Back to the Battleground

What we learned from each of the battleground states we visited ahead of the 2020 election

The Globe dispatched reporters to four pivotal states in the 2016 presidential election – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin – to find the stories of average people and their communities to see what has changed since then. Here are two key things they learned from each of those states featured in our Back to the Battleground series.


■ Democrats have work to do to recapture counties that flipped from supporting President Obama to Trump in 2016 — like Erie County on the western edge of the state, which swung by more than 16 points. Trump appealed to traditionally Democratic union voters with his message of bringing back jobs to the area and many bucked union leaders in supporting him over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Even though Trump has failed to jumpstart manufacturing, a local construction boom has boosted the economy and may help the president overcome his low popularity there.

■ Fifteen years ago, Hazleton was a hotbed of racial tension. The mayor led a campaign to drive out undocumented immigrants in the former mining and manufacturing town that had long been home to European immigrants. But in recent years, waves of Latinos moved to Hazleton, attracted by good jobs and affordable housing. With this diversity has come a new level of understanding and acceptance, while also causing a major shift in the city’s politics from Republican to Democrat. Given the changing demographics, President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has made him unpopular here heading into the 2020 election.



■ Conventional wisdom says that if the nation goes into a recession next year, Trump’s presidency is over. Northeast Ohio is a good place to test that. The economy there has rebounded more slowly from the 2008 downturn than elsewhere and the closure of the General Motors plant in Lordstown this year cost thousands of jobs after Trump promised to save US manufacturing. But few people in Lordstown and the surrounding area blamed Trump for the region’s economic woes — not even Democrats. That’s partly for localized reasons (the plant’s troubles predate Trump’s presidency) but it suggests it may be harder for Democrats than they think to lay the economic troubles on Trump.

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■ Trump’s pitch to counter the national opioid crisis resonated across the lush Appalachian region in southern Ohio. Many people there give him credit for putting attention on the epidemic, but bipartisan efforts to target the problem across the state started long before him — and those engaged in the work see Trump as such a polarizing figure they would rather not talk about him at all. Others wonder whether all the funding for rehabilitation centers and medications are truly making a dent in the crisis. In Portsmouth, a group of friends — two of them Army vets — decided they couldn’t wait around for politicians any longer and took matters into their own hands.


■ Recapturing Michigan could be the biggest challenge for Trump in recreating his 2016 victory. He won the state by less than 11,000 votes, and has alienated some of his former supporters there. Those include some traditionally conservative Iraqi Christian voters in the Detroit suburbs who have been turned off by immigration raids targeting some in their community since Trump took office. “I think they felt like we’re going to be protected and Trump cares about us,” one former Trump voter said of her fellow Iraqi Christians. “But I think in the end they got played, basically.”

■ An impeachment helped put Grand Rapids on the political map, vaulting the city’s most famous resident, Gerald Ford, to the presidency in 1974. The city and the rest of western Michigan was once a bastion of conservatism. But politics have shifted left over the years, particularly in suburbs like adjacent East Grand Rapids. Support there for an impeachment inquiry into Trump grew this fall, reflecting his loss of support in suburban areas around the country. Like those suburbs, East Grand Rapids is more purple than blue and for many voters there, the question has become not whether to get rid of Trump but how: Force him out through impeachment or vote him out next year.


■ If there is a pathway to victory for Democrats in Wisconsin, it runs through the cities—particularly Milwaukee and Madison, where most of the state’s black voters live. Some pundits have dismissively blamed Clinton’s 2016 loss on those voters, suggesting it is their fault for not casting ballots at the levels they did for Obama. But activists and black voters in Milwaukee say the problem is that Democratic candidates have not worked hard enough to meaningfully engage them, instead taking their votes for granted. Stacy Hodges Harmon, a mother of four in Milwaukee whose sense of safety was shattered when a bullet came through her window, feels like the state’s political class doesn’t care about her, and she wonders if her vote could ever make a real difference.


■ Things were already hard for American farmers, but Trump’s trade disputes have rubbed salt in the wound in rural communities like Bloomer. We drove through fields (literally, we had permission!) and got pooped on by cows (it happens) in our effort to understand how the tariffs that Trump says will help the nation in the long term are hurting now. Retaliatory tariffs have shrunk the markets for American agricultural products, depressed prices, and hurt farmers’ pocketbooks. And American farmers worry that China will find new places to buy products, which will hurt them long after Trump’s trade wars are over. But many farmers see themselves playing a small part in the fight to even the playing field with our trading partners, and they don’t blame Trump for the hit to their wallets — for now, at least.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Jazmine Ulloa can be reached at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jazmineulloa.