Ohio’s working class felt deserted by Democrats. Can Biden win them back? | Ohio

David Cox is trying to persuade his members that Joe Biden has done more for working-class Americans than any US president in his decades as a construction worker and union organiser in western Ohio.

But Cox is not sure they really want to hear it, in a state where the Democratic brand was in decline long before Donald Trump snatched victory in Ohio in 2016 and then increased his support four years later.

“Biden’s been great. He’s done so much for labour like we have never seen in my lifetime,” he said, ticking off legislation to revitalise manufacturing and invest in technology that created many new construction jobs, as well as labour department decisions in favour of workers.

“But whether it brings back those we lost to Trump remains to be seen. I think even if they aren’t inclined to go out and vote for Biden, maybe they’ll just stay home and not vote at all. That’s half a win.”

Cox, an ironworker and director of the Dayton Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group representing thousands of construction workers in western Ohio, has good reason for scepticism.

Ohio was once a swing state so crucial that presidential candidates repeatedly piled in to win over voters. But by 2020, the Democratic national funders decided it wasn’t even worth throwing serious money into the fight and left Ohio off their list of targets, essentially conceding the state to Trump and the Republicans.

The only Democrat to win statewide office in more than a decade is the US senator Sherrod Brown, who is expected to face a tough fight for re-election next year.

Cox’s union is based in Dayton, a part of Montgomery county where the Democratic vote was once strong enough to help offset losses elsewhere in the state. Trump won the county in 2016, albeit by a whisker. Biden took it back four years later by just 2%.

Party officials, nationally and locally, appear to have recognised the mistake in letting Ohio slip away. But there is disagreement on the causes and how to respond even if they see reasons for optimism.

Ohio Democrats have been energised by the size of the victory and turnout in last month’s referendum on a Republican attempt to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution. The move was aimed at making it harder for voters to enshrine access to abortion in the constitution in another ballot in November. But it was defeated by 57% to 43% on an exceptionally high turnout for a ballot vote in August, reflecting what Democrats see as a major electoral issue in their favor after the US supreme court struck down constitutional protections last year.

For all that, veteran Democrats say there is a long road to travel in Ohio for a party that is the architect of some of its own misfortunes.

On paper, Biden should be in a relatively strong position. The economy and job numbers are growing, even if inflation has hit hard. But a CNN national survey released on Thursday found Biden neck and neck with Trump and every other Republican candidate, with the exception of the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was six points ahead of the president.

There are good reasons to be cautious about those numbers more than a year before the election, but they are another reminder to the Democrats of the difficulties of persuading voters in regions like western Ohio that Biden has been good for them. The economy may look stronger on paper, but even if voters are not struggling financially many do not feel good about their deeply fractured country or the Democrats.

Kim McCarthy, the Democratic chair in Greene county, which includes part of eastern Dayton, said her party struggles to shake the perception that, at a national level, it is not interested in working people.

“It’s not a secret that our country is run by corporate USA Inc. I feel that limitation stops Democrats from fighting for things that would bring people over to their side, like universal healthcare,” she said.

Donald Trump arrives to cheering supporters at a rally for Ohio Republicans at the Dayton international airport last year. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

McCarthy said that remained a good part of the reason for Trump’s continuing support in her county.

“The appeal of Trump ultimately is that people recognise that our federal government is failing us as a society, as a nation. I’m from Australia and I think one of the most profound things that I’ve realised over my 25-odd years of living here is that the US government doesn’t care about me and my life,” she said.

“When I moved here, I gave up a government that was prepared to support me to ensure that I had the tools to live my best life. I think Americans, even without having lived in another country, ultimately understand that difference. Trump, of course, is not the answer to that problem.”

Cox said the Democratic party nationally and locally bears a good deal of the responsibility for losing Ohio. “Labour feels it has been left out of the picture,” he said.

He added that the Democrats had been damaged goods in Dayton since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and thousands of factory jobs were shipped to Mexico after 1994.

“This was a General Motors town, and every family had somebody that worked there. When Nafta happened, General Motors virtually pulled out of this town and moved to Mexico. In the Dayton area, it’s a sore issue even today. People were selling homes, selling their boats, selling their motorcycles,” he said.

The legacy is visible in abandoned industrial buildings and open spaces where factories once stood. Dayton has lost one-quarter of its population since Nafta.

Cox said Nafta changed the perception of the Democrats as representing American workers. Then Trump came along and renegotiated Nafta to improve some of the terms for the US, which made it look as if he was at least listening to workers in cities like Dayton.

“That was one of his better moves. People here liked that,” said Cox. “That and really punching China in the nose.”

There’s no shortage of Democrats to admit they got it wrong in Ohio. But the chair of Montgomery county Democrats, Mohamed Al-Hamdani, sees the mistakes differently.

Al-Hamdani, the first Muslim to chair a Democratic party branch in Ohio, said the problem went beyond overlooking industrial workers.

“We’ve become a polarised country, and I think some of that is because demographics are changing in the United States. In 1992, when my family came here, I don’t think there was a Muslim in Congress. People of color had a few seats in Congress, women had smaller number of seats in Congress and the Senate. And you couldn’t even say LGBTQ+,” he said.

“Fast-forward 35 years, and the country has rapidly changed and some of that change comes at a cost for a party like us. When you’re that party that supports all that, sometimes there is a backlash. We’re on the right side of history, for sure. But doing the right thing doesn’t always get you elected.”

That divide can be seen in differing views of why the former Ohio congressman Tim Ryan lost the US Senate race last year to the Republican JD Vance, the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy – a controversial account of growing up amid poverty and drug addiction.

At times, Ryan appeared to be running against his own party.

“You’ve seen a broken economic system where both parties have sold out to the corporate interests that shift our jobs down to the southern part of this country, then to Mexico, then to China. There is no economic freedom if there’s no jobs here in the United States,” he told a 2022 election rally.

Tim Ryan, left, embraces Teamster local 413 member Dennis Harper outside a UPS facility in Columbus, Ohio, on 4 November 2022.
Tim Ryan, left, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2020. Photograph: Paul Vernon/AP

Cox, who calls Ryan “the worker’s Democrat”, thinks he lost because the national Democratic party failed to fund his campaign properly. Ryan has accused the party of writing off states like Ohio that do not have a majority of voters with a university degree.

Al-Hamdani thinks Ryan was so concentrated on winning back support from those who decamped to Trump, such as some of Cox’s members, that he neglected the voters who stuck with the Democrats.

“Our base is still a diverse base. In Montgomery county a majority of votes that come to Democrats still come from very diverse areas, black neighborhoods,” he said.

“Ryan’s team made the calculation that they thought those folks were already in the bag, and that just wasn’t true. You have to work to shore up your base, and our base just didn’t show up. They didn’t vote in the numbers we wanted them to. I think a lot of it’s because they felt, and rightfully so, that they were forgotten and taken for granted, and we can’t do that as a party.”

Then there are the rural voters. While Ohio’s three largest cities – Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati – remain solidly Democrat, it’s not enough to offset the huge shift away from the party outside urban areas.

Fred Strahorn, a Black member of the Ohio legislature for a Dayton district for nearly 20 years who also led the Democratic caucus for four years, said the party had not been helped by east coast liberals dismissing Trump voters as motivated by nothing more than prejudice.

“I think some of those voters took that as an insult, and it made them even more entrenched in their decision. I don’t think that’s how you court voters. I don’t think that you can just say, hey, because you didn’t agree with me, there’s something wrong with you,” he said.

Strahorn said that if Biden was to have any chance of winning the state he needed to return to Obama’s strategy of spending a lot of time on the ground telling people what he is going to do for them. But he said the Democrats also need to engage voters on their “litmus issues” such as guns and support for the military to explain that the party is not hostile to either.

“We need to say that we do support the military. The truth is the opposition supports military contracting, not necessarily military personnel, because they often try to take stuff from the military personnel and their families. They support things that go boom. There’s ways to talk about this but you have to engage them,” he said.

Strahorn said there would be no quick comeback for the party in Ohio and that ultimately winning voters’ confidence was a long game. He wants the Democrats to have the courage to embrace what he regards as one of the party’s greatest strengths, defence of government as a means to improve people’s lives.

He said the party had become afraid of doing it in the face of relentless Republican attacks blaming people’s problems on “big government”, a strategy reinforced by Democrats in Congress who serve the interests of corporations.

“One of the failures, multi decades long, is not telling people what government does for them and remind them on a regular basis, so they’re not so easily turned against it. We’ve not defended government, not really explained all the things that government does that you actually like, want and use,” he said.

“Therefore when somebody comes along and takes a swack at it, it’s easy for people to believe because they never hear anything but that. If you don’t counter that it really makes it hard for that electorate to see you as somebody who’s trying to help them because you haven’t explained how that works. That’s your battleground.”

This article was amended on 10 September 2023 to change “eastern Ohio” references to “western Ohio”.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/sep/10/ohio-democrats-biden-working-class Ohio’s working class felt deserted by Democrats. Can Biden win them back? | Ohio

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