The story of the 2016 presidential election, to some extent, can be told by what happened in Trumbull County, Ohio.
In 2012, the state voted narrowly for Barack Obama. When Ohio was called for Obama on election night, his reelection was all but ensured. But four years later, the state backed Republican Donald Trump by eight points. That was in part because of shifts in places such as Trumbull, a perfectly square county near Youngstown. Obama won Trumbull by 23 points. Trump won it by more than six.
Why? In part because Trump’s pitch was tailored very specifically to places like Trumbull County.
I went to high school there, alongside a number of kids whose parents worked at the Lordstown automotive plant. If the story of nearby Youngstown tracked with the steel industry, the story of Warren (Trumbull’s county seat) at that time was about how Lordstown was faring. Trump’s promise to bolster blue-collar manufacturing was exactly the sort of thing that would resonate in the area, a place no longer as dependent on manufacturing as it had been but a place still more dependent on it than others. I mean, this was the district once represented by former congressman Jim Traficant (D), a pre-Trump Trump.
If Trump was going to do well anywhere, it was in Trumbull. And he did.
On Monday, General Motors announced that it was shuttering the Lordstown plant, along with others in Ontario, Maryland and Michigan, by the end of next year. Trump flipped Macomb County, Mich. — one of those Midwestern counties that was seen as a bellwether for Trump’s pitch on the economy in 2016 — from blue to red. GM will stop production at its plant there next year, as well.
Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic leader of the Ohio Senate, lives in Trumbull County and spoke with The Washington Post by phone on Monday about GM’s decision.
“It doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given the trend line that has been happening,” Cafaro said. “We lost 1,500 jobs in the last year.” The community had recently started an initiative called “Drive It Home,” she said, aimed at urging GM to keep production in the region.
Part of the problem, Cafaro said, was that the facility produced the Chevy Cruze, a more fuel-efficient vehicle that had lower demand because of lower fuel prices. (Over the weekend, Trump celebrated — and sought to take credit for — the recent drop in gas prices.) General Motors also cited Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum as challenges the company faced in trying to keep the plants open.
The centrality of the plant to Trumbull County, and Lordstown in particular, meant that the effects of the closure would ripple outward. Cafaro noted that the plant had been there for 50 years, and, in that time, a number of supporting and ancillary industries had opened around it that would be affected by the closure. She worried about the effects on the local school system and noted that the community was already struggling after the closure of a hospital.
Again, this wasn’t what Trump had promised. Even after becoming president, Trump visited nearby Mahoning County to tell residents to hold the line.
“I was looking at some of those big, once-incredible job-producing factories,” Trump said about his drive to the site of a rally in July 2017. “And my wife, Melania, said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Those jobs have left Ohio.’ They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move. Don’t sell your house."
That might have been centered on his arguments about the steel industry, but he has been explicit about his intent to save automotive manufacturing, too.
“Lots of car and other companies moving back!” he declared in August. In April, he tweeted before a rally in Michigan: “Major business expansion and jobs pouring into your State. Auto companies expanding at record pace.”
Cafaro suspected that people in Trumbull County wouldn’t focus on assertions like those but, instead, on Trump’s failure to help.
“People of the Mahoning Valley, and of Ohio and the Midwest — we have to talk about Macomb County, as well — voted for Donald Trump because I think they saw someone who was going to put their money where their mouth was on issues of trade and leveling the playing field for working men and women,” she said.
Cafaro compared the GM move to Trump’s late 2016 push to keep the Carrier corporation from moving jobs out of Indiana. It worked — for a short time.
“That Carrier situation, where he was very outspoken and then even seemed to get a positive result — before he was even president of the United States,” she said, “I think people pointed to that and thought, ‘You know, if we get into this situation, President Trump will do the same thing.’ We have not seen that."
“They may not blame Trump for it closing specifically,” she added, “but they will blame him for not saving it.” Blame him in the 2020 election, that is.
How important could that be? Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. In Macomb County, which Obama won by 16,000 votes, Trump’s margin was nearly 50,000 — more than four times his margin statewide.
GM’s stock soared after the announcement of the planned closures.
Update: Departing the White House for a campaign rally in Mississippi, Trump addressed the GM announcement.
“I believe they’ll be opening up something else,” he said. “I spoke with [GM CEO Mary Barra] when I heard they were closing and I said, ‘You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That’s Ohio and you’d better get back in there soon.”
“They’d better put something else in,” he added.