By Peter Eisler
BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - The unraveling of the coalition that was supposed to carry Hillary Clinton to the White House had a lot to do with voters like Jim McAndrew in counties like Northampton, Pennsylvania.
McAndrew, 69, a retired steel worker, voted Democrat in every presidential election for half a century. This year he stayed home. And Northampton County, a heavily white, heavily Democratic, largely working class area that backed President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, went for Donald Trump, a Republican.
McAndrew, who voted for Obama in the two previous races, was intrigued by Trump, but decided eventually that “all he does is insult everybody ... women, black people, white people, rich, poor. He’s an idiot.” He considered Clinton, but was concerned by the scandal over her handling of classified material on a private email server as secretary of state.
“I hated both of them, so I just said, ‘the hell with it,’” McAndrew said. His wife, also a life-long Democrat, went to the polls without him - and voted Republican.
“First time ever," he said.
Trump’s ability to flip reliably Democratic counties like Northampton helped drive his victory in the presidential election this week. It was critical to his win in Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states, a bulwark in the Democrats’ electoral strategy for winning the White House, and it helped fuel his victories in critical swing states, such as Florida and North Carolina.
It’s not that Trump’s economic populism and "America First" messages generated widespread enthusiasm; he won some of those counties with far fewer votes than Mitt Romney captured as the Republican nominee in 2012. Nationwide, Trump’s 59.7 million votes are about 1.2 million behind the 60.9 million Romney got when he lost four years ago, based on initial projections.
But Clinton’s troubles holding on to Democratic voters were far more stark. Some crossed party lines for Trump or backed an independent.
Many just stayed home.
Clinton won the popular vote with 59.9 million votes, 6 million fewer than the 65.9 million Obama won in 2012. And her weakness in traditionally Democratic areas helped cost her the electoral college that chooses the winner of the election.
Clinton came across as a status quo candidate unlikely to shake up the Washington establishment, says Mike Sly, 74, a retiree and independent voter in Pinellas County, Florida, who backed Obama in 2012 and voted for Trump this year. Clinton’s message failed to convince him that she would address his concerns about the state of the economy and rising health insurance premiums under Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The race “came down to basically what change do I think is going to happen, and how I think it is going to happen,” Sly says. “I felt that Hillary really carried too much baggage to be trusted.”
Clinton’s loss in Florida, a key battleground state, stemmed partly from her inability to hold voters like Sly in white, middle- and working-class areas that previously went Democrat. In vote-rich Pinellas, a beach community popular with retirees in the Tampa Bay region, Trump won 48 percent of the vote, besting Clinton’s 47 percent. In 2012, Obama won 52 percent.
Nationally, initial projections show low voter turnout of just over 55 percent, the worst since the contested election of 2000, when Republican George W. Bush defeated then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore. In Obama’s first victory, turnout was more than 62 percent.
Clinton beat Trump among black and Hispanic voters, but her effort to forge a winning coalition by leveraging that strength in diverse, urban areas was upended by Trump’s strength among whites. Meanwhile, Trump still managed to hold roughly the same level of minority support that Romney got in 2012.
The pattern held true not only in rural areas, but also in many suburbs, particularly in the Rust Belt and the South, that tipped towards Obama in the previous two presidential races.
“It was pretty much a base election, but one group was better at turning out their voters than the other,” says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.
In Gates County, North Carolina, Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration and police Muslim communities for radicalism resonated, says Eric J. Earhart, 49, pastor of the evangelical Upper Room Assembly church. “There has been a definite shift over the past eight years away from us being a Judeo-Christian nation,” Earhart adds, and many congregants worry about that.
The rural county of 12,000 people went for Obama in 2012 with 52 percent of the vote, but it flipped into Trump’s column in this year’s race, giving him 53 percent.
Thomas Hill, 38, chairman of the Gates County Republican Party, says voters also were attracted to Trump’s blunt speaking and his pledge to bring back manufacturing jobs that went overseas.
Trump’s economic message, which included a promise to kill free trade agreements that are unpopular among many working-class voters in industrial areas, also succeeded in Macomb County, Michigan, a predominantly white area north of Detroit. The number of voters casting ballots in the county jumped by more than 14,000 over 2012, and Trump captured 53 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent.
Four years ago, Obama won the county with just under 52 percent of the vote.
“You’ve got a lot of blue collar workers here (and) ... a lot of union guys, and they went Republican,” says David Phair, 59, a construction worker and Trump voter who didn’t cast a ballot in 2012. “They’re tired of politicians.”
Phair also liked Trump’s promise to end illegal immigration. “I’m looking forward to how he’s going to handle illegal aliens.”
In Pennsylvania, Northampton County and neighboring Lehigh County, once reliant on steel companies, have bounced back from the industry’s decline.
In Bethlehem, which straddles the two counties, new development has mushroomed around the old steel mill, including a Sands casino resort with 2,400 employees.
E-commerce companies, white collar firms and big corporations, such as Olympus, the Japanese imaging giant, have also moved to the region. Lehigh and Northampton counties have a larger share of households than the state as a whole that earn more than $75,000, about 36 percent.
All that suggests ripe country for Clinton. But the counties also are whiter and older than the country as a whole.
And Trump dominated voting among older whites.
Around the table where McAndrew has a weekly poker game in the basement of the United Steel Workers office in Bethlehem, the retired men of the city’s steel mills have different opinions on why Clinton failed to match Obama’s success in the region.
But they agree that she didn’t offer a compelling message. Among the five at the table, all lifelong Democrats, only three cast votes for Clinton.
“She was going to continue everything the way it is and a lot of people think there are things that need to be changed,” says Ken Rayden, 80, who voted for Clinton, but mainly out of party loyalty. “She didn’t show the people anything new.”
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Florida, Howard Schneider in Washington, DC, Gary Robertson in North Carolina, and Tim Branfalt in Michigan. Editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin)