Democrats Would Do Well to Acknowledge Differences in Blue Wall Counties in 2020

March 13, 2020 by Dan McCue
After his daughter Nora, 2, scribbled on his first ballot, Zane Shami re-casts his vote at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Mich., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Kendall Warner/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP)

WASHINGTON – Blue Wall counties that flipped to Trump in 2016 were smaller, had a less skilled workforce, and had fewer businesses than their safe blue neighbors, but most importantly, they were all predisposed to struggle in the face of manufacturing decline, a new report says.

In light of these realities, it says, Democrats looking to compete in these communities in 2020 need to heed the divide between flip and safe counties — and ensure their solutions to problems are specifically tailored to help both thrive.

The analysis of the diverging economic dynamism within states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, comes from the public policy think tank Third Way.

In addition to looking at why certain counties flipped from supporting President Barack Obama’s re-election bid in 2012, to voting for Trump in 2016, the report tries to answer an even larger question — has Trump done enough to revive the struggling manufacturing industry in his first term to hold onto these counties in 2020.

For those who either don’t remember or have purposely put it out of their minds, Donald Trump won the presidency by beating Hillary Clinton in these battleground states by just 77,744 votes.

While numerous political and economic forces contribute to how the Blue Wall is won, 68 counties spread across the three states offer valuable insight.

One of the surprises in 2016 was that many traditionally blue strongholds flipped in favor of Donald Trump. Specifically, out of 3,112 counties in the United States, 223 counties flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. This is roughly half the number of counties that stayed safely blue, voting for Obama and then Hillary Clinton.

These numbers are being heavily scrutinized this primary season.

Former Vice President Joe Biden just enjoyed a large victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., winning in every single county in the Michigan primary. Sanders won all but 10 of Michigan’s 83 counties four years ago in a surprise upset of the eventual Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

According to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune, published the day before the Michigan contest, there are 206 counties across the nation that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016, and of those, 85 had voted by March 9.

Biden has won 41, to 18 for Sanders. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who since has exited the race, won 20, all in Iowa. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another former candidate, won four, two in Iowa and two in her native Minnesota, while two other such counties remain too close to call.

Wisconsin, in which 22 counties that voted for Obama switched to Trump in 2016, will hold is Democratic primary on April 7; while Pennsylvania, where only three counties flipped to Trump, will cast its primary ballots on April 28.

Jillian McGrath, an economic policy advisor at Third Way writes that Democrats looking to compete in Blue Wall states in 2020 need to be mindful of the fact flip counties have fewer businesses than safe blue counties.

The average safe blue county has over 10,000 independent privately owned businesses, about five times that of flip counties, which only host just over 2,000, she writes.

Additionally, since 2000, for every 100 residents between 2000 and 2016, flip counties lost twenty three businesses while safe blue counties added sixty, she added.

McGrath also noted that flip and safe-blue counties, despite residing next to each other in some cases, experienced the economy differently in the same time frame.

Flip counties have fewer people, businesses, and skills—leaving them in a far more precarious position during an economic downturn. And when a county overly relies on an industry that has taken a beating since 2000, it sets them up to fall further behind their neighbors.

The Blue Wall states were known for their strength in manufacturing durable goods—from Detroit, Michigan to Janesville, Wisconsin. However, manufacturing strength in this region became a liability in the 2000s, when the American manufacturing industry experienced significant decline across the country.

That decline affected flip counties far more than safe blue counties in the Blue Wall. In 2000, almost 25% of workers in flip counties worked in manufacturing—about double that of safe counties and the nation as a whole.

By 2016, flip counties in the Blue Wall still disproportionately relied on manufacturing. Loss of these well-paying, stable jobs with benefits contributed to significant decline in regional dynamism in flip counties. Safe counties, with more diverse labor market bases, had less to lose when manufacturing began to crumble in the region, McGrath wrote.

She concluded by noting that President Trump ran his 2016 campaign on reviving struggling industries and helping Americans in left-behind regions.

“In reality, he failed to deliver for regions badly in need,” she wrote.

Recent employment data shows manufacturing jobs across the country are in peril—so much so that industry indicators and economists declared manufacturing in a full-blown recession at the end of 2019.12

“This national slump is especially acute in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where manufacturing jobs continue to shed despite strong job growth numbers in general,” McGrath said.

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