Rust Belt voters on Trump: ‘I’d vote for him again in a heartbeat’

JEFFERSON, Ohio — Bonnie Smith no longer sets her alarm for 1:45 a.m. so she could head into town to make her heavenly pastries, cookies and cakes. It’s the only thing she doesn’t miss about her bakery, which she had to close last June.

“My eyesight was failing. I just couldn’t do it anymore, or at least until the doctors could figure out what was going on,” said Smith, who hopes that eye surgery will allow her to bake professionally in her home kitchen sometime next month.

While Smith’s personal life has suffered a setback since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, her support for the first Republican president she ever voted for hasn’t budged an inch. If anything, she says her loyalty to Trump has increased since the Election Day result that seemed to take everyone by surprise — except people like her.

Smith says she was born into the Democratic Party and voted for Barack Obama twice. For the 2016 Ohio primary, she said she even voted for Bernie Sanders to be the party’s nominee. But when it came time to pick a president, she voted with her neighbors in Ashtabula County, helping it swing from a 12-point victory for Barack Obama in 2012 to a 19-point win for Trump.

Smith is among the scores of people I interviewed in 2016 for my book, “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics,” along with my co-writer Brad Todd. In it, we examined the unique coalition of voters who helped sweep Trump into office.

Broken down into seven archetypes across 10 pivotal counties, the book pinpointed both lifelong traditional Republicans, who should have broken ranks with their party because of Trump’s brash style but ultimately did not, and Democrats who felt disconnected from their party or its nominee Hillary Clinton and instead sided with the billionaire from New York.

Conservative ideology alone did not unite this coalition. What did was conservatism fused with a populist distrust of big institutions including the media, DC politicians, Hollywood and corporations, all based in ZIP codes far removed from the people they supposedly serve.

Three years later, all 24 of the people we interviewed for “The Great Revolt” (except two we’ve been unable to reach) told us they have not wavered in their political allegiances.

“It is 2016 all over again,” wrote Walter, and she’s not wrong. In many ways, our political climate is like the movie “Groundhog Day” — every day. If you woke up after Trump’s election feeling optimistic about the future, you likely still do. And if you didn’t, your hair is probably still on fire and nothing will extinguish it until the president is removed from the White House.

“If you live and work in Washington, New York or the West Coast, you don’t know anyone like me,” said Smith, who was one of many voters my co-writer and I referred to as “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

“You certainly don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

Watching the impeachment hearings, Trump haters believe his presidency is over, Smith added. But as she watches the hearings to stay informed, she said she sees it all “in a very different light.”

“To me, since the day of his inauguration his opponents have been trying to angle for impeachment,” Smith said. “They were sore they lost and have never gotten over it.”

For the paperback edition of “The Great Revolt,” out this month, my co-writer and I returned to the Great Lakes states and asked people how they view the president today. During his whirlwind presidency, which was first dogged by a probe into Russian collusion and now an impeachment inquiry, Trump has appointed two Supreme Court justices, passed a tax cut, pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, put trade pressure on China and pushed for a border wall, all the while losing the GOP’s majority in the House of Representatives.

It’s a mixed bag that his Rust Belt voters mostly support, though they have their misgivings.

“I like his policies,” said Michael Martin, who lives in a suburb of Erie, Pennsylvania. When it comes to actual results, Trump “has turned out to be a traditional conservative Republican.”

But, Martin added, “I’d just like to take that darn phone away from him.”

Among those who voted for Trump, the president’s brash use of Twitter is their most common complaint.

If you live and work in Washington, New York or the West Coast, you don’t know anyone like me.

If Martin lived in an affluent suburb in Northern Virginia or Philadelphia, he would likely be one of the thousands who have fled the Republican Party because of Trump’s rough talk. This revulsion has cost the GOP majorities in the House of Representatives as well as state legislative bodies and gubernatorial races across the country.

But Martin, a self-made businessman and longterm Republican who serves on four civic boards, has a different perspective. With a nice home in a tidy neighborhood and three grown daughters, he has spent his life surrounded by friends and neighbors with more varied educational backgrounds — traits that led us to dub him a “Rotary Reliable.”

According to post-election polls, college grads living in areas where people have an above-average education broke sharply against Trump, while college graduates living in communities with below-average education supported him. In short, not all suburban voters are equal.

The suburbs around Erie, home of the state’s poorest ZIP code, are less educated than most. Though the county had not turned red for a presidential candidate since Reagan and had even supported Obama by 58 percent in 2012, it handed Trump a surprising two-percentage-point win over Clinton.

In 2020, Trump will likely get routed again in the suburbs of Chicago and Los Angeles, but the suburbs surrounding more working-class cities like Erie and Detroit are the ones that will decide his fate.

Martin won’t face social ostracism if he tells his neighbors he voted for Trump. So he has no problem saying Trump will get his vote next year.

“The Democratic Party to date hasn’t put anyone up there that would pull me away,” he said.

Cindy Hutchins, 58, is a lifelong Michigan Democrat who flipped her party allegiance from Democrat to Republican in 2016. She fell into our “Rough Rebounder” archetype — someone who has struggled in life personally and professionally but found a way to persevere despite the circumstances.

This archetype defied traditional categorization because its members did not come to Trump via a shared political affinity, but rather a shared perspective: Like him, they had not only beaten the odds, they had shaken up the system along the way. Trump needed this kind of enthusiasm from unconventional, non-ideological independents to help him break the “blue wall” in the Great Lakes states. And he will need them again if he is to carry the Rust Belt in 2020.

Hutchins’ family problems began when her husband was injured in a work-related accident, leaving them to live off of her then-sole paycheck as a health-care aide. Hutchins, who said she always considered herself “entrepreneur-y,” started peddling purses for extra cash at the break room in the hospital where she worked, which led to her selling them at a corner of Baldwin, Mich., on the weekends and holidays. Today, the Army veteran is poised to earn a BS in nursing, and now owns a variety store just steps from where she once stood outdoors selling just a table full of purses. She is more than happy with the presidency of Donald Trump. In fact, she is thrilled.

“I’d vote for him again in a heartbeat,” she says from her home in bucolic Lake County, Michigan, which was once one of the most reliably blue counties in Northern Michigan until 2016. It’s one of the few places in America so Democratic it supported landslide loser George McGovern in 1972. And yet Trump took that county by 59 percent.

Hutchins says she likes that Trump is a businessman, and even the turmoil that surrounds his administration reinforces her affection for him. She is pleased that he is not beholden to either political party and that he breaks things in the china shop that probably needed breaking anyway.

“That he is unconventional is not a bad thing for me,” she said. “Heck, it’s why I voted for him.”

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