The Voters Only Trump Can Reach

John Kasich won Ohio handily—but was routed in the state’s Appalachian counties.

A supporter shows his tattoo before Donald Trump's campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

The Ohio counties that John Kasich lost are rugged land, different from the flat farmland that stretches across the rest of the state. In many counties where coal was once king, more than 20 percent of the residents live in poverty. Thousands struggle with drug addiction. And despite a brief natural gas boom, you can’t always count on getting work.

Kasich won his state, but he lost here. On the Ohio electoral map, support for Donald Trump runs in a angry swoosh from Ohio’s northeast down to the gates of Cincinnati; in some counties, the New York billionaire defeated the sitting governor by 25 points.

Here’s why: Kasich is an Ohioan. These counties are Appalachian. And Donald Trump, despite his money, is the perfect Appalachian candidate.

“If you’re thinking about parts of the country that are really down and out—where people are discouraged, satisfied, angry—that part of Ohio would fit very well,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State. “And then Trump comes along, and he gives voice to many of the feelings they have. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-political-correctness... it’s all of these things together that make him a very appealing person to them.”

Kasich won’t have to run in Ohio again, at least until the general election. But Appalachian voters—and others who resemble them elsewhere in the country—will continue to dog him and Ted Cruz.

These folks are white, and they probably haven’t gone to college. But more importantly, they’ve centered their lives around communities that have been unhooked from the prosperity of the country at large for decades.

In Ohio, that came during the de-industrialization of the 1980s. But you can easily find the same story in Flint, Michigan, in struggling California communities like San Bernadino, or amid the poverty of West Virginia.

Some years ago, I met Mike Halleck, a county commissioner in northeastern Ohio. He works out of the Columbiana County courthouse in Lisbon, Ohio, which until recently was crowded with landmen seeking deed records for drilling leases. (Things got quieter when the price of oil dropped and fracking became less popular.)

Helleck has a name for the folks supporting Trump: the “Joe Sixpacks.” He draws a sharp distinction between them and the more traditional Republicans in western Ohio, where large farms and moderate politics predominate.

“It’s different breed of cat,” he said. “Here, you have to fight for every vote.”

Of course, fighting has taken on a new political meaning. Much has been written about Trump’s ability to connect to “angry” voters, but it holds true here, as well. Exit polls in Ohio showed that Trump beat Kasich handily among voters who reported anger with the federal government. The Ohio governor did pretty well among  “dissatisfied” residents, but the gulf between “dissatisfied" and “angry” is big enough to drive a campaign bus through.

Anger might be the foremost emotion for Appalachian voters, but at its base is worry—over jobs, family prospect, stability. Worry has become baked into the culture.

And although Kasich has labored to address this—Halleck, the county commissioner, said the governor always helped him get whatever his constituents needed—it appears it’s not enough.

To many voters, Kasich is only supplying temporary solutions; Trump, with his talk of a border wall with Mexico and a ban on Muslims, appears to be addressing a root cause. The alchemy of Trump’s presence transforms worry into potent (and poll-able) anger.

“When you look at history, when people are down on their luck, they want to believe some things like that,” Halleck said. “They’re fed up. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve watched their kids move away. And Donald Trump spoke in a language they can relate to.”

And that language, academics note, carries a racial tinge. Trump regularly makes nativist arguments, blaming immigrant labor and Chinese currency manipulation for the decline of American wages. But the next step—blaming minorities, racial or otherwise—plays into the longstanding Appalachian fear of displacement, and it’s a leap most can make for themselves.

“Trump is very cleverly exploiting race and nativism in the context of fears that exist about what’s going to happen to their families,” said Susan Burgess, a professor of political science at Ohio University. “It doesn’t have to be solely about white supremacy overtly—it can be just about fears about what will happen when there is competition for jobs.”

Kasich, an astute politician, surely understands this dynamic. But all over the country, Trump is bringing primary voters out of the woodwork, folks who would have normally sat out this contest and cast their vote in the general election. Before this year, Kasich was good enough. Now, they may have the nominee they want.