump support our vets,” presumably missing a comma after “Trump.”

The brothers, both in their 60s, lost their jobs at a kitchen equipment manufacturer in February. They think Trump is the one who can help Steve, the younger brother, get veterans benefits for a nagging injury from Army basic training decades ago. Social Security isn’t covering all their bills. They’re worried they might end up on the street.

The brothers look for all the world like Trump supporters. But looks can be deceiving.

A passing driver lays on the horn, extending a supportive fist through his sunroof. Richard, the older brother, throws out a thumbs-up in reply.

“F**k Trump,” yells a passenger in a car stopped at the intersection. Richard throws him a thumbs down, while nodding his head in agreement. The passenger looks confused.

“I don’t have to support Trump to ask him to help us,” Richard said, by way of explanation.

Neither brother plans to vote for Trump. They’re lifelong Democrats, although they say that hasn’t done anything to get help for Steve.

Maybe, just maybe, the loudest presidential candidate on social media can draw attention to their plight.

“Understand,” Richard said, “you’ve got to play both sides of the fence sometimes.”

About this series

The Deciders: 8 counties that count in 2016

To report this series, the USA TODAY Network identified eight counties around the country that represent key voting groups in the November election, from blue-collar and college-educated voters to rural voters and Latinos. Journalists spent time with voters, political observers and experts in these eight counties — blue, red and purple — talking about the presidential candidates, the issues and the importance of this year’s election.

• Week 1: GOP “base” voters in Waukesha County, Wis.

• Week 2: White, college-educated voters in Chester County, Pa.

• Week 3: African-American voters in Wayne County, Mich.

• Week 4: Latino voters in Maricopa County, Ariz.

• Week 5: Rural voters in Union County, Iowa

• Week 6: Millennial voters in Larimer County, Colo.

• Week 7: Blue-collar voters in Clark County, Ohio

Next week, look for our coverage of Hillsborough County, Fla.



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