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What the US election 2020 reveals about America's Rust Belt

A resurgence of progressive politics in America's former industrial heartlands is unlikely any time soon.

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Jamie Perrapato is glad that she didn’t foresee how the 2020 election was going to turn out. Her organisation, Turn PA Blue, was hoping to build on the victories of the 2018 midterms, where Democratic candidates stormed into Congressional and state legislative seats that the Republicans held for generations. Low morale among the conservative movement seemed to augur well for the future: in statewide gubernatorial and Senate elections, Donald Trump-esque candidates lost by double digit margins

The future seemed winnable. Perrapato had hoped that the president’s disinterest in managing the Covid pandemic would allow Democrats to sweep elections across the state. But almost two weeks after this year’s cataclysmic contest, the lessons and hopes of the Trump-era look a lot murkier. Democrats came out in record numbers, but so did Republicans. Biden eked out a win, but many of the other races ended in disappointment. 

In a lot of these districts, “if both parties have maximum turnout, we don't have a chance,” says Perrapato, who lives in suburban Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia. “Mathematically, there's just really no room for us because the districts were drawn that way to protect Republicans. I'm glad we didn't [know turnout would be so high on both sides] going into it.”

It’s hard to pull out any single narrative from the 2020 elections. The strategies of both campaigns appear to have worked. Joe Biden drummed up huge support in highly educated suburban areas, while winning back a couple of blue-collar white counties that went for Trump last time, and gaining more votes than Hillary Clinton in rural Pennsylvania. But Trump nearly matched that support by greatly growing his base in those same sparsely populated, historically conservative areas and improving upon his previous performance in some Democratic strongholds such as Philadelphia.    

In Pennsylvania, a surprising number of voters seem to have split their ticket, breaking with a long-term trend away from the practice, and voting for Joe Biden at the top of the ballot and Republicans further down in the other statewide and legislative races. No congressional seats in the state changed hands. But then there’s the outlier, Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro, who is doing slightly better than Biden. Non-white racial groups seem to have not turned out in overwhelming numbers for the Democrats, despite hopes for a 2008-style wave

“The big picture is it doesn't look like either Donald Trump's presidency or the intense activism that's followed has radically transformed American politics,” says Lara Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. 

But for all the questions in the wake of the 2020 US elections, it seems clear that a Democratic Pennsylvania  and a broader progressive resurgence in the Rust Belt  is not in the offing. If there was going to be any year where the centre left could win majorities in the state legislature, this would have been it. Instead, the Republican Party further proved that its embrace of populist rhetoric and white identity politics is not disqualifying.

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Conservatives’ success in growing their majorities in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's state capital, is not a testament to the unpopularity of the Democrats in formerly industrial states. Biden did, after all, just win Pennsylvania, and other Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin (though he lost Ohio). But despite being competitive in statewide elections, where Democrats have routinely won presidential races over the past several decades, the racial and partisan geography of places such as Pennsylvania is definitively tilted in favour of the Republican Party

That’s partly the fault of a process called gerrymandering, where the partisan state legislature gets to redraw the political maps every decade. The last time the Republicans were in control of the process in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they created maps favourable to themselves. Political scientists say that’s just the beginning of the Democratic Party’s problems, however.

In north-eastern and mid-western states, Democratic voters tend to be densely clustered in urban areas  from big cities like Philadelphia, to small ones like Reading, to college towns like the thematically named State College. Republican voters are more diffusely spread across rural and exurban areas, where their voters have smaller majorities. (In a city, Democrats often comprise 80 per cent or more of the electorate, whereas in rural areas Republicans tend to have less commanding majorities in the 60 per cent range.) That means there are many more Democratic-leaning supporters whose votes are “lost” in winner-take-all legislative races. It's simply very hard to draw maps that accurately represent the Democratic-share of the vote. 

To be competitive, the centre-left must win most suburban areas too, which have traditionally leaned Republican and are known for their moderate politics. For some political observers the conservative movement’s increasing radicalisation, and Trump’s inability to appeal beyond his base, seemed to indicate that Democrats could escape their geographic disadvantage in 2020. 

[See also: The city shift: how the urban-rural divide deepened in the US election]

“In 2018, there was such a big shift toward the Democrats in suburbs it started to seem like the alliance with Trump undermined the Republican-label in some important way,” says Jonathan Rodden, political science professor at Stanford University and author of the book Why Cities Lose. “That would then undermine their ability to win legislative chambers. But now there's pretty good evidence that's not what's happening.”

Democrats and their allies have a multiplicity of theories, beyond favourable political geography, about why Trump and the Republican Party as a whole experienced such different outcomes in Pennsylvania.

This is the first year that straight ticket voting, where a voter can pull the lever for all the candidates of a party at once, wasn’t an option. Then there’s the fact that Republicans had an edge in new voter registration this year, narrowing the gap between the parties.

Ryan Boyer of the Philadelphia-area Laborers union, the only majority black construction union in the city, said that the Republicans simply out-organised his side this time. Conservative groups have been knocking on doors throughout the pandemic he said, while most labor unions (with a few exceptions) and other progressive organisations focused instead on phone banking and television ads because of public health concerns. 

“What didn't work well, quite frankly, is the digital and the phone calls,” says Boyer. “It proves to me that you still have to go door-to-door and ask people for their vote. You have to do a ground game. The Republicans and Trump proved that, because he actually turned out more voters than he did last time and they never left the ground.”

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The question of Trump looms over everything. Many observers like Putnam and Rodden believe the president’s presence on the ballot has distortive ripple effects that may not be indicative of future results for either party. 

Trump seems both uniquely unpalatable to moderate Republicans and independents, who voted Biden but down ballot against his party, while also managing to increase turnout in his favour among voters who were not previously engaged. The University of Pittsburgh’s Putnam, who studies grassroots activism in the Trump years, notes that in some rural and formerly industrial counties, the incumbent increased his absolute vote count by remarkable amounts. Trump found 5 to 20 per cent more voters than in 2016 even as Democrats also did far better in these areas than anyone expected  just not well enough to match Trump’s gains  and attracted 10 to 30 per cent more voters than last time.  

Without Trump on the ballot in 2018, however, those additional conservative voters did not materialise. The moderate anger at him, meanwhile, was manifest and got taken out on other Republicans.

“Down ballot Republicans might have gotten the best of both worlds in 2020,” says Brendan Boyle, a Democratic Congressman who represents parts of Philadelphia and its suburbs. “You had people who would vote for Biden, but then revert to form and vote Republican below the presidential level. Then you also have those additional Trump fans that only he can bring out, who also vote Republican on the rest of the ticket.”

Similar stories played out to varying degrees in other formerly industrial swing states like Michigan, where ticket splitting was less in evidence, and Wisconsin. In the Badger State, the rural but left-leaning north-western corner turned out even more voters for Biden than it had for Clinton, as did medium sized cities on the border of Minnesota. But again, most rural counties surged to unseen heights of support for Trump.

Boyle says that one of the takeaways from the election should be that swing voters still exist, contrary to popular belief. Debate in his House Democratic caucus has raged across the media since the election, with both left-wing and moderate politicians arguing that their ideological commitments were borne out by the results. 

“I think that Pennsylvania probably has more swing voters than most other states,” said Boyle, who is an ally and long-time supporter of Biden. “There were some who argued that it was only about base turnout, that that's how you win elections. I just don't agree with that.”

[See also: Without control of the Senate, the Democrats face big challenges. But there is reason for hope]

Perrapato of Turn PA Blue sees a similar pattern. She understands the 2020 election as a repudiation of extremism, real or perceived, as though voters wanted to stick with incumbents and freeze everything in place except for Trump. She also sees the activists she works with remaining fired up. In the days after Biden’s victory, she kept getting messages from her largely suburban membership asking how they could help in Georgia. 

But Perrapato also wonders what will happen once the distortion field created by Trump dissipates. Despite his attempts to falsely declare himself the winner, Trump is not set to be president in January. In 2024, he will be older than Joe Biden is now. That doesn’t mean he won’t run again, but four years is a long time. That leaves both parties asking themselves what Rust Belt realignment looks like in a political world without Trump.

“There's a lot of nuance to our positions, because when we run in the state legislature we talk about highways and the other local things causing everybody problems,” says Perrapato. “This year, every door we were at was talking about him. Every phone call was about Trump. It wasn't like that in 2018. I'm very curious to see when we get back to elections that are not all about him.” 

Suburban jurisdictions could continue moving to the Democratic camp without Trump to spook them, easing the party’s geographic disadvantage. Perhaps the activated rural voters who engorged the president’s base won’t turn out like that to vote for anyone else. But every “perhaps” brings with it another question. (Will those additional Democratic voters in rural areas come out to vote against, or for, anyone else?) Is there a way for Democrats to get larger margins out of their urban base than Biden or Clinton did, without alienating all the other demographics where they’ve made gains?

“This is a time when there needs to be lots of pretty intense soul searching and rethinking on all sides,” says Putnam. “Because anyone who tells you that they expected 3 November's results to end up as they did is lying to themselves. There's something surprising there for everyone.”

[See also: Is Donald Trump conducting a coup?]

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for City Monitor.