Uprising in the Rust Belt
They used to be Democrats. Now they could hand Donald Trump the White House.
June 24, 2016
By Keith O’Brien
CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa.—Donald Trump’s road to the White House begins here: on a four-lane highway, just east of Pittsburgh, past the roadside taverns, burned-out gas stations, and parking lots choked with weeds, up into the dark fingers of the Allegheny Mountains, and then down into the valley that was once home to steelworkers, coal miners and party-line Democrats.
Regis Karlheim once counted himself among that third group. A farmer’s son, Karlheim grew up doing two things: voting Democratic and growing potatoes. “It was a lot of good years in potatoes,” he said. “Everybody and their brother grew potatoes in Cambria County.”
Today Karlheim—blue-eyed, 58, and graying around the temples—spends his days behind the wheel of a giant coal truck, but the declining coal industry has hit Karlheim hard. He’s making $10,000 less than he was just three years ago, he said, and he’s worried about his mortgage. “How do you make those payments?” he asked. This spring, after years of not voting for anyone, in either party, in any presidential election, his anxiety compelled him to cast a vote in the Democratic primary. For Bernie Sanders.
His vote helped the socialist from Vermont beat Hillary Clinton in the county—while Trump won big, claiming more votes than either Democratic candidate. Since then, Clinton has sewn up her party’s nomination, but recent polls show that Cambria’s primary was no fluke: among the crucial battleground states, Pennsylvania is a tossup. Who wins the state’s precious 20 electoral votes in November will depend, in part, on people like Karlheim.
And he has some bad news for the former secretary of state.
While there are some things that worry him about the GOP nominee—“We don’t know his background,” Karlheim said, and “He’s a bit outspoken.”—he likes that Trump is talking about jobs. “That’s what we need,” which is why, Karlheim said, “In the big election … I’m going for Trump.”
Not that long ago, such a notion would have turned heads in Cambria County. Between 1932 and 2000, voters here backed the Democratic candidate for president every time except twice. They routinely supported liberals who had no chance: Adlai Stevenson in ’52 and Hubert Humphrey in ’68. When most of America joined the Reagan revolution in 1980, Cambria County went for Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Walter Mondale did even better, winning 55 percent of the vote.
This was Clinton country both times in the ’90s; it was in the pocket of Al Gore in 2000. And while the county narrowly went for the incumbent George W. Bush in 2004, voters were back to supporting Democrats four years later. In the ’08 primary, Hillary Clinton won more votes than all other candidates in both parties combined. Barack Obama won the county that fall. And then something appears to have shifted. In 2012, though he won the state, Obama lost the county in a veritable landslide, despite the fact that it has 50 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans. In recent months, that rightward shift solidified: To date this year, Republicans have gained nearly 1,500 registered voters in Cambria County as Democrats abandoned their party for the other side. That trend is playing out statewide, where switches have boosted GOP rolls by a net of nearly 50,000 voters. And in the primary this spring, Clinton not only lost to Sanders; she lost to herself, taking home 64 percent fewer votes than she did eight years ago. A county once hers now simply wasn’t.
“In the past, people here have turned to the Democrats,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa., 200 miles to the east. “They were the ones who looked after working-class interests, in their minds. But there is a belief that that isn’t the case anymore—and now they’re shopping around for an alternative.”
Trump, for them, makes a pretty appealing one. Local Republican leaders point out that the GOP nominee talks like a steelworker: brash, simple, to the point. He’s perfect for Pennsylvania, they say, but especially the western part of the state—and, in particular, a place like Cambria County. “When we talk about the white working class in the United States,” Borick said, “this is the place that could be described as the face of that demographic.”
Cambria County is 94 percent white—with low rates of college education and high rates of unemployment, hovering around seven percent. And most importantly for Trump, it’s a county that appears on the map, by different names, again and again across the American Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and beyond. “He’s got to win these places,” Borick said, “and win big.” There is, Borick added, just one important question—for Trump, his campaign, and his quest for the White House.
“Are there enough Cambria Counties out there?”
IN THESE wooded hills—thick and green, almost 70 miles east of Pittsburgh—the talk of making America great again aren’t empty words slapped on a red ball cap, retailing for $25 on Donald Trump’s web site. It’s part of the everyday conversation—among shopkeepers in rural Ebensburg, truck drivers in remote Carrolltown and unemployed steelworkers in the county’s largest city, Johnstown.
“There used to be a good work ethic in this town,” said Dave Pankoke, a 54-year-old Desert Storm veteran who has lived here his whole life. “Anymore, it’s about getting what you can.” Which, for Pankoke, isn’t much. He was laid off from his last steel job three years ago, he said, and now gets by driving heavy equipment. “On and off jobs,” he said. And at a fraction of what he used to make. “Maybe the union seen it coming,” he said. “But we didn’t.”
It’s fair to say, over time, no one saw the changes coming. Between the 1850s and 1870s, Johnstown specifically, and Cambria County at large, became one of greatest industrial centers in the country. “And probably the world,” said Richard Burkert, the president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Using natural deposits of iron ore, the Cambria Steel Co. and later Bethlehem Steel built an empire, of sorts, on the banks of the Conemaugh River. The steel jobs—some 18,000 of them by World War I—attracted immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Coal mining jobs did, too. And the county, once just a few thousand people, exploded. By 1940, the population had peaked at around 213,000 people.
“Steelworkers had left poverty and entered the middle class,” Burkert said, from his office just across the river from where the old steel mill used to stand. “You had vacations and cars. It was a real prosperous town. It was all working for everybody. These are the good times that everybody remembers.”
They also remember what happened next: how cheaper steel, produced by modern mills overseas in the post-World War II years, undercut the U.S. industry; and how Johnstown’s location, in those hills, connected by river and railroad, became less advantageous in the new era of interstate highways. In 1973, Bethlehem Steel announced it would slash its workforce from 11,800 to 7,000. Four years later, a devastating flood—the county’s third in a century—hastened those economic changes. Within six years, local unemployment topped 23 percent. Many people here never recovered, and others just left. Since 1980, the county’s population has declined by a quarter.
For a while, U.S. Rep. John Murtha helped stave off the losses; the Democrat brought government contracts and jobs to the area over the 36 years he served in Congress. “It touched every corner of Pennsylvania. So you can imagine what he did in his own backyard,” said T.J. Rooney, former state chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic party. But Murtha died in 2010, throwing the county into what former Johnstown mayor Don Zucco called “the post-Murtha period.” “And the question is,” Zucco said, “ are we in another bust cycle?”
Locals living off the coal industry—or what’s left of them—certainly think so. Union leaders complain about the negative economic impact of new EPA regulations, enacted under Obama’s watch in 2011, restricting toxic air emissions. The following year, the United Mine Workers union declined to endorse Obama in his re-election effort, despite backing him in 2008. The union didn’t endorse either candidate. But workers, union or not, got the message.
“Us guys, it’s all Democrats here,” said Dave Kirsch, who lives in Cambria County and hauls coal for a living. But he sat out the 2012 election, after voting for Obama four years earlier. And he’ll do the same again this fall—unless, he said, he votes for Trump. “Everybody I’m talking to, they’re switching,” Kirsch said. “Trump says he’s for coal, and Hillary hates coal—and that’s a shame. Because, in my opinion, he’s a little nuts. She’s more qualified. But if she wants to take my job—then, no.”
Rooney, the former state chairman of the state’s Democratic party, has heard similar sentiments all across the state.
“There’s a general perception that Democrats—Barack Obama, in particular—have made it so the playing field is no longer level. Forget about the merits of the argument,” Rooney said. “The reality is, that narrative has set in. It has baked into the cake. And that makes the job of running for any office, as a Democrat, more difficult. That’s just the cold hard reality.”
BILL POLACEK is a big Steelers fan. So when the president and CEO of JWF Industries, a steel fabrication company in Johnstown, holds quarterly meetings with his 450 employees, he prefers to call them huddles—employee huddles. “This spring,” Polacek said, “I just thought, ‘I’m going to do a random poll.’” Everyone was talking about the upcoming presidential primary in April at the time, and Polacek was curious to learn how his company—and, really, his community—was leaning.
In huddle after huddle, he asked for a show of hands from the employees gathered before him. How many folks were supporting Clinton or Sanders? How about Trump? It was an unofficial poll, with all the obvious flaws: Were people being honest? Or just following along with the others around them? Still, the results shocked Polacek. “Ninety percent of my employees are Democrats,” he said. And by his estimation, about 70 percent of the workers were supporting Trump.
“I think that’s what blew me away,” said Polacek recently from a small conference room near his office. “Engineers, project managers, accountants, welders, machinists—it was all the same. I think you’ve got a group of frustrated voters. They’re working. They’re not getting handouts. They’re proud to be working, proud to be Americans, and they’re seeing this country go in the wrong direction.”
Polacek, 54, is the descendant of Czech immigrants who came to Johnstown a century ago. He built the business, he said, from his dad’s pickup truck and a single welder starting in 1986, and by 2006 grew it into a $125 million company, with contracts to build everything from armored vehicles to large barrels used in the oil and gas industry.
Since then, he and his brother, John, the company’s COO, have weathered hard times like many other executives. They’ve laid off some 250 employees in recent years in order to stay competitive. They’ve survived a 30-percent dip in revenue, they say, and recovered most of it. Today, the Polaceks say, JWF Industries is nearly back to what it was generating before the recession struck.
“The problem is,” Bill Polacek said, “wages aren’t going up.” Costs for the company are high, especially health insurance. At least once in the last two years, they lost a lucrative contract overseas. “They moved it all down to Mexico,” John Polacek said. And so, this November, while the two brothers will be supporting many local Democrats—they’ve hung a giant sign outside their factory for a Democratic state senator—they’ll be voting for Trump.
“There are things he has said that I don’t like,” said Bill Polacek, who switched his registration from Democrat to Republican last year. Polacek, in particular, said he didn’t appreciate Trump calling the federal judge who is handling his Trump University court case “a Mexican.” But like his blue-collar neighbors in Cambria County, Polacek wants to send a message.
“That’s probably what you’re seeing in this election,” he said. “People are fighting back. They’re saying: This is not complicated. You’ve got to do something. They’re tired of talk. And that’s the thing with these candidates: Hillary is talk; Trump is going to do something.”
Other local Republicans who have recently switched over from the Democrats agree—and they have risked both family ties and business connections to make these feelings public. Four years ago, Sherry Stalley-Frear ran for state representative on the Republican ticket in Cambria County. But there was nothing she could say to get her mother-in-law, Maggie Frear, a 74-year-old lifelong Democrat, to change her registration. “Even when I ran for office,” Stalley-Frear said, “she wouldn’t switch parties.” But for Trump, Frear did it. “There are a lot of people changing their minds,” Frear said, “and they’re not afraid to say: ‘Yeah, I like Trump.’”
Joey Del Signore Jr.—better known around Johnstown as simply Joey Del—has run a catering company in the area for three decades. And he has long adhered to his father’s early business advice: Never talk politics or religion around customers. But at 60, Del Signore is tired of being quiet. This spring he not only switched his registration to Republican, but placed a Trump placard outside right beneath the sign for his catering outfit.
“That’s not good business,” he said one recent afternoon, gesturing out the window of his office at the small, blue sign fluttering in the wind. But he doesn’t care.
“We’ve lost people here,” he said, counting the losses all around him. “Why did we lose people? Because we lost the coal, the coal mining jobs. We lost the steel mill jobs. We lost the railroad jobs. Because they went overseas, or somewhere else, and we’ve suffered. It’s a shame. But that’s what has happened. We’re the Rust Belt.”
AT THE county Republican office—in a tired strip mall between a coffee shop and a gold dealer—local party officials point to these changes to bolster their argument that Trump will win this fall, not just here in Cambria County, but in the left-behind places across the Midwest, and, in doing so, the surprise GOP nominee from New York will claim a historic victory over Hillary Clinton.
“She’s in big trouble in Cambria County. And a lot of other counties in southwest Pennsylvania,” said Rob Gleason, the state chairman of the Republican party, who was born and raised in Johnstown, and still lives in the county today. “She won’t win Washington, Green, or Fayette—these are all Democratic counties. She won’t win Beaver. She won’t win Allegheny”—where Pittsburgh is located. “You can just go down the list.”
But in the details, the threads of this argument begin to fray. For one thing, many voters who switched to the GOP in Pennsylvania this spring were Democrats in name only, having long voted Republican in presidential elections. Neither Polacek, Frear, or Joey Del could remember voting for a Democrat for president in any recent election. When they switched parties, the electoral outcome didn’t exactly change.
Trump’s other problem is the math. “There just aren’t enough rural voters to put him over the top,” said Berwood Yost, director for the Center of Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Trump may indeed win Cambria County and others nearby. But Mitt Romney did, too, and he still lost the state to Obama, who won just 12 of the Pennsylvania’s 67 counties four years ago, six fewer than he won in 2008. “In this state, a Republican has got to appeal to moderate Republicans and Republican voters in the southeast part of the state, who are mostly educated and mostly affluent,” Yost said. “And I don’t know that we’re seeing that sort of appeal from Trump.”
Still, on the ground in western Pennsylvania, there’s an enthusiasm gap that’s palpable. Since Trump’s nomination became clear, Republicans have added nearly 17,000 more voters statewide than Democrats. The local Republican party office, in that strip mall, has a list of more than 125 people waiting for Trump signs. On a recent afternoon, a volunteer called the folks on that list to tell them they had a single Trump bumper sticker and button waiting for them, as a way to thank them for their patience.
“Can I take two?” one man asked when he came in.
The volunteer told him no. “Unfortunately, I have to ration them.”
Meanwhile, across town, members of the United Steelworkers Local 2632—once a Democratic stronghold—aren’t sure they will be able to bring Sanders supporters into the Clinton fold. “It’s a toss-up,” said John Daloni, a 61-year-old union officer and electrician at Gautier Steel, who drives around town with a Bernie magnet on the back of his blue Pontiac. “I hate to think of Bernie supporters going over to Trump. But I’ve spoken to folks and the story you get is—‘I’m sick of politics, and I don’t want a politician.’”
TERRY HAVENER knows the feeling. A carpenter by trade, Havener served as a union leader for years, rallying votes for Democrats throughout western Pennsylvania and doing his job well enough that he received an invite to Bill Clinton’s White House in the 1990s, for a receiving line, handshakes and a photograph. “To Terry,” the president scrawled on snapshot. “Thanks—Bill Clinton.” And Havener was proud enough of the picture that he had it framed, displaying it in his home and, at times, he says, on Facebook. But it all feels so long ago now, so dated. “Even some of my feelings about that have changed,” Havener says.
In the Pennsylvania primary in April, the bespectacled 62-year-old, with a tuft of gray hair on his chin, voted for Sanders. Even now, with the delegate math against his candidate, Havener—like Sanders himself—refuses to concede the nomination to Clinton. “I don’t think it’s all finished,” he says. And when he finds himself talking with Trump supporters, like he did on a recent night inside a smoky bar in Johnstown, Havener sounds a lot like them, reminiscing about how good life used to be in Cambria County—and the U.S. at large—and how it just isn’t anymore.
“I’m just fed up with—the term I would use is—the grandfathered-in people,” Havener said. “The political royalty.”
“The Clintons,” one Trump supporter sneered.
“The Clintons,” Havener agreed, “are one.”
It’s why part of him wishes Sanders would run as a third-party candidate this fall—and why sometimes Havener catches himself wishing for something else: for Trump to win.
“It would be devastating for the country, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I have no confidence in the man’s ethics. I have no confidence in the man’s diplomacy.” It’s why, in the end, he said, he’ll probably vote for Hillary. Still, the thought is there. Havener—and a lot of other Democrats in Cambria County—are thinking it. “There’s a little piece of me,” he said, “that wants to see Trump win. So I can say, ‘There you go—you got what you want now.’”