Trump v Clinton? Even state that always calls it right can’t decide for US Presidential election
In Youngstown, Ohio, which has backed the winning candidate in 28 of the last 30 presidential elections, Peter Geoghegan visits a community where the American dream lies in tatters... and finds little consensus on who should lead the nation.
If the 2016 presidential election was settled on road signs, there would only be one winner in rural America. In farming country an hour south of Cleveland, someone has daubed five letters in bright red paint on the side of their house: Trump. On an escarpment in western Pennsylvania, a massive billboard of Hillary Clinton sports a gigantic Pinocchio nose. Beside a soulless strip mall a few miles south of Youngstown, Ohio, a homemade placard is tied to a lamppost: ‘Save America — Vote Trump’. Youngstown is exactly the kind of place that the Republican nominee’s scorched-earth rhetoric seems to be chiming with voters.
Youngstown was once a relatively affluent blue-collar city. The steel mills that stretched for 25 uninterrupted miles along the banks of the Mahoning River employed tens of thousands. The blast furnaces ran 24 hours a day, filling the sky with charcoal-coloured smoke and the pervasive smell of sulphur. There was even a branch of Macy’s department store among the grand early-20th century buildings downtown.
These days the sky around Youngstown is clear blue. The clang of metal and the hiss of steam has disappeared. The steel industry collapsed in the Seventies. Like the work, the people have left. The population of Youngstown plummeted from around 140,000 in 1970 to less than 65,000 today. Bruce Springsteen even wrote a dolorous lament to the town’s post-industrial plight.
Traditionally, Youngstown’s white working classes were rock-solid Democrats. Now many are switching over to Donald Trump. The Republican nominee’s protectionist message is playing well across the American ‘Rust Belt’, not least in Ohio. This could augur well for Trump: Ohio has backed the winning candidate in 28 of the last 30 contests.
“Trump is the only option that’s not the political establishment,” says Justin Summer, a 22-year-old barman in O’Donold’s Irish bar. “Neither the Democrats or the Republicans have done anything for us. If he gets in, he’ll shake things up. We just want to see someone who will do something for us.”
In Trump, Summer sees echoes of another controversial populist: James A Traficant Jr.
He was a Youngstown Democratic congressman — until his expulsion from Congress in 2002 after a bribery conviction. He died in 2014 after a tractor fell on him. Traficant “was a crook but he was doing it for the people. A lot of people see Trump like that,” says Summer.
Retired insurance salesman Tom Burnbrier is voting Trump, too. “We need a change. The Democratic party has run Youngstown for years, and it has done nothing but get worse,” the 75-year-old says.
Youngstown is showing some signs of recovery from the Great Recession. The unemployment rate, which peaked at nearly 17% in January 2010, stood at 7.6% in June. A new business incubator recently opened. But these green shoots cannot cover up Youngstown’s problems. On once-bustling Federal Street most of the units are either vacant or house liquor stores and bail bondsmen. Entire city blocks lie empty.
For many the American Dream — that hard work alone suffices — has disappeared along with the steel industry. For the poorest fifth of the US, real wages have not increased since the Nixon era. The disenfranchised white working class is a key constituency for Trump. That the unexpected hit on the US book charts this election summer has been a personal account of growing up poor and white in Appalachia is no coincidence.
JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy charts a community — the Ulster Scots — that have struggled to adapt to a changing America. While life-expectancy for middle-aged African-Americans and Hispanics is rising, whites in their 40s and 50s are dying younger of suicide, liver disease and drug overdoses.
The well-paying industrial jobs of the past are gone. In places like Youngstown, levels of education — the only effective route to advancement post-globalisation — are below the US average. The result among many whites is frustration, anger and a sense that the system has failed them.
“Middle-class America is fed up. The rich just get richer. The poor are getting their welfare cheques. What are the middle classes getting?” says Carolyn Givens.
Although a registered Republican — she supported Ohio governor John Kasich in the primaries — Givens will not be voting for Trump. One reason is she believes that the reality TV star has no solution for the biggest crisis facing her community — not jobs, but drugs.
Youngstown — and particularly its more salubrious suburbs — is in the midst of a heroin epidemic that is ravaging much of Ohio and the Midwest. In one recent weekend, 11 overdoses were reported in a single district of Mahoning county.
Heroin came quietly. It began almost innocuously in the late-1990s and early-2000s when pharmaceutical companies began promoting new, opiate-based medication for pain relief. The drugs were marketed as non-addictive. The reality was very different.
“We saw a lot of kids who had been hurt playing sport, who got a prescription and said ‘this feels good’, so they started sharing it with their friends. Then they were hooked,” explains Brenda Heidinger, associate director of Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.
‘Pain management clinics’ started opening up in the centre of Youngstown, doling out medication with minimal oversight. Ohio’s state government has started clamping down on the ‘pill mills’, but it’s too late. Many users have already started turning to heroin.
Where opiates can retail at $100 a pill on the streets, a bag of smack is as little as five bucks. Often it comes laced with fentanyl, a powerful tranquilliser implicated in many recent deaths. Cable television is peppered with commercials for addiction services. Everybody seems to know someone who is a user.
“People are still reluctant to admit that this is happening, but we need to face up to the scale of this,” says Pamela Ramsey from the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic in Youngstown. Each week around 650 people attend the centre’s Alcoholics Anonymous-style clinics.
Ramsey takes me to a residential clinic on the outskirts of Youngstown.
At the end of a tree-lined street pockmarked with boarded-up houses, a dozen or so patients are huddled outside smoking. Most wear hoodies pulled tight around their faces, but it’s clear that the majority are in their 20s, white and well dressed. This is not the usual picture of urban drug abuse.
“When I started 19 years ago, the average person was 35 years old and on crack,” says Judge Jack Durkin who administers Youngstown’s drug court. “Now the average age is 23 and they’re addicted to opiates or heroin.”
Judge Durkin is a registered Democrat but he says he understands some of Trump’s appeal in Youngstown. “The middle class have lost hope in government as usual,” he says over lunch in one of city’s many Italian restaurants. In the 70s and 80s, Youngstown was the scene of frequent violent clashes between rival Mafia outfits.
“There is a proportion of undecided voters who traditionally would have voted Democrat but who are now considering voting Republican, because of Donald Trump.”
As across the United States, racial undercurrents bubble just below the surface in Youngstown. Downtown is predominantly black. In the overwhelmingly white suburbs there is little love for Obama. Complaints about environmental regulation destroying the steel industry might be genuine, but often they come tinged with a sense that the current president is “not like us”.
Earlier in the summer, Trump campaign chair in Mahoning County, Kathy Miller, was filmed telling a journalist that she didn’t think “there was any racism until Obama got election”. The video went viral. Miller was forced to resign.
Taxi driver Ronnie says that Trump “is clearly a racist”. After four decades working in the steel mills, the African-American now drives an Uber cab. He will be voting Clinton: “The union is backing her, and that’s good enough for me.”
Trump’s avowedly white nationalist election strategy is at odds with the reality of modern America. There are some 42 million foreign-born people in the US, and many more identify as minorities. Proposals to build a wall with Mexico and ban Muslim immigration may have heads nodding in agreement in Youngstown taverns, but they help to explain why Trump is polling at barely 1% among African-Americans.
Clinton has courted minority votes — and with good reason — but travelling across the Midwest, the enthusiasm gap between the two candidates is palpable. Put simply, Trump voters are generally more full-blooded in their support. That’s backed up by recent polling, too.
Another potential problem for Clinton is young voters. “I wouldn’t vote for Trump. He’s an idiot,” says Tyler, who works in one of the few cafes in downtown Youngstown. Nevertheless, she is not planning to cast a ballot for Hillary. “I don’t think I’ll vote,” the 22-year-old says.
Across the street in O’Donold’s Irish bar, Adam Brite is finishing a lunch of fried fish. The 28-year-old voted for Obama in 2012, but will be staying at home on Tuesday. “I’m so disillusioned with the whole thing. I don’t like Trump but I can’t bring myself to vote for Hillary.”
Driving south of Youngstown, through rural Ohio, the landscape changes. The only rust is in the colour of the leaves. Rich, verdant fields of corn open up as far as the eye can see. But the same Trump signs recur. For every Clinton placard proudly displayed in a neatly mown lawn, there are dozens backing the Republican.
‘Make America Great Again’. That, of course, begs a question — why in these rich farmlands do people feel that their country has lost its way? Again, the question of race seems to permeate below the surface. White lips curl when they speak of Obama. Many are buying guns for fear of a clampdown on firearms by a president Hillary. “Clinton is great for gun sales,” a barman tells me in Ashland, a town in rural Ohio.
A thrice-married adulterer might not seem like an obvious conservative standard bearer, but polls suggest that most Republicans will go out and vote for Trump.
In an upmarket suburb of Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold, Tony, a retired banker, told me that Clinton wants to introduce abortion at full term. “They rip the head off as it is coming out. They puncture the back of the head and chuck out the brain,” he said solemnly as he sat outside a Whole Foods Market. He is backing Trump.
The recent announcement that the FBI will launch a probe into emails that include Clinton’s has opened up questions about her probity, even among her own supporters. Trump — remarkably for a man with multiple bankruptcies and business links to Russia — has successfully linked Clinton and corruption in the public imagination. Polls have narrowed in recent weeks.
But the abiding sense in much of suburban America is that many voters have little time for either candidate, and for the wider political process.
“These are the choices we have?” Melissa Rush, a middle-aged Cleveland housewife, tells me. “I’m not voting for either one.”
In 2016, America is arguably more divided than at anytime since the Civil War. “It has just got worse and worse over the last 15 years,” says Stephan Ohl, a father-of-two who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, another state Trump will almost certainly need to turn red if he is to take the White House. “You can tell someone that the sky is blue and they will tell you it’s grey.”
Ohl is voting for Clinton, but sees little prospect of post-election reconciliation: “Whatever the outcome is going to be, it’s not going to be good. This division will not just disappear.”
In this most unpredictable of election years, that seems to be the only thing that can be said with certainty about Tuesday’s result.
On this side of the pond
Kerry McKittrick talks to United States citizens living in Northern Ireland about the voting choices they’ve made
Padraig Sloan (35), a production assistant from New Jersey, lives in Belfast with wife Maura and daughter Tierna (1). He says:
I’ve been in Northern Ireland since 2007 apart from a two-year break in the middle of that period. I do keep up to speed with American politics and I’ve used my absentee ballot. This year I voted for Donald Trump because I would like to see someone in the White House who isn’t a career politician. America needs a shake-up. Most of the politicians have been there for 30 years and they don’t really do much. They will sit in Congress and the Senate just drawing a salary so it will be good to have someone to keep them on their toes.
I wasn’t always going to vote for Trump, but I really don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s in the pocket of big business. If Bernie Sanders had got the democratic nomination I think I might have voted for him over anyone. I think his own party stole the nomination from him.”
Brittany Breslin (27), a PR account manager from Pennsylvania, lives in Belfast with husband Richard. She says:
I’ve been coming to Northern Ireland on and off for about 10 years but I finally made a permanent move over here to do my Masters degree six years ago. I lived in Washington DC before I came here so because of that I’m a bit more inclined to pay attention to what’s going on. Also, I still have to pay taxes as an American citizen and that makes you take more notice of what is happening back home. I have the right to either go home and vote in my home state or send in an absentee ballot. I’ve voted for Hillary Clinton this time round.
I was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders but he lost the primary so I’m a begrudging voter of Hillary. At the end of the day, though, I can appreciate that she had the experience over Sanders. It’s not that I question her qualifications for the role, it’s just that there are a few policy issues I don’t line up with her on.
I don’t think anything could persuade me to vote for Donald Trump at this stage. In fact, I’ve only been half-joking when I’ve told my husband that if he’s elected I might not go home for the duration of his presidency.
What’s been a real sticking point for me has been friends and family members coming out in support of Trump in spite of all the scandals and the ridiculous things he says. Elections can get quite heated but then everybody makes up afterwards, yet I don’t see how that will happen after this one. I’ve had family members telling me I must be mad to have voted for Hillary.
I think people in the States have become disillusioned with the whole system which isn’t flexible because of the way the constitution was written. A lot of it is about class and money, it’s not about the issues any more. They see Trump as coming from the outside and not wrapped up in this political system. But to me that’s a scary thing — I wouldn’t let an unqualified dentist work on my mouth so why would I let Donald Trump run my country?”
Jenn Clark (37), from Maryland, lives in Rostrevor and runs the evangelical youth group YWAM with husband John. They have three boys, JJ (10), Ridley (8) and Callum (6). She says:
I’ve lived in Northern Ireland for 15 years now. I met my husband doing a reconciliation and peace-building course here.
I pay a great deal of attention to US politics and although my husband isn’t American he follows what is going on in the States even more closely than I do. I have already sent in an absentee ballot — I’m a registered Democrat in Maryland and I have already voted for Hillary.
At the start I thought Trump running for president was funny, but about six months ago I started getting concerned as he kept winning. Now, I find the concept that he could be elected president thoroughly shocking. Whether or not he wins on Tuesday I’m very disappointed that he made it this far. I don’t understand what’s happening to my friends and family that they would support someone who is racist, a bully, sexist and with zero political experience. He’s in the position that he’s in because he plays to people’s fears and I think it’s sad.
One thing is that I’m a person of faith and I look at other people of faith who are supporting him and find that the most troubling.
I think if you’re an American living abroad for any length of time then that will open your mind to the things that Trump is saying — I know that not all Mexicans are drug dealers because I’ve been to Mexico and have Mexican friends.
Trump is the voice of the worried and the under-educated.”
Margaret Kisner (30), from Colorado, lives in Belfast with her partner Jonathan and works as a compliance officer. She says:
I studied in Scotland for a year in 2006 and met my partner, Jonathan, in halls of residency. I came to Northern Ireland to be with him and have been here ever since.
My degree was in political science so I try to keep an eye on what’s happening in Colorado and what’s happening on a national level. I have voted for Hillary Clinton in this election. I’ve been a registered Democrat since I was old enough to vote so it wasn’t a hard choice for me. I’d never vote for a Republican candidate but seeing a woman running for office and one with so much experience excites me. I have a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton — she’s intelligent and liberating.
There have been scandals in both camps so that doesn’t concern me, and what has happened in the Clintons’ marriage is for Hillary to deal with. On the other hand, however, Donald, is facing a number of assault claims. To my mind, there’s a big difference between that and infidelity.
I would be gutted if Trump won. He doesn’t have a positive message and his plans for when he is in office are really unclear. We can enjoy him in a farcical way as a candidate but if he actually won it would be awful. It wouldn’t be a good image for the country I come from.”
Scott Sotomayor (21), from California, is a training leader for an ecumenical organisation and lives in Rostrevor. He says:
I came over here for three months in 2013, then I returned in 2014 and I’ve stayed ever since. I pay a lot of attention to politics in the US.
This time round I have decided not to vote — I’m not being passive, I just can’t bring myself to choose a lesser of two evils.
On the one side you have a man who exhibits none of the values that I think the US needs if we want to move forward as a country.
Trump doesn’t embrace different cultures — the culture in Harlem is every bit as American as the culture of the farmers in Missouri. The way he views foreign affairs is not the way I want us to be represented as a country.
And Hillary seems to have been bought out by big business and big banks. I also hate war and Hillary seems to be an aggressor. Still even if we have a bad president, I can get up in the morning and lead my life to the fullest because I have faith in people over politics.”
Tammy Pinnella (47), a teacher from Florida, lives in Belfast. She says:
The email issue is the biggest thing for me, as far as Hillary goes. It worries me. I think it’s not such a big deal if you just say, ‘Oh, she erased some emails’. But then she lied about erasing the emails and then she came up with dumb excuses for erasing the emails.
To me, that’s national security and if you’re going to do that when you’re Secretary of State, what are you going to do if you’re President?
As for Trump, yes, he definitely goes off the rails, but I think business-wise, strategy-wise, he’d be a good president, because, really, the president is just a figurehead; they just micro-manage everybody else. I think his cabinet’s going to be strong enough.
If the sexual assault allegations had come out six months ago, I think it would have weighed more than coming out this close to election day, because they could have come forward at any point. If they had come forward six months ago, I think it would have been stronger than a week before the election, when there’s no time to prove whether it happened, or it didn’t happen.
Trump is definitely not president-worthy in my eyes, but I think he’s the better of the two. You want somebody that represents the United States to be dignified. And I just don’t think either one of them really is. Here we are. We’re America, a world power, and people look at America and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what you pick?’
So, it’s very disheartening, as an American. It’s just a mess.”
Jenny Holland (40), from New York, runs food company Bia Rebel in Belfast where she lives with partner Brian and her son Daniel (7) from a previous relationship. She says:
I lived in Northern Ireland for three years as a teenager and then I moved back here with my son three years ago. I’ve been following the run-up to the election obsessively — I voted for Obama the first time but didn’t bother the second time because I thought it would be fine. I really made a point of getting my absentee ballot for this election and I mailed it on Monday. I voted for Hillary Clinton, who is one of the most experienced people ever to run for the presidency as she was a senator and secretary of state.
I don’t know what to say about Trump — it’s scary that he’s come so far. I know that there’s a lot of disenchantment out there and I understand why but he’s completely unqualified for the job. I can’t begin to image what would happen if he was elected.
He is the most appalling candidate I could imagine — I remember being horrified at the idea of George W Bush and now I would take him over Donald Trump any day. I think what bothers me most is Trump’s laziness. He can’t form coherent sentences and doesn’t seem to have read a policy paper in his life. He has no clue or curiosity about the world and doesn’t seem to think that’s a problem.”
Additional reporting: Ann W Schmidt