A Road Trip Through the Swing States (Before the Coronavirus Hit)

In the first week of March, reporting on U.S. politics for America, I set off in a rental car from my home in Pittsburgh.

My plan: Spend a day each in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. All five states backed Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the 2012 presidential election and Donald J. Trump, a Republican, in 2016. Winning over the voters in those swing states, and addressing their concerns about deindustrialization, health care, abortion, racial tension and other issues, is key to both parties’ 2020 presidential campaigns.

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Then came the virus.

The novel coronavirus disease Covid-19 landed hard in a highly connected nation with an aging population, a disjointed medical system, and persistent income and racial inequality. Initially clustered in big cities on both coasts, the virus spread into the heartland—and into the places I visited.

Schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, and both Little League fields and pro sports stadiums slammed shut. Dioceses suspended Mass en masse. The stock market plummeted. In a particularly American touch, gun sales increased.

The pandemic crisis left me with the feeling I had dreamed the entire road trip. Yes, I had seen some of the pearls of a sprawling, diverse land: a poetry reading at Oberlin college, a spectacular Serb restaurant in Milwaukee, quirky bookstores in Iowa City. But for a while, travel like that will, in fact, be just a dream.

The people I met, like the rest of us, still have a decision to make in November about the future of this country.

Closed for business, the United States goes on, but its culture and politics are transformed. When I called to check in with the people I met on my trip, there was a consensus that it was worth shutting things down for a while to contain the virus, with praise for civil servants like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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Crisis brings out the values we hope are true: Humans matter more than profits, truth more than political spin and science more than the stock market. Maybe public service will even regain its once-noble reputation.

Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee’s commissioner for city development: “I have great confidence in people who’ve given their careers to good government.” (All photos by John W. Miller)

“I have great confidence in what the president calls the ‘deep state,’ people who’ve given their careers to good government,” said Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee’s commissioner for city development who, pre-lockdown, gave me a tour of the city in his Toyota pick-up truck. “There’s a decency and competency in those people that will shine.”

My phone calls reaffirmed the value of my road trip. The places I visited are still there, and the people I met, like the rest of us, still have a decision to make in November about the future of this country.

Among Democrats, I found more unity than I expected. All the Bernie Sanders supporters I talked to said they would vote for Joe Biden in November, assuming he is the Democratic nominee. Among Republicans, I found allegiance to Mr. Trump based on satisfaction with his tax cuts and appointments of conservative, pro-life judges; there was less concern about his ethical and behavioral shortcomings. Among undecided voters, especially Catholics, I found an openness to supporting Mr. Biden, even among those identifying as democratic socialists.


Monday: Beaver, Pa. (suburban Pittsburgh)

Trump’s Suburban Catholic Support

On a rainy Monday morning, I set out on Route 65 along the Ohio River, which starts near my house and flows west all the way to the Mississippi. It first hits Beaver County, a cluster of river towns at the heart of Pittsburgh’s once-mighty steel manufacturing complex. In one of those towns, Ambridge, a plaque reminds visitors that the Brooklyn Bridge is made from local steel. Beaver County is now in a population decline, and only 24 percent of adults have a college degree, compared with 32 percent in the United States as a whole.

Among those who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 were suburban white Catholics like Judith and Mike Deelo.

In 2016, Mr. Trump won 58 percent of the vote in this county of 166,000, up from Mitt Romney’s 52 percent in 2012 and the best performance by a Republican since 1928. In 2016, voters here told political reporters of their hope for factories opening again and their receptiveness to Mr. Trump’s promises to support gun rights and oppose abortion. Among those who voted for the president were thousands of suburban white Catholics like Judith and Mike Deelo, who said they plan to vote for his re-election.

“I’m impressed by what Trump has done for the church,” said Mr. Deelo, a retired metals trader. In particular, said Mr. Deelo, he has backed anti-abortion policies and nominated conservative judges. Catholic bishops last year voted to make abortion the “pre-eminent” issue for Catholic voters, Mr. Deelo pointed out.

Mr. Trump is a “New York City streetfighter and hard-core businessman,” said Judith. “That’s what we needed.”

When I later caught up with the couple by phone, they both repeated their support for Mr. Trump. The couple also said they had to cancel a planned vacation to California. “It’s better to overreact than underreact,” said Mr. Deelo.

Trump is a “New York City streetfighter and hard-core businessman. That’s what we needed.”

I met the Deelos as part of a focus group assembled for America by the Rev. Bob Miller, the pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in the county seat (also called Beaver). It was a politically conservative bunch, with most leaning for Mr. Trump and some undecideds who said they might vote for a more moderate Democrat like Mr. Biden. “I know so many Catholics who hold their noses and vote for [Mr. Trump] just because of the abortion issue,” said Joe Rubino, a retired teacher.

What about inequality and lack of access to health care and good education? Like other politically conservative Catholics I met on the trip, focus group members endorsed helping the poor, but said it was something the private sector and individual citizens should do. “The more money I make, the more generous I can be,” said Julie West, who works in the oil and gas industry.

The group said they mainly got their information from Fox News. Few read a newspaper anymore.

“I know so many Catholics who hold their noses and vote for [Mr. Trump] just because of the abortion issue.”

That is bad news for J. D. Prose, political editor of The Beaver County Times, founded in 1851. In 1999, Mr. Prose moved to western Pennsylvania from Washington, D.C., to become the political editor of The Times. Those were salad days: The newspaper printed 50,000 copies on weekends, operated a full-on features desk and even sent reporters to Russia.

Now Mr. Prose is feeling burned out and looking for other work. The decline in advertising revenue has obliterated the newspaper industry. “Instead of reading my stuff, people go on Facebook and yell at each other,” he said.

Maybe as a result of this breakdown in how people get their news, some were slow to heed the alarm over Covid-19. “The virus, I believe, is being blown out of proportion,” Phil Remke, the former mayor of Moundsville, a West Virginia town down the river, texted me on March 15. “I believe the media is causing the panic.”


Tuesday: Lorain, Ohio (suburban Cleveland)

Even Bernie Bros Will Vote for Biden

As I headed west on Tuesday morning, rolling down the backslope of the Appalachians toward the Great Lakes, I journeyed through the Silicon Valley of the 1890s.

Raoul Ceja was born to Mexican parents in Lorain in 1935. “I believe in what unions can give people,” he said.

From Pittsburgh to Iowa, thousands of artisanal entrepreneurs used the coal, glass, natural gas and iron ore to build new consumer goods, from cosmetics to horseless carriages. Henry Ford in Detroit made cars. The Wright Brothers in Dayton, Ohio, made bicycles and then airplanes. One cog in the network of manufacturers was the city of Lorain, the seat of Lorain County on Lake Erie west of Cleveland. Ford used to make cars here, assembling almost 10 million Fairlines, Thunderbirds and Rancheros.

In the mid-20th century, migrant workers from Puerto Rico and Mexico, and African-Americans from the South, arrived in Lorain to work in the factories. One of them was the family of the Nobel Prize–winning writer Toni Morrison, who in her first novel, The Bluest Eye, describes a dying fire giving the sky “a dull orange glow.” The Ford factory closed in 2005, taking down with it a network of suppliers. The two big steel mills are basically closed, and have not reopened despite President Trump’s promises.

Lorain County has a slowly rising population of 310,000; in contrast to Beaver County, it has a significant non-white population (22 percent of the total). Overall, only 24 percent of adults have college degrees, but it is home to a famously liberal college, Oberlin. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Mr. Trump in Lorain County by 131 votes, 47.6 percent to 47.5 percent. This was down from a 15-point margin for Mr. Obama in 2012.

As industry spread west across Ohio, the Catholic Church came along, keeping communities together as they staffed the factories that made steel and manufactured consumer goods for the country and world. In the city of Lorain, even the priests seem to be made of steel. The Rev. John Retar worked as a purchasing manager for a steel company for 12 years before discerning a vocation and going to seminary. He said his parishioners are mostly Democrats “because they’re proud, blue-collar, working-class people.”

 “The Democratic Party left me when they abandoned my values, Catholic values.”

He invited Raoul Ceja to our meeting. The 84-year-old was born to Mexican parents in Lorain in 1935. His dad had moved north from Michoacán State to work in a steel mill. “I believe in what unions can give people,” he told me. “That’s benefits and fair pay, and training for a trade.”

Mr. Ceja opposes Mr. Trump, but immigrants and other Latinos come in all political stripes. David Arredondo is vice chair of the Lorain County Republican Party, and his brother Joel is president of the city council—as a Democrat. The two are from a family of Mexican immigrants, and both started as Democrats. In 1972, David was a delegate for George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention; now he’s a Trump booster.

David Arredondo: “My dad came here as an immigrant, and my values are hard work and self-reliance.”

“The Democratic Party left me when they abandoned my values, Catholic values,” he said. “My dad came here as an immigrant, and my values are hard work and self-reliance, and the Democrats lost me when they started promising free stuff.” The two brothers talk about politics, but without fighting. “Family is the most important thing,” David told me.

On the phone, David said he supported Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis “because he’s relying on experts and medical professionals, and these decisions are coming from them.”

Many immigrants do not engage in politics when they first move here, said Victor Leandry, the executive director of El Centro—a Lorain nonprofit that, among other things, educates Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrants about the U.S. political system. “People are worried about practical things, like getting a job and paying their rent.”

What’s incredible about the United States, Mr. Leandry told me, is its diversity. “You can drive south from here and leave a Puerto Rican community, and then drive through Trump country, and then Oberlin [College], which is incredibly liberal, and then get to Amish country, all in less than an hour. You don’t get that in Puerto Rico.”

It was Super Tuesday, so I decided to watch primary results with those famously liberal students at Oberlin College. At a campus bar known as the ’Sco, the primary results were coming in on a big screen, and the crowd favorite, Mr. Sanders, was losing. I approached a gathering of students. Would anybody be willing to talk to me? They all pointed at 20-year-old Dan Kennedy. “I’m not sure I’m in a good head space,” he said, but he agreed to talk, along with another politically engaged student, 19-year-old Delia Waltz.

“We don’t understand this idea of reforming institutions, of going back to something, because institutions have always failed us.”

Both were Sanders supporters, worried about the climate crisis and eager for student loan forgiveness and universal health care. But both said they would support Mr. Biden in November.

I asked a leading question: “Isn’t Biden channeling this craving Americans have to return to normalcy, the rule of law?”

“How old are you?” Mr. Kennedy asked.

I answered truthfully: 42.

“O.K., so this is a generational thing,” he said. “We don’t understand this idea of reforming institutions, of going back to something, because institutions have always failed us. They let 9/11 happen. And the Iraq War. And the climate crisis. And the financial crisis. And the guns.”

The coronavirus, Ms. Waltz told me later on the phone, “just shows how right Sanders has been in demanding universal health care.” She still planned to vote for Mr. Biden, but she committed only to volunteering for candidates for local offices.


Wednesday: Macomb County (suburban Detroit)

Fighting for America’s Future

This is not the first time America has felt under siege. In the 1960s, Detroit and other cities experienced violence related to racial segregation and discrimination. One consequence was that white inhabitants fled to places like Macomb County. North of the city, it is now a sprawling, flat area of 840,000. Still growing, it is 79 percent white, and 25 percent of adults are college graduates—a sharp contrast to the 46 percent in next-door suburban Oakland County, which has been trending Democratic in the past couple of decades.

St. Isadore Church is divided over politics, said Debbie Rak, the parish office manager. “So we’ve learned not to talk about it too much.”

Macomb County was once heavily Democratic (John F. Kennedy got 63 percent here in 1960), but it took a turn to the right in 2016. Mr. Trump won the county by 12 points, after Mr. Obama won it by four points in 2012 and by nine points in 2008.

Much of that swing came from Catholic voters. At St. Isidore Church, in Macomb Township, the congregation leans politically conservative. Mark George, a Jesuit priest who worked at the church in 2018 and 2019, said he was frustrated by parishioners conflating support for Mr. Trump with their Catholicism. He was criticized, he said, for preaching against wearing the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” cap at anti-abortion rallies. “I don’t think Trump is really pro-life” because his views on immigration, the environment and foreign policy “show a callous disregard for life,” said Father George, who added that he has prayed in front of abortion clinics.

He said that church members fought over whether it was appropriate to display little white crosses at the intersection outside the church in memory of victims of abortion. “That just brings shame to women who have had abortions,” he said. “Don’t we want to help them?”

So where is the middle ground, I asked Father George. “It’s hard to see right now,” he said. “Some suburban women don’t even support their sisters” who’ve been sexually assaulted. In addition to the #MeToo movement, he said, some in the congregation have fought over immigration and gay marriage.

“When you factor in poverty, you get a climate of fear: fear of immigrants and the other.”

The parish is divided over politics, agreed the parish office manager, Debbie Rak. “So we’ve learned not to talk about it too much.” She asked me not to reveal her own political views.

I didn’t like the fear I felt from Ms. Rak and other U.S. Catholics about speaking their minds. We’ve gotten so much worse at civil dialogue.

But I got some hope back a few miles from St. Isidore, taking a walk around a middle-class, tree-lined residential neighborhood with the 23-year-old activist Lauren Schandevel. She is an organizer for We the People, a Michigan nonprofit that, among other things, organizes town halls, workshops, interracial and intercultural meetings, and educational events for lower-income communities in Michigan.

“Around here, it’s a car culture, so there’s no shared public spaces, and people don’t know their neighbors,” she said. “When you factor in poverty, you get a climate of fear: fear of immigrants and the other. We’re trying to fight that.”

Talking on the phone later, Ms. Schandevel said she has been meeting online and trying to figure out how to “care for the community remotely and safely. The pandemic makes that work much harder.”

Ms. Schandevel is a Sanders supporter but said she would support Mr. Biden in November if he is the nominee. “I have a vote,” she said. “I want it to count.” In community organizing, she added, “we try not to tie our fortune to one election or one politician; the work has to go on.”


Thursday: Milwaukee, Wis.

Black America’s Support for Joe Biden

Driving across Michigan in a long evening, I reached Milwaukee, a city of 595,000 with zero population growth at the heart of one of the most unequal and racially divided metropolitan areas in the United States. The city itself is 39 percent black and firmly Democratic (77 percent for Ms. Clinton in 2016), in contrast to the whiter, Republican-dominated communities of southern Milwaukee County and to the surrounding suburban counties.

“Biden is a connection to Obama," said Tracey Dent, explaining his popularity among black voters in both the primary and general elections.

In 2016, according to one study, turnout among black voters in Wisconsin fell to 54 percent (from 74 percent in 2012). And in Milwaukee, 93,000 African-Americans did not vote, according to a data analyst who worked for the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. The lower vote total in Milwaukee County, combined with a big swing toward the Republicans in rural Wisconsin, allowed Mr. Trump to win the state by 23,000 out of a total vote of 2.98 million.

Giving me a tour in a city pick-up truck, Mr. Marcoux, the city’s commissioner for city development, pointed out new mixed-income housing, along with sports facilities for the Bucks and Brewers and the headquarters for Molson-Coors and Harley-Davidson. The effects of racial discrimination persist in the city, which is, at this writing, still scheduled to host the Democratic National Convention in July.

A couple of weeks later, we were on the phone talking about the pandemic. “We need some immediate economic relief in people’s hands,” said Mr. Marcoux, echoing a national consensus.

“We need some immediate economic relief in people’s hands.”

Even before the pandemic, in the African-American community here, as Matthew Desmond documented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, it was hard to keep hope alive. “We’re burned out,” said Tracey Dent, an activist I met at a McDonald’s in a black neighborhood. “This is one of the hardest places to be a black person in, and it’s gotten worse under Trump.” Mr. Dent works two jobs, including one at night as a security guard.

Mr. Dent said he and others in his neighborhood are supporting Mr. Biden. “Obama was so loved, and that pissed off people who elected Trump,” he said. Referring to the former vice president’s strong support among black voters in his primary campaign against Mr. Sanders, he added, “Biden is a connection to Obama, and a lot of black people lean more conservative.”


Friday: Iowa City, Iowa

Still Believing in America

Iowa, the heart of the Midwest, is a unique place in American politics: a movie set, where prospective presidents come to play-act the part for a few months before the first contest of the presidential campaign, and see if they have what it takes.

Mazahir Salih: “As long as we have the First Amendment, I’m going to keep speaking out.”

“We’re spoiled,” said Meghann Foster, a city councilwoman in Coralville and a lecturer at the University of Iowa on social media and content marketing. “My kids have met all the people they see on TV.”

Iowa City, the seat of Johnson County, is a highly educated Democratic stronghold in an increasingly Republican state. In 2016, Ms. Clinton won Johnson County with 65 percent, only a tad below the 67 percent win by Mr. Obama in 2012. But Mr. Trump made significant gains almost everywhere else in the state; outside of North Dakota, this was the biggest swing in the United States, going from a six-point Democratic win to a nine-point Republican win.

At the Cardinal Newman center in downtown Iowa City, which ministers to Catholic students, I found a few discussing Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. “Did you know she was a socialist?” asked 22-year-old Jack Thayer. He is young, conservative and a Trump supporter. He supports helping the poor, “but it should be freely given,” he said. “The government shouldn’t be able to take anything away from you.”

Many Catholic voters here are wrestling with their choice. Grace Ahlers, 19, said it was difficult for her to decide. “On one hand, you have abortion, and then you have immigration,” she said, explaining that few Catholic politicians embrace all of the church’s teaching in their positions.

But the United States, a pluralistic nation, has always demanded finding common ground despite differences. Mazahir Salih, a Sudanese Muslim immigrant who this year became mayor pro-tem of Iowa City, considers Catholics natural political allies. “We share values,” she said. When she became a citizen in 2004, she said. “I had to promise to defend America, and they said everything else I could keep: my religion, my culture, my food.”

Ms. Salih called herself a patriot. “My first loyalty is to the Constitution, not to a person,” she said. “As long as we have the First Amendment, I’m going to keep speaking out.”

A few hours later, I flew back to Pittsburgh. As the coronavirus upended the country with a war-like challenge the following week, I kept thinking about Ms. Salih’s words. They sounded like a cure for something.

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