At first glance, the Midwest seems to be undergoing an electoral shift to the right. This change in voting attitudes manifested itself in 2016; in a single election, many Midwestern states—with the exception of Illinois and Minnesota—flipped from “blue” to “red” on the electoral map. But the region’s electoral history shows a much more complicated position.
The key votes in the 2016 presidential election were cast in the Midwest—ironic, considering this part of America is “ignored by political journalists and taken for granted by Democratic strategists,” according to political analyst Michael Barone in The Surprising New Political Battleground: The Midwest. Out of the 100 electoral college votes that switched from Democratic in 2012 to Republican in 2016, 50 were from the Midwest, coming from Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
Such a drastic shift might create the impression that the Midwest is dominated by white voters without a college degree who lean conservative—a stereotype heightened by political events of the last few years. Many know Midwestern states as swing states, but taking a closer look at the demographic, economic and cultural past of the region gives us more insight into why we are seeing these increasing divides and the Midwest’s electoral realities across racial and socioeconomic status. Two important factors in the Midwest’s divisive electoral history remain its Black populations and the influence of labor unions.
Historic Advancement of Black People and Current Lack of Representation
The Northwest Ordinance, enacted on July 13, 1787, created the territory west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. It prohibited slavery—the first federal law to address the issue. The ordinance, containing a fugitive slave clause, left ambiguous and even ambivalent impacts on the region and America at large. As historian Paul Finkelman pointed out, the ordinance helped create a white majority in the Northwest that was hostile to slavery by discouraging slaveowners from moving into the region, while it didn’t threaten slavery in the South or directly affect slavery in the newly-established territory.
Although the ordinance’s effects on the problem of slavery remains controversial, it was extraordinary and set in motion the development of the Midwest, crucially shaping the culture and economy of the region to this day. Schools like Oberlin College admitted women and African Americans in 1837. In antebellum America, the region also attracted Yankee settlers from New England who yearned for reform, including women’s rights and abolition. According to historian John Buenker, these settlers transplanted New England values and mores to the region, establishing a culture that emphasized work ethic, social mobility, reverence for activists, public education and many other standards that were considered progressive. By the 1850s, the region was home to progressive people and blanketed with railroads and cultivated land.
Anti-slavery sentiments in the Midwest intensified when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, allowing settlers of a territory to decide whether slavery would be allowed within a new state’s borders. This act led to the formation of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin, and Jackson, Michigan, which committed itself to ending the further expansion of slavery. (It’s important to note that the Republican Party was originally the more progressive and the Democratic Party more conservative, a designation that some historians say flipped in 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party. He ran against incumbent President William H. Taft, who was perceived to be conservative on a number of economic and social matters.)
The institutional freedom attained through legislations and political battles over slavery were integrated into Midwest’s founding history, and meanwhile, because of the rising percentage of non-white voters (especially in urban areas) since 2000, it might seem intuitive that Democrats should have an increasing advantage in elections.
Such an impression is at least partially true, since Barack Obama could not have been elected president without unprecedented support in the Midwest in 2008. He carried the region’s electoral votes by a margin of 97 to 27 and won 54 percent of the popular vote in the Midwest, more than any other Democrat in history except Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. Trump’s victory in 2016, however, proved that the reality was far more complicated than the expectation of Democrat candidates’ performance in the Midwest that was planted by Obama’s victories.
Looking at voter turnout of African Americans tells another side of the story. A viral Facebook post revealed Milwaukee, Wis., as one of a handful of cities where large numbers of Black voters didn’t vote in the 2016 election: “(President Donald) Trump won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes … in Milwaukee, 93,000 blacks didn’t vote.” The post originated from a New York Times opinion piece by information systems professor Karthik Balasubramanian, in which he discussed the decline in black voter turnout in 2016.
While some may have expected that black turnout for a post-Obama Democratic presidential candidate would reach the levels it did for Obama (record turnout, 95 percent of which voted for him), the U.S. census backs up Balasubramanian’s claims, showing a decrease in voter turnout from 66.6 percent of eligible voters in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016 for non-Hispanic Blacks.
White voters have a fickle history; Obama’s 2012 victory also depended on the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a presidential campaign since 1976; he won 43 percent of white voters, only 4 percentage points below Carter’s performance in 1976. The white support, to some extent, defies attempts to split the electorate along color lines. But in 2016, such support proved to be “unreliable” for Democrats: the counties that voted for Obama twice and then flipped to support Trump were 81 percent white.
The rural white voters’ shift from Obama to Trump also implies the development of a “rural consciousness”—in the words of author Kathy Cramer—which is identifying as a rural person who perceives distributive injustice that disfavors your identity and feels intense resentment toward the cities. Such a consciousness comprises resentment toward people of color as well. According to Kramer, many rural folks noted the belief that urban elites “ridiculed rural folks as uneducated racists.” Such a resentment toward the perceived hostility from urban, more diverse and seemingly more progressive areas feeds into not only the growing urban/rural divide but also the white and non-white voter divide.
In this reality where white voters are driving the general direction of the Midwestern electoral process, Black communities still hold major potential; despite the fact that only 10 percent of Midwestern voters are Black, their votes can be decisive in determining the electoral outcomes for Midwestern swing states, especially with investment and organizing efforts toward voter turnout.
Although the Midwest as a whole remains largely white, the region is dotted with cities where Black people constitute a majority of the population. Most of these black-majority cities already existed in some form in 1970. The migration of Black people to the cities has been broadly a quest for opportunity, sustainability and investment. However, these Black populations have consistently suffered from rising inequality and wage stagnation. With their physical well-being and economic life looking nearly as gloomy as decades ago, their participation in democratic processes is as important as ever.
The Labor Union Tradition, Past and Present
Many metropolitan areas with the highest shares of middle-income adults are in the Midwest which is not surprising considering the region’s industrial past and heavy manufacturing present. Midwestern labor organizations and union voters have factored significantly into the region’s democratic processes—the evolution of the working class is crucial in shaping Midwestern political attitudes.
Midwestern labor movements were dedicated to enlarging the welfare state and increasing public spending. Such core values significantly affected their voting attitudes and continue to do so today.
The Great Depression saw union laborers exert substantial political power. They collectively shifted the Midwest away from the Republican Party, as the region gave all 161 of its electoral votes to FDR in both 1932 and 1936. During FDR’s second term, workers in General Motors’ Flint, Mich. factories stopped working and occupied the factories. Industrial union organizations feared the Supreme Court would overturn the Wagner National Labor Relations Act encouraging unionization, but the Court upheld the legislation and union representation flourished.
Although the Midwest continued voting more Republican than the national average due to a large population of rural voters who leaned conservative, voters in union households tended to align with Democratic politics. And according to political analyst Michael Barone, as farm territory slowly lost population and factory cities and towns grew, the Midwest’s Republican tilt diminished.
In the later stages of the 20th century, however, historian Jon K. Lauck has pointed out that the employment-generating manufacturing sector of the Midwest began to shrivel in the face of stiff foreign competition. The displacement of factories to low-wage countries and automation has challenged the once-powerful labor unions in maintaining their prosperity. Additionally, the smaller number of farmers in the Midwest and the Democrats’ traditional focus on urban voters and its more recent focus on coastal voters caused a widening disconnect with rural Midwesterners.
The 2016 election casts light on increasing volatility, ideological tension and contradiction in union politics. The Rust Belt that had voted for Democratic presidents for decades, in this election, chose Trump. More importantly, the Republican Party performed well among non-college educated whites, some of whom lived in rural areas but many of whom would be more closely associated with Midwestern industrial areas — Trump won working class White men by a 50% margin and 67% of all White working class voters according to the Wall Street Journal.
One key reason may be that the power of unions has been further diminishing. Since the 1970s, unions have started facing challenges because of an increasing inflow of products from abroad and that many companies moved to the South where unions were weaker. In The Politics of Deregulation, author Martha Derthick and Paul J. Quirk also pointed out that the intellectual mood in the 1970s and 1980s favored deregulation and free competition.
In recent years, Republicans continued to push through legislation that curbed the power of unions. Governors in both Wisconsin and Michigan signed right-to-work laws, which allow many blue-collar workers to opt out of joining unions and paying dues while still enjoying the benefits of collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions. This has led to the unions’ further decline both financially and politically. Workers are less likely to get out to vote for Democrats, the party that typically allies with unions.
In Midwest Labor and the Working-Class Vote: The Case of Iowa, Jennifer Sherer, University of Iowa Labor Center director, further analyzed the candidates’ appeal to labor workers in the 2016 election. She indicates that the economic challenges of Clinton’s political campaign were “exacerbated for those labor voters who found it difficult to ignore her past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Clinton’s seemingly neo-liberal inclination alienated her working-class voter base.
Meanwhile, Trump campaigned against free trade agreements to which he attributed the Midwest’s loss of jobs. He also made multiple trips to historically Democratic-stronghold states such as Michigan and Wisconsin to appeal to the working class voters there. Additionally, according to Sherer, Midwestern Union leaders failed to communicate to the workers how certain values legitimized by Trump’s campaign—such as anti-immigrant sentiments—posed fundamental threats to worker unity. This combination of a weakening labor union tradition and Trump’s anti-trade messages positively contributed to his victory in the 2016 election.
The values of labor movements, despite efforts to weaken unions, have remained consequential in the electoral processes, especially as some labor unions tried to regain their political power in the industrial Midwest.
“Unions have been the only way that workers who drive our economy have a voice in politics,” Cathy Glasson, a registered nurse and union leader in Iowa, told Workplace Fairness. “[T]he intentional attack on unions in the state of Iowa and the Midwest and beyond is intentional to silent the voice of everyday workers that need to have a voice in politics.”
Glasson officially announced her campaign for governor in 2018 without any prior experience in politics.
“With the election of Donald Trump, we’re seeing a wave of first-time candidates excited about creating change in each of our states,” she said. “We need to give people something to go to the polls and stand in line and vote for.”
African American and Union Voters in Everchanging Midwestern Politics
While the Midwest has roots in supporting Black advancement and pro-labor movements, both Black and labor worker communities in the region face unique challenges in making their voices heard in electoral processes today.
According to national survey data, Black voters are among the country’s most economically progressive, with majorities supporting socialized medicine, a federal jobs guarantee and minimum wage increases. Being subject to voter-suppression policies and voter-depression messaging, however, many eligible Black voters have been more likely not to vote at all, especially when the potential candidates do not represent their interests.
Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, called these black voters “the other swing voters” who swing between voting and not voting. These individuals function in a political climate filled with distrust, misinformation, and fear, and unlike the white swing voters who are often encouraged to vote, Black voters have additional, institutionally-embedded hurdles to reach the polls.
As for Midwestern labor workers, unions are finding new ways to innovate and preserve influence in electoral politics. Sherer pointed out in her report that, while navigating hostile political terrain where some legislative agendas have thrown labor unions off balance, many unions continue to seek new models for maintaining long-standing workplace policies, sustaining membership and supporting current members.
Political Analyst Ronald Brownstein has pointed out that “Trump’s visceral connection with older, non-urban, and especially blue-collar whites has rattled the foundations of the Democrat’s Rustbelt pillars.” Trump’s appeal to rural working-class whites could also reflect a deepening cultural divide: the non-college-educated could feel alienated from the culture that has been mainly driven by the ideologically progressive global citizens.
Trump’s criticism of urban elites could also apply to cultural elites whom the working class tend to feel condescended to. The growing anti-elite fury among the working class along with the challenges of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimiation that undermine solidarity will likely compel the labor worker communities to forge new collective working-class identities.
It is unclear where the transformative forces of race and class will lead us in this upcoming election, but one thing remains evident: both Black communities and the working class in the Midwest will continue to influence the course of politics in November and the future. The Midwest remains a battleground, one with a complex and nuanced history in electoral politics—and thus one that often escapes clear definitions or predictions within party lines. That being said, its particular history with both Black voters and working-class voters lends it particular swing, especially during tight elections—and if politicians hope to leverage the swing states effectively, that history cannot be ignored.
Marley Jacobson and Jeremy Reya contributed to this article.
This article was updated on 07/22/20.