Wisconsin. Michigan. Pennsylvania. The three states that will forever be associated with stopping the first female nominee of a major party from breaking the glass ceiling. The three states that let Republicans gain control of the White House, giving them control over the entire legislative process. Go check Facebook right now and you’re sure to find friends saying something like, “I’m utterly shocked. This just goes to show that bigotry is alive and well in this country.” There’s nothing incorrect in saying that bigotry is still present in the United States, as it is simply true. But bigotry did not stop Clinton from winning the White House.
Although many have implicated sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, James Comey, Wikileaks, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Bernie Sanders, or Russia in stopping the Democrats from retaining the oval office or capturing control of the legislative branch, there is polling to suggest a different culprit. It was one issue, one issue that the DNC and Hillary Clinton failed to address, and one that will continually haunt the Democrats from now until 2020. That issue was trade.
No one wants to hear that. No one wants to think that there was any reason people voted for Donald Trump that was in any way legitimate, and that the causes for his victory were anything other than bigotry, or reluctance to vote for Hillary because she is a woman.
Did those factors motivate some people to vote for Donald Trump? Absolutely. Did they alone win Trump the election? Not quite.
The Lost Decade is a term unknown to those who have not followed the decline of Michigan and the rest of the Rust Belt. In the 2000s, Michigan lost half of its automotive manufacturing jobs. It fell to 35th in the United States in terms of per capita income. Its problems did not just start in the 2000s. In the 1990s, General Motors employed 80,000 people in the Flint, Michigan area, but that number has since fallen to 7,000. Unfortunately for Secretary Clinton, this story is not unique to Michigan. The economic changes in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin told a similar story.
However, there is a major difference between these states; although they could all be considered battleground states, Pennsylvania and Michigan have voted for the Democratic candidate in the past six elections, and Wisconsin has voted democratic for the past seven. What was so different this time? When you dive into the exit polling, the answer is actually quite clear: Trade.
When Michigan voters were asked about asked about the effects of international trade as a part of an exit poll done by CNN, only 31% said it creates U.S. jobs while 50% said it takes away U.S. jobs. Of that 50%, 58% voted for Trump and only 36% for Clinton. The exit poll also found intense dissatisfaction with the economy and federal government, and that the majority of the voters who felt that they were only as good or worse off today as they were four years ago supported Donald Trump. This view on trade and the economy is not just prevalent in Michigan. 53% of the electorate in Pennsylvania said that trade is bad for jobs, and 62% of those voters backed Trump compared to the 34% backing Clinton. Only 35% of those surveyed felt that trade created jobs. In Wisconsin, while only 35% of voters think trade creates jobs, 50% said it takes away jobs, with 63% of those respondents favoring Trump.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric on trade, no matter how sincere it may or may not be, was strong enough to flip the battleground state of Pennsylvania, referred to by Joe Scarborough as fool’s gold for Republicans, because each election cycle it is referred to as a battleground state, yet the Democrats have won it for the past six. Trump’s trade rhetoric was also strong enough to flip Wisconsin and Michigan, two states that many did not even consider to be in contention. Why am I talking about these three states as opposed to Florida, North Carolina, or Ohio? It is because Hillary Clinton was, according to almost every single projection, expected to win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. They were essential to her path to victory, and they are three swing states that should have been most easily obtainable for her. Unfortunately for Democrats, the voters in the Midwest preferred Trump’s message on trade to Clinton’s, and that preference cost them 46 electoral votes, and the presidency. This does not mean bigotry did not help Trump, it means the bigotry would have lost if Clinton simply won those three states. With those 46 electoral votes, Democrats would be celebrating President-elect Hillary Clinton. All it took was a populist message on trade; this is not to say that Trump and the Republicans were the only ones to advance such a message. On the Democratic side, former contender Bernie Sanders also sought to embrace the struggles of the middle and working class, the ones who were most likely to feel that trade deals like NAFTA have left them behind. Perhaps if the Democrats were more attuned to this sentiment and more willing to employ such rhetoric, they could recapture the White House in four years.
Hunter Campbell is a freshman from East Arlington, V.T. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.