In the year since President Trump pulled off his stunning upset of Hillary Clinton, Democrats have blamed the result on all kinds of factors: James Comey’s letter, Russian hackers, voter suppression, Jill Stein’s candidacy and depressed African-American turnout, to name a few. The truth? In an election decided by fractions of percentage points, it’s easy to call just about anything a difference-maker.
But none of that gets at the heart of why so many people who cast a ballot for former president Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and who saw Trump as unqualified to be president — nonetheless voted for him. Although it’s far from a microcosm of the nation, there’s one place that I believe illustrates what happened in 2016 better than anything else.
In a nation increasingly composed of landslide counties — places that voted for one side or the other by at least 20 percentage points — Howard County, Iowa (population 9,332), stands out as the only one of America’s 3,141 counties that voted by more than 20 percentage points for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Democrats can’t credibly blame Howard County’s enormous 41-point swing in just four years on a last-minute letter to Congress, voter ID laws or Russia-sponsored Facebook ads.
Howard County, about 150 miles northeast of Des Moines along the state’s border with Minnesota, is 98 percent white. Only 13 percent of residents age 25 and over hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Median household income in the county in 2015 was $49,869. The largest employers in Cresco, the county seat, include the Donaldson Company, an air filter manufacturer whose local workers belong to the United Auto Workers union, and Featherlite, which makes aluminum livestock and utility trailers.
Contrary to the “Trump Country” stereotype, Howard County isn’t drowning in manufacturing job losses, high unemployment or an opioid crisis. In fact, its unemployment rate the month before the election was just 2.9 percent. The main gripe? Stagnant wages — and a gnawing feeling that people have been working harder and for longer hours while other parts of the country reaped much bigger rewards during the recovery from the Great Recession.
“When Trump said, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ a lot more people heard it than just African-Americans,” said Pat Murray, a Democrat who worked 29 years as a press brake operator at Donaldson and now serves on the Howard County Board of Supervisors. “Our wages have been stagnant, and our insurance has gone backwards,” he told me, citing the union-sponsored health plan’s surging deductibles. “We work 50, 60 hours a week because there’s no one to hire.”
“[Obama] saved us from another Great Depression, but it never really got back to the working class,” said Murray, who calls himself “as anti-Trump as they come” but says Clinton’s campaign took places like Howard County for granted in the November election. “The average Joe Blow isn’t hung up on the stock market. Democrats always say we’re going to fight for the working people. The last few elections, we haven’t shown that at all.”
Autopsies of the Clinton campaign frequently cite her inattention to Michigan and Wisconsin as a cause of her loss. But her failure to connect in places like Howard County probably had less to do with which states she visited — after all, she spent plenty of time in Iowa — and more to do with her image and message.
Clinton came to be seen as establishment and dishonest in a year when a plurality of voters wanted change. But in a baffling display of obliviousness, she spent much of the fall jetting between big-city rallies, which were often followed by closed-door, high-dollar fundraisers. She spent precious little time making her economic case before people in midsize cities or small towns like Cresco. And even though she outspent Trump $6.5 million to $2.2 million on Iowa’s airwaves, her ads were more about Trump’s antics than about how she would raise voters’ wages or how Trump might lower them — effectively ceding that ground to Trump’s utopian jobs promises and inescapable slogan.
Neil Shaffer, a farmer and watershed conservation official who chairs the county GOP, credits Trump with flipping the party’s script on trade. “We’re skeptical of career politicians,” he said, likening Trump’s outsider appeal in the so-called Driftless Region to that of former-wrestler-turned-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. “For however many years, Democrats and union leaders denounced NAFTA. All of a sudden, you had a Republican candidate saying that it’s all for big business. The average working person said, ‘Hey, here’s someone who’s not going by the party book, he’s breaking the mold.'”
As for Clinton? “She was elitist, was what I kept hearing,” said Laura Hubka, a Navy veteran and ultrasound technician who chaired the county’s Democratic party and knocked on doors for Clinton. “We’re a blue-collar town.”
Last month, Hubka resigned her post as chair and published a scathing blog post about Democrats’ aloofness to voters in places like Howard County and the party’s failure to come to grips with the election result. “Can we just stop and admit we’re part of the problem?” she vented to me. “People who were longtime supporters didn’t want to hear what we had to say anymore.”
Holly Rasmussen was one of those who had reached a breaking point. An Obama voter, Rasmussen cited the way that ill-tailored new federal rules applied to her tiny Cresco cosmetology school as a driving factor in her defection to Trump. “Honestly, when we founded the school, I got to teach. But the last few years, I had to spend all day in my office because I’ve had to file campus crime reports,” she said. “And if we had two people who didn’t repay their loans out of the eight students we had, [the Department of Education] made it tougher for us to get financial aid. Because of the regulations, we had to close. Now, we’re just a salon and spa.”
So why did Rasmussen vote for Obama and Trump? “Just to shake up Washington, to be honest. We’ve been in a rut for so long. People here don’t want to be multi-gajillionaires. They just want to get paid a decent wage,” she said, noting that her 2016 choice “might have been different” had Bernie Sanders won the nomination.
Howard County wasn’t always a train wreck for Clinton. Ironically, in the epic 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Clinton ran as the candidate of labor and small-town America, rallying union halls, downing whiskey and beer for the cameras, and blasting Obama’s speeches as “elitist and out of touch.” She came in third place statewide and only carried 22 of Iowa’s 99 counties in that year’s caucuses. But Howard was one of the 22 she won.
By 2016, however, Howard County morphed into Sanders territory. The Vermont senator struck a nerve with his calls for a working-class revolution and his attacks on Clinton’s Wall Street ties and shifting rhetoric on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I was shocked. I didn’t think a person would show up for Bernie,” said Murray, who chaired his precinct’s caucus. “But when I showed up, it was full of Bernie people.”
One such Bernie-crat was Mike Bigley, who spent 30 years as a Donaldson machinist and worked his way up from shop steward to president of UAW Local 120.1 “I liked his ideas on healthcare and free tuition,” said Bigley. “On caucus night, we had a majority for Bernie. Some of the union guys thought Clinton did crooked stuff to win [the nomination]. You hear a lot of things around the factory floor.”
“The Bernie people thought Hillary stole it,” concedes Murray, who said those voters’ distrust of Clinton carried over to November. “I’d say probably two-thirds of them went to Trump,” Murray said. Bigley, a self-described die-hard Democrat, said he wasn’t among them.
By the fall, anti-Clinton fervor in the community had reached a crescendo. The week before the election, emboldened Trump supporters took out a full-page newspaper ad and rented out the historic, city-owned Cresco Theatre and Opera House — a long-ago vaudeville haunt — for screenings of conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “Hillary’s America” and the Benghazi film “13 Hours.” To Democrats’ dismay, the theater was packed.
For years to come, pundits and political scientists will debate whether working-class white voters’ sharp turn towards Trump had more to do with economic or racial resentment. Incidentally, despite its nearly all-white population, Howard County occupies a unique place in the history of America’s attitudes on race.
Riceville, on the western edge of Howard County, happens to be where, in 1968, elementary school teacher Jane Elliott pioneered the famous “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” classroom exercise that’s still used in diversity training courses today. Elliott’s exercise caused an uproar in the tiny town, made her an outcast in the teacher’s lounge and even resulted in violence and racial epithets aimed at her family. Now 83 and living a few miles down the road in Osage, Elliott told me she blames Trump’s election on a backlash against “eight years of a black man in the White House.”
But neither Howard County’s party chairs nor its left-leaning labor leaders cited racial resentment as a driving force behind the community’s seismic shift to Trump in 2016. “That pail doesn’t hold water,” said Shaffer, the GOP chairman, who eagerly points out that the county voted overwhelmingly for the nation’s first African-American president — twice.
The idea that voters who previously cast a ballot for Obama could not have been motivated, at least in part, by race when they made their 2016 choice has been disputed extensively in academic studies. But in my conversations with Howard County voters of both parties, the common thread of support for Obama and for Trump was resounding: anti-elitism.
Democrats’ next path to 270 Electoral College votes may not run through Iowa. After all, Trump prevailed by a slightly larger margin in the Hawkeye State than he did in Texas. But Democrats don’t have the luxury of simply writing off voters like the ones they lost in Howard County.
If Democrats want to retake the House in 2018, they’ll need to win congressional districts like Iowa’s 1st, which includes Howard County. The 1st District narrowly re-elected rough-around-the-edges GOP Rep. Rod Blum last November. More importantly, Howard County’s Trump-curious Democrats have countless analogs in states that will decide the 2020 election: not just in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but in Minnesota and Maine as well.
One year later, Rasmussen, the cosmetology school owner who previously voted for Obama, doesn’t have “massive regrets” about her vote for Trump. “For the most part, he’s doing a good job. I wish sometimes he’d stifle his Twitter account, but I’m not surprised by any of it. If you watched it, that’s kind of how he was,” she shrugged.
To rebuild lost trust and win support, future Democrats face the twin challenges of, first, persuading voters that Trump is on track to negatively affect their livelihoods and, second, reclaiming the mantle of working-class hero that every successful Democratic nominee has embraced since vaudeville ruled the stage at the Cresco Theatre.
“My dad told me, ‘You’ll never be rich enough to be a true-blue Republican,’” Bigley recalled. “Now there’s too much darn money in politics, on both sides.” His advice to his party? “Get out here in the sticks and roll around with us common folks for a week or two.”