“The opportunities aren’t here,” said Frankie Susany, 50, who grew up in the Youngstown area and now works there as a small-business owner. “What used to be a thriving city in Youngstown is brown fields, abandoned mills, abandoned buildings, abandoned factories.”
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message resonates with Susany, who said that when he grew up, young people who worked in the steel mills had great lives. They drove new cars and had their own places to live right out of high school.
Now, with that steel industry gone, Susany believes voters need to cast their ballots with future generations in mind. “That’s what this election is about,” he said. “If we don’t change it now, our grandchildren are never going to know the America that (people my age) grew up in.”
In the March 2008 primary, just under 14 percent of registered voters in Mahoning County – where Youngstown is located – voted Republican. During this year’s state primary in March, more than 48 percent of the county’s registered voters cast a Republican ballot, and poll workers had to print additional Republican ballots. More than 6,000 voters then switched from Democratic to Republican this year.
Leo Connelly Jr. is a Vietnam veteran and former salesman who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Republican this year to vote for Trump in the primary. “I was sold on the fact that Obama could turn this country around,” he said. “We don’t want to get fooled again.”
In Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, which is 94 percent white with nearly a 10 percent poverty rate, 5,400 voters switched to the Republican Party to vote for Trump in the primary. The region’s steel factories shut down in the 1980s, and residents remain bitter about the job loss, said Blair Adams, a third-generation owner of K Castings Inc., a manufacturing plant.
“The steel industry as a whole, the big foundries that pour the molten metal, they’re gone,” he said. “All these people that are in this manufacturing area are definitely shifting (parties) because they understand that their jobs are at risk.”
For generations in Kentucky’s coalfields, including the town of Hindman, families spent most of their lives working underground in the mines. As those jobs disappear, Democrats are looking to options outside their party for change and the chance for an improved economy.
“What’s happened here (is) a catastrophe on top of a disaster,” said Mimi Pickering, a filmmaker with Appalshop, a media training center in nearby Whitesburg. “The last few years we’ve lost a great number of coal mining jobs, but really the coal economy has been declining and the employment in the industry has been declining since the 1950s.”
As coal became more scarce and expensive to mine in eastern Kentucky, coal companies moved to states such as Montana and Wyoming, where the work is easier and cheaper. The companies also started to use advanced mining technology, eliminating the need for a large number of miners.
Meanwhile, the government put environmental regulations into place, encouraging states to switch from coal to natural gas as a power source. Kentucky residents such as Ballard Combs, an 81-year-old former coal miner from Knott County, see Obama as the face of these changes.
“I loved the mines,” said Combs, who worked underground most of his adult life. “Obama shut them all down.”
Nearly 90 percent of registered voters in Knott County, which is 98 percent white, are Democrats because it’s what their families have been for generations.
But since 2008, the county has increasingly voted for the Republican presidential candidate. Both Combs and his father were Democrats, but he’s voting for Trump.
Knott County Clerk Ken Gayheart said registered Democrats come into his office daily to switch their registration to the GOP. When the coal companies left, Gayheart said no industries moved in to fill the vacancy.
“These old hills were never worth much,” Gayheart said. “We don’t do anything, we don’t make anything here in Knott County.”
Nearly 34 percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. In May, the unemployment rate was 10.5 percent.
“Eastern Kentucky is in tough shape, but a lot of rural America is in a tough time,” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies in nearby Whitesburg. “Something needs to change. That’s the point for the residents on the Trump side.”
Pervis Jacobs, 65, grew up in Hindman, Kentucky. He’s a lifelong Democrat, but he’s voting for Trump. “I feel like I have no choice,” said Jacobs. “I just don’t like the Democrats’ policies anymore.”
Many Trump supporters criticize increasing government regulations, President Obama’s health care law and immigration.
Nick Patterson, joint operating officer of Honest Abe Log Homes and president of Barky Beaver Mulch in Clay County, Tennessee, said the companies used to employ about 500 people and now employ 130.
“I think one of the things that’s so key in this political conversation over the last couple years is our overhead per employee has increased drastically,” he said. “It has come from federal regulations.”
Patterson said China’s economic situation has hurt his small business because there’s not enough domestic business. Over 50 percent of his produced lumber will end up overseas.
Leslie Rossi, leader of a grassroots movement for Trump in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, said she was initially drawn to Trump because he said he would repeal Obamacare. Rossi, a landlord, painted one of her rental houses red, white and blue to support the GOP candidate.
“Obamacare didn’t work, and it’s just been a burden,” Rossi said. “People still don’t have health care, and the people that did are paying more than they’ve ever paid. It’s changed in such a worse direction.”