In rural America, support for Trump is complicated by pandemic
Blue-collar voters laid groundwork for Trump’s shock election victory in 2016
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the parts I replace are made in China or Mexico or Taiwan,” says Greg Houghland. Photograph: Stephen Starr
Smoke from burning petroleum and dust rise high into the still air as the deafening sound of drag racing cars reverberates into the Indiana night.
Despite the noise, there’s a relaxed atmosphere at the Franklin County Four Wheelers racetrack in Brookville, Indiana. Lawn chairs are pulled up by the drag. Behind, barbecue smoke wafts up into the still air. Campers and rigs kitted with car trailers large and small fill the arena. There’s a scattering of blue Trump 2020 flags hoisted proudly on the back of car trailers.
Greg Houghland has come to race his 1976 Chevy short bed four-wheel drive truck that boasts 700 horsepower under the hood. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says before his voice is drowned out by the roaring of engines as a pair of racing cars fly by.
Some polls suggest that support for the president in rural areas is not what it was in the lead up to the 2016 election
From Connersville, 30km to the north, he owns an automotive repair shop that does about $250,000 (€213,000) in business a year. However, Houghland says he has one major lament: that the auto materials he uses in his shop are no longer manufactured here in the Midwest.
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the parts I replace are made in China or Mexico or Taiwan, ” he says. “Ninety per cent of the tools [I have] are from China.” That’s a problem, he says, because “we should depend way less on foreign countries”.
It was rural and blue-collar voters such as Houghland who laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s shock election victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago. In 2016, rural voters came out for change – and for Trump – in huge numbers.
In presidential elections from 2008 to 2016, Republican candidates failed to make any ground in cities and suburbs. But in rural regions a sea-change occurred in that time with Republican candidates for the presidency gaining nine points over those three election cycles. Democrats lost 11 points in that time.
Once the beating heart of the US economy, rural America has been left behind in recent decades. Outward migration has been fuelled by the mechanisation of agriculture and manufacturing. Job opportunities have become ever scanter and incomes have stagnated.
“I think what’s happening in small towns is that major industries have moved away and that’s deeply impacted communities,” says Prof Sara Rinfret of the University of Montana’s Big Sky Poll. “The issue is jobs . . . and I think that’s where a lot of the dissention comes from.”
Some polls suggest that support for the president in rural areas is not what it was in the lead up to the 2016 election. That may be ascribed to cases of Covid-19 now impacting rural communities in higher numbers than at any other time over the past nine months.
'If Mickey Mouse would run for president I would vote for him right now'
According to the Daily Yonder, a rural-focused news website, in one week in October, 160 rural counties across the country fell into the “red” zone for Covid-19 cases, meaning the virus is out of control. As of October 20th, 70 per cent of non-metropolitan counties were in the red zone.
In Wisconsin, which Trump won by less than one percentage point in 2016 but where Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden is now ahead by up to nine points in some polls, 100 per cent of rural counties are now in the red zone. In Montana, a shortage of nurses across the state means frontline workers are no longer being asked to meet quarantine measures. States such as the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming and Alaska are experiencing significant spikes in Covid-19 cases.
“If [the virus] hits rural communities and neighbourhoods and affects the health and well-being of families, I think that’s going to be a huge driver in how people turn out,” says Rinfret.
It’s not only the health of rural Americans the pandemic has affected – local economies are suffering, too. The University of Montana’s Big Sky Poll would normally be polling across the state now, but budget restrictions mean this election season that hasn’t been possible; its most recent survey was back in June.
Brian Harrison, who has a blue Trump 2020 flag attached to his rig at the Indiana drag race, has never voted before. This year he feels it’s time to change that.
“I’m registered and everything,” says the mechanic from Brookville who has just won a race at the drag meeting with a truck that’s kitted with an 850-horsepower Nascar engine. “I feel like we need to keep moving on the way the country is going right now. We have good leadership. I feel like this is the way we need to go. It’s just what I believe.”
Here in Franklin county almost 80 per cent of voters backed Trump four years ago. Harrison says he scarcely considers Trump a Republican, and that’s part of his attraction. “As Americans we gotta think about what’s best for the American people.”
For Greg Houghland, however, Trump’s mistruths and antics grate. The president describing medication he took after announcing on October 2nd he had caught Covid-19 – an antibody treatment made by Regeneron – as a cure was one example. “Scientists ain’t said it’s a cure. He shouldn’t have said that,” he says.
“My problem with Donald Trump is – I voted for him [in 2016] – what I can’t stand about him is the lying bulls**t. He don’t tell the truth.”
The poisonous political atmosphere in Washington DC over a failure to reach a deal on a second stimulus package and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court has turned him off the political process, meaning he has yet to decide whether he’ll vote for Trump next week. But there is no chance he would vote for Joe Biden.
“If Mickey Mouse would run for president,” he says, cigarette ash falling gently onto his tanned arm, “I would vote for him right now.”