Bellwether counties show trouble for Trump

There is no single bellwether for American elections… but here are a half dozen counties that underscore Donald Trump’s weaknesses.

Rural Wisconsin, Richland and Juneau counties

Richland and Juneau were two of the 208 counties around the country that switched from Obama to Trump. Trump’s slim 2016 Wisconsin victory, the Milwaukee Journal’s Craig Gilbert calculated, was fueled by a “seismic shift” in blue collar, rural areas; Trump’s margins were almost three times bigger than George W. Bush.

This time around, the farm sector may spell trouble for the president. Just as he was celebrating his “great” trade deal where China would buy more Wisconsin agricultural products, COVID-19 hit, and China became Trump’s top enemy. In farm spots like Richland, farmers are struggling. Juneau, which switched from an Obama win by 7 percent to a 26 percent Trump victory, has voted for every winning president for half a century.

“For Trump to win Wisconsin he has to win Juneau and probably Richland,” Ben Wikler, the energetic state Democratic chair, told me last week. That appears uphill.

Erie County, Pennsylvania

This union-friendly county in the northwest corner of the state twice voted for Barack Obama and then flipped to Trump. That was the first time a Republican presidential candidate carried Erie since Ronald Reagan.

It’s largely white, middle- and working-class and skews older. Across Pennsylvania, if each candidate’s hold serves — Biden running up big margins in the populous Philadelphia suburbs and big cities, and Trump capturing the central part of the state and the former coal and steel strongholds in Western Pennsylvania — a large county like Erie will be critical.

Pennsylvania is a must-win for Biden, and it looks promising. Tom Ridge, a former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Congressman and two-term Republican governor who lives Erie, told me his county is competitive, but Democrats are stronger than last time: “Biden aligns with the people here much better than (Hillary) did, and there’s anxiety over COVID-19, social unrest and the economy; Trump hasn’t addressed these very well.”

Robeson County, North Carolina

Robeson is only the 22nd largest county in the Tar Heel state, one of the poorest, and politically dwarfed by the likes of Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh and Cary). After voting decisively for Obama twice, it went for Trump in 2016, the first time a Republican carried it in four decades; even Ronald Reagan lost Robeson.

Like thousands of counties across America, it’s unique. It’s about one-third white, a little less than one-third African American and Latin, and more than one-third Native American, the Lumbee tribe. On economic and health care issues these hard-pressed voters tilt left, but on cultural issues they — including the native Americans — are very conservative.

Hillary Clinton, Democrats say, not only was on the wrong side of the cultural issues — as was Obama — but was seen as an elitist. Democrat Dan McCready, an entrepreneur and Marine combat veteran, carried Robeson twice while losing two cliff-hanger House races. The county has moved more Republican in the last decade, he told me, but suspects Biden won’t come across so culturally challenged: McCready predicted “Biden could do five or ten points better than Clinton.” In 2016 Trump carried Robeson by a little over four points.

Tom and Newt’s neighborhoods: Gwinnett County, Georgia and Fort Bend County, Texas

In the 1990s the two dominant Republicans were the bomb throwing House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Whip Tom “the Hammer” Delay. Gingrich’s Georgia district included Gwinnett County, north of Atlanta; Delay represented his home county, Fort Bend, Texas, neighboring Houston.

Today they’re barely recognizable to any aging Delay or Gingrich groupies. Upscale, with exceptional racial diversity — and Democratic blue. Gwinnett, the second most populous county in Georgia, voted 65 percent for George W. Bush as recently as 2004. Hillary Clinton won with a little over 50 percent in the last presidential race, and Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American, won 56 percent in the governor’s race two years ago.

This is mirrored in Fort Bend County, Texas, which also voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush and “the Hammer” in 2004. Today, the 10th largest and wealthiest county in Texas, a majority of its citizens are minorities. Clinton won a majority in 2016, and so did Beto O’Rourke in a Senate race two years later.

For all the political conversation about the Latino and African American vote, the growth in both these counties has been fueled by a surge in Asian Americans: one in eight Gwinnett citizens, and one in six in Fort Bend. Though not monolithic, this is the fastest growing bloc in the country, will comprise an estimated 5 percent of the November electorate and Trump’s anti-Asian slurs will likely only accelerate the trend to Democrats.

These two counties will give Biden a big edge; the issue is how big. If he wins both by 60 percent, he’ll carry Georgia and has a shot in Texas.

And that, as he’d say, is huge.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2020 election 2020 Trump campaign Barack Obama Bellwether Beto O'Rourke Donald Trump electoral map Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Newt Gingrich Politics of the United States swing states

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