US Elections 2020

Which states are in the Rust Belt of the US and why are they important for the 2020 presidential election?

The group of traditionally Democrat states won Donald Trump the presidency in 2016. Now Joe Biden is looking to reclaim America's industrial heartland.

Which states are in the Rust Belt of the US and why are they important for the 2020 presidential election?
BING GUAN REUTERS

On Monday Donald Trump held three rallies in one day in Pennsylvania as he looks to reduce the deficit in a number of key northern states that were instrumental in winning him the presidency four years ago. At one of the public events held in Allentown, he told the crowd: “We win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing.”

The Trump campaign appear to be concentrating their efforts for the final week on the ‘Rust Belt’ states that he managed to flip in 2016, turning traditionally Democrat-voting areas into Republican wins. Flipping them back will be vital to Joe Biden’s hopes of becoming the next President of the United States and he has made more trips to Pennsylvania than any other swing state during the course of campaigning.

Trump managed to tap into growing discontent amongst working class voters to beat Hillary Clinton, but Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and he will hope that his close links with the region will be telling.

What are the Rust Belt states?

The Rust Belt states are a group of traditionally industrial northern states who have suffered an economic downturn since the 1980s. Deindustrialisation and the outsourcing of many ‘blue-collar’ jobs overseas has left them in a state of decline and decay, giving the ‘Rust’ Belt its name.

Although there is no official definition the Rust Belt is usually said to run from central New York state, running west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Indiana. The more southerly parts of Michigan, northern Illinois, eastern Iowa and south-eastern Wisconsin complete the group of generally Democrat-voting states.

The region was historically known as the Manufacturing Belt or Steel Belt as it prospered during the post-war economic boom but the subsequent 40 years of economic hardship has taken its toll. As Clinton found out in 2016, Rust Belt voters are eager for change.

How did the Rust Belt states vote in 2016?

A big part of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was his cracking of the ‘Blue Wall’ in the northeast and Midwest that had traditionally voted Democrat. Michigan and Pennsylvania had both returned five consecutive Democrat victories and Wisconsin had voted blue for seven Presidential Elections in a row. The Blue Wall was deemed impenetrable by many.

They were seen as such safe Democrat wins that Clinton barely bothered to campaign there, with Wisconsin not having a single visit from their potential President. Trump on the other hand held five large-scale rallies in Wisconsin and duly picked up the state’s 10 Electoral College votes.

The President also managed to flip Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is the second-most valuable swing state after Florida. The numbers behind those victories are just as startling. In Michigan Trump managed to turn a 10-point deficit in 2012 into a narrow victory in 2016. Ohio had twice voted for Barack Obama in previous election but in the most recent Presidential Election only seven of the state’s 88 counties remained blue. The Trump campaign focused their efforts brilliantly and won Pennsylvania by less than a single percentage point, picking up the state’s 20 Electoral College votes.

How will the Rust Belt states vote in 2020?

The President overcame some pretty long odds to secure the victory in 2016 but the numbers look even more difficult for him this time around. Recent polls by Reuters/Ipsos have Biden ahead in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, with the two candidates currently neck-and-neck in Ohio. However while that bodes well for the Democrats, Trump managed to confound the pollsters in 2016 and Biden’s sizeable nation-wide lead in the polls is decidedly narrower in each of the Rust Belt states.

What could make 2020 different is the candidate himself. Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has a far greater affinity with the region than Clinton could claim and has focused his campaigning there in a way that his predecessor did not. After successfully painting himself as the people's candidate in 2016 Trump has had a harder time making that distinction against Biden.

The President has repeatedly accused Biden of planning to destroy the region’s fracking industry, pointing to Biden’s admission during the presidential debates that he intended to transition away from fossil fuels. With the economic consequences of covid-19 lingering over the election any threat to people’s livelihoods could be a decisive factor. There is less than a week to go until Election Day 2020 and the stakes could not be higher in the Rust Belt.