How Trump won Erie County

Lost factories and construction pushed Erie voters to take a chance on Donald Trump.

ERIE, Pa. — Todd Sias couldn’t wait to show us the photographs. My twin brother Jordan and I had just walked into the humble apartment Sias shares with his wife Diana on Parade Street, a few blocks from the Lake Erie shore.  

Sias took out the photos, and there he was. The printed photos show Sias, an out-of-work 44-year-old who immigrated from Mexico as a child, smiling, gesticulating and generally having a grand old time at the Erie Insurance Arena on August 12, 2016.  

That was the day Todd and Diana witnessed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump holding court before roughly 10,000 admirers, and Todd looked in the photo as though he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. “This is me. And I’m wearing my ‘Make America Great’ shirt,” Todd explained. “And I’m happy.”

Sias saw a lot to like in Trump, whom he said he has supported “since day one.” There were Trump’s pledges to repeal Obamacare, ban certain refugees from entering the country, and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants. 

I asked Todd whether he was troubled by some of Trump’s hardline positions and harsh rhetoric on immigration. “I know that Trump seems like he’s hard-pressed against Hispanics, Muslims, anybody who is not basically an American,” Todd answered. “And as well he should be. America should be for Americans. I am Hispanic, but I have dual-citizenship, and I filled out the paperwork and got in this country legally.”

But the topic that mattered most to Sias and many other Erie County residents was the one Trump zeroed in on that day Sias saw him: trade and manufacturing. Trump promised to renegotiate trade deals and bring jobs back to the county. “Would I be good at keeping jobs over here?” he asked the crowd, rhetorically. “You look at this arena, and you see thousands and thousands of people. I think we’re going to do great.”

Earlier that day Trump had told the Erie Times-News that he’d come to Erie as an ambassador for “the working man and woman.”

“I’m representing people whose jobs have just been taken away because their companies have left,” he said.

Sias had worked in construction and manufacturing for most of his adult life but couldn’t find work lately. The day before we met him, he had gone to an interview at Taco Bell. “I mean, no job is too demeaning when you need food on the table and a roof over your head,” he explained. 

“The thing I like about Trump is he wants America first,” Sias told us as Diana looked on. “It seems like we’re getting short-ended on all the trade deals. It doesn’t seem like we have any growth in the economy, and it seems like we’re literally outsourcing all our economy and commerce out of the country.”

Perhaps most notable about Trump’s presence in Erie is how it contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s absence there. Clinton sent all of her top surrogates — husband Bill, daughter Chelsea and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine — but didn’t set foot in the county herself. “Hillary Clinton wasn’t even good enough to campaign for herself,” Todd said. “If you’re not willing to put in the work, you don’t deserve the title.”

Maybe Clinton felt she didn’t need to show up. As Erie Mayor Joseph Sinnott told us earlier that day, “[The city of] Erie was a big Clinton area. It always was. They were very, very supportive of Bill Clinton, very, very supportive of [Hillary] Clinton in 2008.” 

Either way, Clinton took this Rust and Snow Belt county for granted, and she paid a price for it on Nov. 8. 

Four years after Mitt Romney lost Erie County by 19,000 votes, Trump won it by 2,000, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win there since 1984. That 21,000-vote swing (a 19 percentage-point reversal) helped Trump become the first Republican to win Pennsylvania since 1988. 

Clinton dominated in Erie City, whose population of 100,000 is about one-third the county’s total, winning each of the city’s 69 voting districts. But Trump won overwhelmingly almost everywhere else in the county. 

Erie County borders Lake Erie to the north, New York to the east and Ohio to the west. Over the last couple of decades, it has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs and consequent decline in the population as people have moved elsewhere to find better job opportunities. 

More than 10,000 people moved out of Erie County during a six-year period between April 2010 and July 2016. Locomotive manufacturer GE Transportation, previously Erie’s largest employer, laid off 1,500 employees in 2016. During that time, 3,900 refugees and immigrants settled here, including more than 300 Syrian refugees, to fill the employment void. 

But as Erie’s economy shifts from manufacturing to a combination of manufacturing and services, education and healthcare, some workers are being left out, which is why Trump’s pledge to bring back manufacturing jobs so deeply here, especially with the working class. 

David Moore, whom we met at an Erie Applebee’s and who had recently been let go from his job at the Plastek Group, a plastics packaging manufacturer, explained just how deeply. “I know firsthand from just my division when I worked in Erie, of 125 employees out of three shifts, every single one of us voted for Trump for the same reason,” he said. “We wanted change.” He continued:

“We were pretty much standing as a shop saying, ‘We want to see something different. We don’t want the same political promises that don’t hold up.’ And Trump was very, very persistent through his campaigns that he was going to bring that change that a lot of us lower class working families were trying to find.” 

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Moore, who is in his early 30s and married with two young children, is no conservative hardliner. He calls himself “more of an independent.” He doesn’t agree with Trump on everything — he’s against “the wall,” for instance. What’s more, although his vote for Trump in 2016 was the first vote he ever cast, he said he probably would have voted for Obama in 2012 and gives the former president an “A” grade on performance. 

That said, Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” and bring jobs back from overseas convinced him it was time for a change. “Myself, and I know my wife, and numerous family members, we were all for Trump from day one.” 

“He’s an advocate for the working class and that the politicians haven’t listened to them,” Moore continued. “If you did not have people in manufacturing, you didn’t have people in construction, you didn’t have people doing the real hard jobs, our country would not be nothing. I think our voices should be heard a lot clearer, and I’ve felt that over the years it hasn’t.” Trump, Moore said, appealed to the working class on a “‘I’ve been there. I know what you guys have been through’ level.”

Hope and solidarity are not ideas often associated with Donald Trump. But they were key to his surprising victories in places such as Erie County and Robeson County, N.C., where we found many residents voted for Trump because they felt he spoke to them, their values and concerns; he told them they still mattered.  

“Obviously in 2008 [hope] was the big moniker for the Democratic Party,” Mayor Sinnott said. “But I think that’s what resonates with people in every election. Where does their hope lie now? When their lives weren’t what they expected them to be, significantly better, then their hope changes to a different message and they’re trying that now. Four years from now we’ll see where people’s hope lies then.”

Sinnott continued regarding Trump’s promises to revitalize manufacturing. “I think he instilled in people a hope that people in cities were going to matter again, and they were going to be part of the policies going forward, especially the economic policies. That’s what people are betting on.”

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Whether that bet will ultimately pay off is debatable. Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said, “The truth of the matter is I think people will be disappointed when they don’t see some of those economic changes happen like they had hoped.” Dahlkemper, formerly a Democratic member of Congress, noted that automation has had more to do with the loss of manufacturing jobs than unfair trade deals. Many of the jobs in Erie, including the more than 1,000 cut at GE Transportation last year, moved not to Mexico or China but to new facilities in the U.S., in GE’s case to Fort Worth, Texas. 

Regardless, in places and among people who have felt abandoned politically, dismissed culturally, and forgotten economically, hope has been in short supply. And for now at least, as Todd Sias put it, “The hope of [the American dream] is alive again with Donald Trump.”

Next: How the drug epidemic devastated one of the counties that won Trump the election

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