Hillary Clinton lost the election in the Midwest. Donald Trump won 50 Midwestern electoral votes that went to Barack Obama in 2012 — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — plus 20 more in Pennsylvania, where the two-thirds of voters beyond metro Philadelphia are Midwestern in culture and concerns. Trump could have lost Florida and still won.
In the popular vote, Clinton came close to equaling Obama’s 2012 percentages in the South and not-yet-fully-counted West, and her 4 percent drop in the Northeast cost her no electoral votes. But in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, the Democratic presidential percentage dropped from 54 percent in 2008 and 51 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2016.
Those drops came mostly outside the Midwest’s big cities, though black turnout sagged notably in Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. University towns turned in their typical lopsided majorities — e.g., 68-26 percent in metro Madison, Wisconsin.
But in Midwestern outstates — counties outside metro areas with a million-plus people — the shift away from Clinton looked like the shifts of white Southerners away from Democrats in decades past.
Iowa, the largest state with no metro area of a million-plus people, was typical: 54 percent Democratic in 2008, 52 percent in 2012 and 41 percent in 2016. The drop was similar in Wisconsin outside Milwaukee and Madison (54 to 50 to 41 percent), Michigan outside Detroit and Grand Rapids (55 to 52 to 41 percent), Ohio outside Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati (48 to 47 to 35 percent) and Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (48 to 44 to 36 percent).
Similar outstate drops were not quite enough to carry Minnesota for Trump and were swamped in Illinois by metro Chicago. But they were enough to switch the Midwestern electoral vote from 80-38 Democratic in 2012 to 88-30 Republican this year.
These outstate areas aren’t growing demographically, but they’re not tiny, either. They cast 100 percent of the votes in Iowa, 61 percent in Wisconsin, 47 percent in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and 44 percent in Ohio.
What accounts for the abandonment of Clinton in areas hitherto reachable for Democrats?
The outstate Midwest is loaded with non-college-educated whites — 62 percent in Iowa, for instance. Nationally, that demographic moved from favoring Mitt Romney by a 25 percent margin in 2012 to favoring Trump by a 39 percent margin this year. In the Midwestern outstates, the shift was even more vivid.
Such voters have been bypassed by sluggish Obama-era economic growth, and many believe that their jobs have been lost by trade agreements and that their wages have been undercut by low-skilled immigrants in other parts of the country. Trump emphasized these issues, and previous Republicans hadn’t. That’s part of it.
There’s also the condescension of Clinton and her campaign, headquartered in trendy Brooklyn, New York. “Religious beliefs,” candidate Clinton said in 2015, “have to be changed.” She told a Manhattan audience that half of Trump’s supporters were “irredeemable” — “deplorables” characterized by “implicit racism.”
Outstate people who voted for Obama — or whose neighbors or friends at church did — probably weren’t attracted by such statements. Decent people don’t like to be called racists and told that their religion needs to be changed (by the government?).
The Clinton campaign’s strategy to win over folks beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan was to send West Wing actors into Ohio and hold a concert with Beyonce and Lady Gaga in Philadelphia. That’s going to do it!
One other factor worked against Clinton in the outstate Midwest: honesty.
People in the outstate Midwest value honesty. They react against public officials who break laws, flout regulations and repeatedly lie and try to cover it up, as Clinton did with her secret email servers.
In the 1970s, the outstate Midwest broke against Republicans because of Watergate. Democratic victories in two House special elections in outstate Michigan in 1974 signaled voters’ displeasure with Richard Nixon, and the Democrats swept in elections that fall.
Dozens of Democratic politicians began long, successful outstate careers in the Watergate years.
Liberal pundits Jonathan Alter and E.J. Dionne characterized the Clinton email lawbreaking and lies as non-scandals. Maybe they weren’t scandals in Chicago and Massachusetts, where they grew up, but they were in the outstate Midwest.
Hints of Clinton’s general election weakness came in Democratic primaries, when she lost outstates badly in Wisconsin and Michigan and ran barely even in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Maybe outstaters were voting not for Bernie Sanders’ socialism but against Clinton’s “damn emails.”
Team Clinton is now saying it was beaten by FBI Director James Comey’s intervention. But Comey would not have been heard from if Clinton hadn’t broken the law. That’s a vote-loser in the outstate Midwest — and an election-loser in America.