In "The Emerging Republican Majority" (1969), Kevin Phillips pioneered the term "Sun Belt" for Southern and Southwestern states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California. Some writers began referring to Northern states from Maine to Minnesota as the "Frost Belt" or "Snow Belt" for their cold winters. Others called states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan the "Rust Belt" due to their aging infrastructure and declining industry. (With its history of heavy industry, Buffalo obviously goes in this category).
The mood in the Rust Belt in the summer of 2012 is one of resignation and worry: ordinary voters repeatedly voiced their dismay over the jobs and housing market. As Vince Lombardo, a high school teacher in Ohio, said: "It seems we've reached dead ends in so many fields and need a new approach."
Doing field work for my next book on national elections, I recently toured the cities of Flint, Detroit and Saginaw in Michigan and Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown in Ohio. Along with Western Pennsylvania, these cities were once the heart of American heavy industry (steel and autos). They have definitely fallen on hard times in the last generation, a process known as deindustrialization, with chronically high unemployment rates in their cities. There is a "land-that-time-forgot" quality to some of these places.
I must admit that Cleveland has a rough charm – it's both a great sports and music city – and Detroit played a major role in American history with the auto industry, Motown music and the civil rights movement. But whatever their current troubles, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio will likely go a long way toward choosing our next president.
President Obama will need to win at least two of these three states to retain the White House because no Democrat has ever been elected president without substantial blue-collar support.
On the other hand, with both coasts largely favoring the Democrats, Mitt Romney will need at least Ohio to win a majority in the Electoral College because no Republican has ever been elected president without the Buckeye State. (Ohio was essential to both of George W. Bush's one-state victories in 2000 and 2004). In "The Real Majority" (1970), Richard Scammon & Ben Wattenberg argued that the "typical American voter was a 47-year-old machinist in Dayton." That machinist's plant was probably closed long ago since the state has lost more than a million factory jobs, but Ohio still contains lots of "typical" voters (now suburbanites) and ranks with Florida as the premier swing state.
The term "Rust Belt" is apt: These cities have been hit hard by the Great Recession and still have not fully recovered. According to union leaders I spoke with, more than half of auto workers and nearly 75 percent of steelworkers have lost their jobs since the 1973 peak. Detroit once had a dozen big auto factories, including the largest plant in the world – Ford's River Rouge, which employed roughly 40,000 people. River Rouge closed in 1983 and the Motor City now has only one major auto plant within the city limits. Youngstown had half a dozen big steel mills until the 1970s; it now has none operating.
As the local economies withered, social problems multiplied. Cleveland ranks as the fourth poorest big city in America (right behind Buffalo), while Detroit tops the list in the 2010 Census. Recent crime statistics show that Detroit and Flint are the second-most and most-dangerous cities, respectively, in America. A secretary in Flint's City Hall who can't afford to move out of Flint's Southside said, "At night, my husband and I sit by the TV with our guns."
As late as the 1970 Census, both Detroit (No. 5) and Cleveland (No. 10) ranked among the 10 most populous U.S. cities. In the 2010 Census, Detroit had fallen to No. 18 and Cleveland to No. 45. Both cities have lost more than half of their populations since their 1950 peaks – and 80 percent of their white, middle-class populations. Accordingly, they have become one-party Democratic strongholds: back in the 1980s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could have carried Ohio and Michigan without winning a single vote in either Cleveland or Detroit.
Another side effect of economic decline is the "brain drain" of talented younger people leaving when they can't find work. For example, Columbus has an economic base of state government, insurance and banking. There, Chris Mahler, a successful small businessman in the health care field, joked that "Columbus is now also the capital of Youngstown and Pittsburgh."
Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan have all lost electoral votes to the Sun Belt since the 1980 Census, with Pennsylvania and Ohio each dropping by seven and Michigan down five electoral votes. But still, in a close election like 2000 or 2004, these states can make the difference.
To this writer's eyes (and the economic statistics), Detroit, Cleveland, Dayton, Flint and Youngstown have struggled the most with deindustrialization. Genesee County Clerk Michael Carr told me that "there used to be 90,000 General Motors jobs in Flint with the highest-paid workers in the world; now there's only 5,000." Both Detroit and Flint were placed under state financial "receivership" by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Toledo is surviving because the Jeep plant is still doing well producing that popular vehicle, and the city is also a major shipping port for Midwestern agricultural products. Akron has had modest success in transitioning to medical services.
"Our city, like many cities, is going through tough times, no doubt about it," said a county worker in Saginaw. (Obviously, Obama's bailout of ?GM and Chrysler is popular in Michigan).
A receptionist in the Akron Board of Elections who still lives in the working class Goodyear Heights neighborhood commented that she "misses the smell of rubber and soot in the air" from the tire factories that have closed since the 1970s.
Everybody in these areas, whether in business, labor or government, regrets the loss of the good times of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the factories were running at near capacity and the paychecks kept growing. People are definitely unhappy with the state of the nation, especially the economy, but most Democrats are not (yet) blaming Obama.
These Rust Belt cities are strongly Democratic areas, they voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 even as he was losing 49 states to Reagan. If Obama is in trouble here, he'd be in danger of losing all 50 states. Very few white Democrats and virtually no minority Democrats that I interviewed are currently defecting from the president. So the key question will be their level of enthusiasm and turnout.
Obama inspired a record-breaking vote in 2008 when black turnout equaled white turnout for the first time, narrowly carrying Ohio and comfortably winning Pennsylvania and Michigan. But Democrats were demoralized and stayed home in 2010, while Republican voters came out enthusiastically; as a result, the GOP swept all three states. The most recent surveys have Obama slightly ahead in Pennsylvania and Michigan, but behind in Ohio.
While the Democratic base may be sticking with the president, Obama is getting virtually no support from Republicans. His 2008 promise of unifying the nation has simply not happened. For a century and a half, Midwestern farmers and small business have been the backbone of the Republican Party. Quick conversations in diners, gas stations, government offices and banks indicate the Rural Midwest will strongly be in the GOP column again this November. "This will be a highly supportive community of Mr. Romney," said Mike Beamish, mayor of Troy, Ohio.
Historically, elections in the Rust Belt have featured Democratic inner cities facing off against Republican rural areas with the suburbs in between. For 2012, it looks like that pattern will continue. From both grass-roots interviews and independent surveys, we seem headed toward another close election like 2004, when Democrat John Kerry won Pennsylvania and Michigan with 51 percent, but lost Ohio with 49 percent – and the presidency by one state. This November they will be so close that any minor factor – bad weather, a gaffe in the debates or a hot local issue like gay marriage – could tip the balance.
Stay tuned until November. With the voters' mood so down, it looks like Romney has the better chance of breaking out by arguing simply "it's time for a change."
Patrick Reddy is the author of the forthcoming book, "21st Century America," a study of national politics.