A baker, a mechanic, and a former union rep, all from the Rust Belt or Midwest, all Democrats, and all fed up with the status quo, say they voted for Trump and would do it again.
SALENA ZITO AND BRAD TODD
05.11.18 10:41 PM ET
Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio
It is 1:45 in the morning and Bonnie Smith’s alarm has just gone off. That alarm is a reminder that, seven days a week, she is living her lifelong dream of owning a bakery.
“I come in at two-thirty in the morning. We start making doughnuts from scratch. After that, I go into the breads and pies or whatever I have going out—like right now I need to do cupcakes, and I have a couple pies I have to put out, but I also have to check what orders are going out. Then we start soups, and by eleven o’clock we start lunch,” she explains.
At sixty-three, she is two years into her second career in the small town of Jefferson, running a Chestnut Street bakery that is a throwback to simpler times: pretty pink-and-green wallpaper decorated with cupcakes surrounds a fireplace and tables and chairs that fill the front of the bakery.
By 9 a.m., already half of her sugar cookies, tea cakes, cream wafers, brownies, mini tarts, and thumbprints are gone. With the help of her grandson, a fresh batch of sugary glazed doughnuts makes its way from the kitchen to a tray in the display case.
The aroma is irresistible and intoxicating and gently teases the senses.
A young mother enters with her three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who immediately makes a beeline to the display case filled with colorful cookies and pastries and, with the willfulness and determination only a toddler possesses, plants her face against the case to get a closer look at the cupcake with rainbow sprinkles on top.
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To the girl’s delight, Smith hands her the confection, and minutes later Evelyn’s face and fingers are covered in pink icing. The imprint of her little face on the display case—a smudged outline of a tiny nose and lips—makes Smith smile broadly.
As Smith started making soup for the anticipated lunch crowd, the diminutive brunette was sporting a white apron with Legally Sweet embroidered across the front, the name of her shop and a hat tip to her 30-plus years at the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office.
She started working as a cook in the sheriff’s department when the youngest of her three children was five years old. It was the same job her mother had.
But Smith wanted more.
So she went back to school for criminal law while she worked as a cook in the courthouse. She then moved over to dispatch and up through the ranks in the sheriff’s department until she made deputy, all the while raising her three children with her husband, an electrician for Millennium Inorganic Chemicals—one of the last big blue-collar employers in the once-mighty manufacturing county of Ashtabula, wedged between the shore of Lake Erie and the Pennsylvania state line, northeast of Cleveland.
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Smith was raised a Democrat, her parents were Democrats, she is married to a Democrat, and she worked for elected Democratic sheriffs in a county that had not voted a Republican into local office for as long as anyone you find can remember.
Until 2016, that is, when Ashtabula picked Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton and swept in a local ticket of Republicans underneath him.
Bonnie Smith was one of the unlikely participants in that unforeseen realignment that happened across the Great Lakes region in hundreds of communities like Ashtabula County, flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa into the Republican side of the electoral college after serving as what journalist Ron Brownstein dubbed the reliable industrial Democratic “Blue Wall” for decades.
How Democratic was Smith, and how recently? In March 2016, she voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Ohio primary contest. Voting Republican wasn’t even on the table for her, until suddenly it was, just a few months later.
“I am not sure what happened, but I started to look around me, and my town and my county, and I thought, ‘You know what? I am just not in the mood anymore to just show up and vote for who my party tells me I have to vote for,’” she says.
She was not alone. Ashtabula County had given its votes to John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis. It gave Barack Obama a 55 percent majority share of its vote twice—before turning 180 degrees to prefer Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent, a 31-point swing from one election to the next.
At first look, the numerical magnitude of Ashtabula’s swing, in a nation presumed frozen in partisan polarization, is what seems notable. At second look, the remarkable aspect is just how common that kind of change was in 2016 in the states that make up the Rust Belt.
Thirty-five counties in Ohio, long the nation’s premier presidential bellwether, swung 25 or more points from 2012 to 2016. Twenty three counties in Wisconsin, 32 counties in Iowa, and 12 counties in Michigan switched from Obama to Trump in the space of four years.
With few exceptions, these places are locales where most of America’s decision makers and opinion leaders have never been. Trump only carried 3 of the nation’s 44 “mega counties,” places with more than one million in population, and only 41 of the country’s 129 “extra large” counties with more than 400,000 but less than one million. Those 173 sizable counties are home to 54 percent of the U.S. population, and in 135 of them Trump even lagged behind the net margin performance of losing 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Trump crawled out of that mathematical hole in the all-but-forgotten communities—thousands of them.
It took a lot of Bonnie Smiths, in a lot of places like Ashtabula County, to wreck political expectations—and if their political behavior in 2016 becomes an affiliation and not a dalliance, they have the potential to realign the American political construct and perhaps the country’s commercial and cultural presumptions as well.
For Smith, who lives with her husband, George, on a working farm in nearby Saybrook, the political tipping point—even more than the job losses and the decay of the area—was a result of her faith and her growing disconnect on cultural issues from the candidates she had previously supported.
“I had looked the other way for far too long, had accepted that I was supposed to be more modern in my views when I wasn’t comfortable with the views my party started to take,” Smith says, making clear that this was a difficult decision to have made and to discuss publicly. “And I took a stand for myself, my beliefs, for life, and for my country.”
She says she also took a stand for her community: “All of this decay has happened under their [the Democrats’] watch.”
The shopping district where Legally Sweet sits is struggling; a Family Dollar store is around the corner, and the majestic Ashtabula County courthouse, where she worked for years, is across the street. Shuttered businesses dot both sides of the street.
“The town closes up about three o’clock on the weekdays and, like, one o’clock on Saturday. There’s nothing here. The people come in and… you’re making it but you’re not. You know? You’ve got enough to skimp by for the next day, but that’s it,” she says.
The statistics on the area’s own economic development website paint a picture of an Ashtabula County stuck in transition and trying to creatively reinvent itself to get out of the Great Recession, from which the wealthier America on the East and West coasts recovered years ago. As of May 2016, the local economic partnership wrote that the county’s employed workforce level was still stuck under 42,000 people—nearly the same figure as at the bottom of the national recession in 2010, a fall from 46,000 in its pre-recession high.2 Nationally, the number of employed Americans had bounced back to pre-recession levels by 2014.
The physical reality of the county’s industrial footprint tells the same story. Empty, idle, hulking coal-fired power plants line the lakeshore, and the docks that once attracted waves of Italian and Scandinavian immigrants to unload coal and iron ore now see little activity. The county’s population, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates, is 98,231, almost exactly what it was after the 1970 census, a span that saw the country as a whole grow by 59 percent.
A Democrat for decades, Smith didn’t quite know what to expect when she went home one day and told George she was thinking about supporting Trump. He told her he was already there. “So there was that,” she says, laughing.
America’s political experts, from party leaders to political science professors to journalists to pundits, did not expect the Smiths, or enough people like them, to vote for Donald Trump. Virtually every political and media expert missed the potential of Trump because they based their electoral calculus on assumptions that they hadn’t bothered to check since the last presidential election. To recognize the potential of the Trump coalition, analysts would have had to visit places they had stopped visiting and listen to people they had stopped listening to.
“I am kind of that voter that was hiding in plain sight that no one saw coming. I was right here all along. I’ve seen the job losses here, the rise in crime, the meth and heroin problem, society essentially losing hope; something just gave in with me,” Bonnie Smith says.