US 2020 election: Trump vs Biden and Midwest working-class whites
The FT's Peter Spiegel and Rana Foroohar look at the key US swing states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which all have large white populations that have been hit by the economic crisis and unemployment, and where support for President Trump among women is falling
Executive Producer: Vanessa Kortekaas. Editor: Gregory Bobillot. Graphics Designer: Russell Birkett. Producer: Ben Marino. Camera Operators: Donell Newkirk and Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Data Analysis: Christine Zhang.
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All right Rana, so on our tour of the US battleground states coming up in November, I want to focus on your favourite bit of the country, the upper Midwest.
Yes, and of course, Indiana, But I'm not going to talk about Indiana.
Miles of corn, miles of corn.
I want to talk about Wisconsin, which went for Trump in 2016, Iowa, also for Trump, and Minnesota. Now the main reason: that was the only state we're going to talk about actually that went for Hillary. And it's telling, frankly, that of all the swing states Minnesota is really the only one that Trump thinks he can flip. Well we'll talk about the upper Midwest and those three states in particular, to talk about the phenomenon that everyone really focuses on about 2016, which is the angry white male, mostly.
Or the working-class voter. And these are three of the most whitest states in the country. So just the statistics very quickly. We've got Wisconsin, 80 per cent white, Minnesota 80 per cent white, and Iowa 85 per cent white. The nation as a whole is 60 per cent. So very representative for that white working-class voter. Let's start talking about this in regards to what - in many ways at least theoretically - drove those voters. Which is the hollowing out of the economy. So these are the states where Trump promised to bring back manufacturing jobs. I guess they were gaining a bit. Certainly Covid has reversed anything that was... any gains that we saw.
The other thing I will just say - particularly in Iowa and some parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin - these are dairy states, farm states, like your home state of Indiana. They've been hit really hard by first in China, the trade war. There has been some subsidies that have gone to some of these states. And then of course on Covid, all sorts of problems there. So I guess the question is, do these states stay in the Trump column? I will point out right now that Biden is leading both in Wisconsin - those are his aviator glasses - and Minnesota. Although, Trump is ahead, right now, in Iowa. Talk to me about the economic hardship still facing some of these voters and whether there's a chance of those shifting Biden's way because of it.
Yeah, well so you're talking about the Rust Belt. And as you said the connective tissue is angry white male. I'll maybe make an angry... does that look like an angry white man? Anyways...
The lack of hair is definitely...
Maybe an alien, I shouldn't have put the... OK, anyway you know you've got this very large population of white men with high school degrees, let's say, that have been working in the manufacturing sector, perhaps been working in agriculture in these areas. And in the last 40 years policies have not favoured these areas. And some of the policy shifts have happened under Clinton and under Obama. So you know you had Nafta, you had China coming into the WTO. You had the hollowing out of a lot of those Rust Belt jobs.
I actually come from a state that has both agriculture and manufacturing jobs. And I kind of lived that story in the 1980s. I saw that manufacturing going way down. You had big ag going up but you had SMEs, small and mid-sized family farms and things, going down. And those are all the topics that you're going to hear Joe Biden talking about. And already, it was interesting, in Iowa before Covid hit there's a big concert called Farm Aid. You know, where people... Neil Young and John Cougar Mellencamp come out and play to the farm crowd.
And you saw both Republicans and Democrats targeting those voters. And Republicans were saying you know what, China's eating your lunch. This is all about China's terrible. I mean forget about the fact that China buys a lot of soybeans from the US. But they're trying to push that kind of more xenophobic, anti-China angle. Democrats were saying to these voters, you know what it's about corporations. It's about the death of SMEs. It's about the death of small family farms. It's about big ag. And that's something actually that Covid has underscored and we've written a lot about. Covid hits and suddenly you realise, oh we've only got three chicken producers and packagers in the US. You've got meat packing jobs in South Dakota in particular. But in some of these areas where you see these terrible working conditions and you have supply chains that don't work. And so I think that that's something that people are really feeling at a visceral level.
Let me ask, these numbers I put up here, these electoral votes, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa. Again, relatively midsize, I guess you'd say, but I think they're very symbolic of how the white votes go in the rest of the country. Can I just ask you about your point here, right? Because this is, as you said, that are hits that largely happened under Obama, under Clinton. How does Biden change that narrative? Because I mean, we've had this discussion before. You kind of view Biden as a bit of a different Democrat than sort of the post-Reagan, sort of Clinton era, third wave kind of stuff. Can you just talk a bit about that? Because I'm not sure I'm so convinced.
Well you know, if you think about what's Clintonian economics look like? It's neoliberalism. It's about the idea that money, people and trade - you know widgets - can go anywhere they want. They can fly away from these areas. The problem is, that kind of economic policy favours capital, it favours money. So the big get bigger. We see the superstar effect where companies - you've got five companies now dominating the S&P, 25 per cent of the S&P. Which is, PS, the reason we have this bizarro economy where asset markets are way up here and Main Street is... we had second quarter worst economic figures ever.
So Biden, I think, is turning away from this model. And he's saying we may need to think a little bit more about Main Street and less about Wall Street. How are we going to create more productivity on the ground? That might mean hubbing some manufacturing and services together. We're talking a lot about new kinds of programmes where union workers could be retrained to do high-tech jobs. Green New Deal is something that he's talked a lot about. Like I'll... green, I'll make a little leaf here. And he's brought in AOC, the young Latino congresswoman came up with the idea of the Green New Deal. But you know what Biden did? Biden brought unions into it. And so he speaks to these men.
To me, that's a big difference. Biden has always been a union guy, where as Obama...
He's a union guy. He talks like these guys. They want to have a beer with him.
Clinton was not. Another issue that you brought up. I'm going to change the angry white man to an angry white woman. Because one of the interesting things you brought up was they're beginning to split. And if you look at the polling data, a lot of white working-class women went for Trump four years ago, and are now beginning to peel off in a lot of these states. Talk a bit about that and why you think that is happening. Because it's really beginning to be really prominent in some of those polls.
So, you know, I think working-class white women, women in general, I think vote on kitchen table issues a little bit more, but working-class women in particular. I mean think about - and I know some of these people, growing up in this part of the country - that have to say, am I going to feed my child a hot dinner or am I going to be able to afford my medication for diabetes. If I have a healthcare emergency is my family going to lose their home or their car? I mean there are people sleeping in their cars in places like this. I've actually heard the term, eviction cairns where you see people's stuff out on the street because they are losing their homes. These women are saying to themselves, has Trump made me better? No they're not. And PS, that there's a Peterson poll that says a lot of people... I think about half of the voters are saying, no I'm not feeling better under Trump.
That's right, only a third are saying that they are better off. And there is a stark gender split on that. Sticking with the issue of white women though and moving classes to be perfectly blunt, to sort of the college educated suburban women. Because I think we're also seeing - that was also a surprisingly - we didn't go all way to Trump, but there was a surprising number of suburban professional women, who are - again, sort of the same kind of voter - tend to vote Republican on economic issues. They're more laissez-faire, they're more low tax. But can be lured towards a Clinton or Obama on abortion, on social issues. And you start seeing that in the..
Soccer mum, yeah right.
I'm going to draw the...
You and I grew politically in the '90s.
I can't really draw a soccer ball.
Go for it. We saw in the Minnesota, Minneapolis suburbs in 2018, the midterms, two suburban districts went from Republican incumbents to Democratic challengers. We saw the Wisconsin governor voted out of office, Scott Walker, a big name Republican, got voted out by a Democrat. So talk a bit about those voters, particularly since these two states, Kenosha, Minneapolis, George Floyd, Jacob Blake. These are two states that have seen civil unrest, Black Lives Matter movement. And Donald Trump clearly is trying to address what he keeps calling, in a very 1960s fashion, the suburban housewife. He's trying to frighten suburban housewives into voting Republican because of the unrest. And there is, thus far, I haven't seen a huge amount of movement in the polls. But clearly they think this is a winner.
Well law and order is a good topic for these women. I mean, these are women that are going to say, is my community safe? Maybe there's going to be some hidden racism possibly in some of these communities. I think that we saw a little bit of that support for Trump, not only in these places, but also way over here in Washington, when Portland was really exploding. People starting to say, is this city safe? But again, I think that Trump is a hard candidate for these women to love.
Now, another issue though, economically, if they're wealthy, if they're living in suburbs, are they going to look at the asset markets and say well stocks are still pretty high, things are OK, law and order. I think it's going to be very, very tight on those issues.
And you have seen... it has been, frankly, I think, a bit too ham-handed. Because you've seen suburban women moving towards Biden because... and frankly our suburbs today are not in the sort of Nixonian playbook. This is not the suburbs of Nixon or even George Wallace. These are much more diverse suburbs. And the suburban women voter right now is frankly not, I think, easily spooked on that regard.
One last thing before I get to predictions. I want to talk a bit about Iowa and farms. Because we have sent reporters there, most the time Greg Meyer, to Sioux City, to Iowa repeatedly, waiting for the Iowa voter to move because of trade. Now one of the things that we've seen happen, of course, is Trump's been wise to that. And we've seen huge amount of subsidies going to farmers. I keep joking, you know everyone says that Joe Biden is the closet socialist. Well a lot more socialist policies under Donald Trump, in terms of subsidising chosen industries. But we started seeing some movement on because of Covid, but also because of some of the moves they've taken too on ethanol subsidies, which Trump keeps waiving. To what extent do you think the Iowa farm voter - and this is the one, again, that Trump probably is still ahead on. But do you think that voter is winnable in November because of agriculture issues?
I do, I do and I think ag is really trade financing for ag is where it's.. I'm going to draw a little corn here.
Oh, I was hoping you'd draw corn.
Yeah, I have to draw a corn. I'm from Indiana. You know, it's amazing. I grew up in like miles of cornfields. I think that what you're going to see, you see the big banks right now pulling out of commodities trade financing. Big ag producers will still be fine. Those big are going to get bigger. But what you're going to see in the next month or two, is it's going to be tougher for small family farmers, even mid-sized public companies say in food packaging, to get financing to do daily business in places like that. If you start to see cascading bankruptcies, you know companies going under and then that having a domino effect - maybe I'll do a couple of dominoes - then that could be good news for Biden.
Well let me ask you about that. Because there's been a bit of a division amongst economists on this. And I know you've written extensively about this. The extent to which the end of the fiscal stimulus was going to lead to some sort of cliff where you'd start seeing bankruptcies. Now again, divided opinion on this. We haven't seen it yet, I mean stimulus has been... there's been no stimulus for several weeks now. But you were saying when we were talking off camera, that you think that actually there's a bit of a lag here. That we could see it in a month or two. Boom, that's right in late October. And that's...
I think so. Because if you think about, OK we have the end of fiscal stimulus around about August. Because of the delays in payment you weren't really going to see that hit probably until right about now. We're not going to see another fiscal, big fiscal stimulus package being cut before November. So I expect... and I'm already hearing just among small businesses, you know are losing their loans. People are losing their tenancies. You're also starting to see commercial lenders cutting deals that they wouldn't have imagined. Commercial...
...a year ago. So I think we are right at the tipping point.
Well if that does happen - and we're still waiting for it - that would clearly, I think - and particularly in these states - begin to move more of the vote towards Biden. Let's go lastly to predictions.
I must say, I still think that Iowa, it's very close right now. I haven't seen the movement on the voter, the ag voters, as much as I expected. I still think Iowa's going for Trump. But I think we're going to see Biden hold Minnesota. Again, there was some tightening of polls there, but I don't think that is convincing. And I think he wins back Wisconsin for the Democrats. Again pulling 45,000 votes - 25,000 votes that Hillary lost there. The Democrats are motivated and organised there. I think this blue wall which we keep that crumbled in 2016. I think that's going to be back. So I think hold in Minnesota, turns Wisconsin, and Trump holds in Iowa.
OK well, I, as a Midwestern girl, I'm going to be all blue here. I think that we are going to see an entire shift in this Rust Belt area. You know, one of the reasons that Hillary lost this area - she talked about deplorables, right? There's a sense of contempt against the East Coast elite. When I was growing up in Indiana I went out East to school. That was like, oh who do you think you are? There is definitely that coastal heartland divide. But Biden is a very different candidate than Clinton. Biden speaks to these people. He knows these people and he has a lot of empathy. And I think that shows through for him.
And it's a bit of his bio too. I mean, if you've followed Biden's career, what you know is he also was sort of looked down upon by the East Coast elites. You know, he was from Delaware, went to the University of Delaware, wasn't an Ivy League kid. And then when he first got to the Senate, he was very resentful, had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because of that. And I think, as you said, because of his biography, he's easier to talk to that way. All right, so there we are. Upper Midwest, you're bit of the world, will be interesting to watch.