The following CNN headline aptly epitomises the problem Joe Biden faces in winning back Midwestern America:  

‘Biden now says he was against NAFTA, after voting for it’

This came in a week when Biden revealed, in Michigan, his new tax plan which promised a 10 per cent tax break for companies that reinvested in the Midwest. Printed across the podium from which he spoke was, ‘Made in America’.

Sound familiar?


Casualties of NAFTA

This stark departure from the rhetoric of free trade and liberal, global markets that has come to dominate the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton, marks the realisation of an electoral truth. Without moving towards Trump’s protectionist position on trade, Biden will not win back the Midwest — crucial to his election success, with Michigan and Wisconsin instrumental swing states in Trump’s 2016 victory.

After being completed by Bill Clinton in 1993, NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) has led to a significant loss in manufacturing jobs from the Midwest. Ohio lost approximately 35,000 to Mexico alone. Nationally, between 1997 and 2010, the US lost 682,900 jobs to its southern neighbour — something economists credit in part because NAFTA enabled companies to still access consumer markets in the US whilst making goods in Mexico.

Trump successfully combined grievances concerning NAFTA with his populist anti-elite message, and thus the political consequences of the Democrat’s stance on free trade were felt hard by another Clinton. The President won Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio — states formerly claimed by Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Wisconsin had not voted Republican since 1984.

The counties where Trump gained support reflect the potency of his harsh protectionist message. Firstly, in rural areas and ‘small towns’, gains made by Obama were all but wiped out. Obama had carried 40 of Wisconsin’s 47 rural counties but in 2016 Trump won 42 of these. In Michigan, Obama won rural areas — outside of Detroit and Grand Rapids — with 55 per cent and 52 per cent of the vote. Clinton only received 41 per cent. Overall, Clinton lost rural voters by a 2-1 margin.

When this was combined with similar resentment felt in urban deindustrialised counties, it became an unstoppable force that swept the Midwest into the Republicans’ hands. The major shift behind Trump’s victory in Macomb County, Michigan, was a revolt of working-class, mainly less-educated whites. It made Trump the first Republican to win the county since 2004, taking it by more than 11 per cent.

The Urban-Rural divide

Underlying this extraordinary electoral movement, decades in the making, was the increasing polarisation of a fault line in American politics; the rural and small-town counties’ hostility to urban cities. The reason for Clinton taking the two Midwestern states of Minnesota and Illinois was Democratic support found in dense urban areas, such as the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Proof of this deepening divide, can be found in Minnesota. Although Trump won 79 of the 97 counties there, because at least 55 per cent of Minnesotans live in urban centres, Clinton won the state — albeit by a dramatically reduced margin of 1.5 per cent.

In 2016, the rural-urban divide was growing. But Trump, with his message on trade, succeeded in tipping such division in his favour. Yet the same election cannot be fought twice, and with Biden making very public attempts to neutralise criticism he may face on trade, a different issue is sweeping across the Midwest.

It was revealed last week that Trump’s campaign is planning to spend more money in Minnesota, than in either Wisconsin or Michigan. According to Advertising Analytics, the Republican Campaign is set to pour more than $14 million into the state between September and election day, compared to $12 million in Michigan and $8.3 million in Wisconsin.

The reason for this, is that whereas trade dominated Midwestern minds in 2016, now it is the issue of race along with law and order. George Floyd was killed in Minnesota. Jacob Blake was shot in Wisconsin. The two flashpoints in the campaign concerning race have been spawned from actions in the Midwest. The effect of this has been an increasing rift in the urban-to-rural divide compared with 2016.

The thinking behind the Republican strategy in Minnesota is that the political movements which have been energised since the killing of George Floyd will further alienate rural from urban voters, but also push crucial swing voters in the suburbs towards the President. This strategy was evident from one of Trump’s ads in the state: a superimposed image of Biden taking a knee in front of burning buildings.

Crime is ‘out of control’

Whilst the killing of Floyd promoted messages such as ‘defund the police’ — popular with Democratic voters in the cities — it has also created unease among suburban and rural voters. This can be tied to the fact that the state is also experiencing a summer crime surge. The number of people killed in Minneapolis has increased 95 per cent from this time last year, with the Director of Police Officers saying ‘Crime is out of control’.

Yet this pattern is not repeated across the Midwest, explaining why Republicans are moving money out from Wisconsin and Michigan. According to an ABC News and Washington Post poll published this week, Biden holds a narrow lead in Wisconsin, whilst Trump’s message on law and order is failing to cut through. Both Biden and Trump were trusted by 48 per cent of the electorate on issues of crime and safety. A score draw is not enough for the President to neutralise his failings on the handling of the pandemic.

This contradictory picture is redolent of what we can expect on election day, with increasing polarisation between America’s cities and its rural areas and small towns. Very likely, the focus on race following the killing of George Floyd is widening this divide.

According to the Pew Research Group, more Democrats than in 2016 believe it is ‘a lot more difficult to be Black than White’ and that ‘White people benefit a great deal from advantages in society Black people do not have’.

Although, 11 per cent of Trump supporters agreed with the above in 2016, only 9 per cent do today. Conversely, the number of Democrats agreeing with such statements has increased by 18 per cent since 2016.

The central issue dividing the Midwest may have changed since the last election, but the ongoing divisions are only deepening.