Chuck Alexander still remembers a time when he could walk into any Detroit factory churning out auto parts and walk out with a job that promised the American Dream. “My son is in his 20s. Those options aren’t there for him,” the retired union autoworker said a few days before the Michigan primary. “He can fill out application after application, and it just isn’t going to happen.”
Alexander, 63, was standing outside a community college in suburban Detroit, where Republican front runner Donald Trump had just finished a colorful jeremiad against the nation’s political elites. Trump understood Alexander’s frustration and offered a solution: a trade war with American allies that would raise the prices of foreign-made products if Trump became President. “You’re going to pay a 35% tax every time you ship a car, truck or part into the United States,” Trump promised, in a speech that sometimes sounded more like a union rally than a Republican campaign event.
Alexander was sold on the spot. “He might not be the smartest in the race,” he said of Trump, “but he’s going to bring back our jobs. He’ll fight for us. He’s a fighter.”
It’s voters like Alexander, frustrated workers from the unionized heartland, who are transforming the Republican primary and causing quivers of concern for Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton. The decades-long Washington consensus that free trade, with protections for workers and fair terms for companies, is good for the country is under broad assault on the campaign trail. The former Secretary of State was walloped by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in Michigan; she watched her 20-point polling advantage turn into a 2-point loss. Exit polls showed that even among Democratic voters, almost 6 in 10 said international trade takes away U.S. jobs, a group Sanders won by 15 points.
On the Republican side, Trump has sold an even tougher antitrade line than Sanders, running to the left of most politicians in both parties. And it’s working. He won the Michigan primary with twice as much support as his nearest competitor among those with a high school education or less, according to exit polls. At made-for-TV rallies across the nation, voters often praise Trump for his promises to bully corporations into undoing their outsourcing of factories across the border. This is especially true among unionized workers, a once reliably Democratic base, roughly a third of whom are likely to vote counter to their leaders’ endorsement.
Trump’s success has forced both parties to prepare for a general-election fight on a remade map. First, a Trump at the top of the GOP ticket could put into play Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin as well as reliably blue states like California and New York. “We’re going to bring the car industry back,” he roared the night he won the Michigan primary, even though it has rebounded handsomely since the Great Recession of 2008. Trump is betting he can lure voters who have been on the sidelines for years and persuade disaffected Democrats to vote for a Republican.
Clinton’s campaign does not deny the potential for a coming Trump shift in white, working-class Democratic strongholds. Instead, it emphasizes that Trump’s nativist bluster could hurt him in other states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, which have emerging minority populations. “There will be more states on the periphery of the Republican universe that get into play than Democratic states get into play for the Republicans,” says Joel Benenson, Clinton’s top strategist. In other words, more voters should be unwilling to cast their ballots for a man who wants to deport millions of immigrants and had to be shamed into rejecting the endorsement of a Klansman.
Maybe so, but no one is really sure of anything anymore. The next test for Trump’s strategy will come in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, where Republican primaries will be held March 15. In Ohio’s Mahoning County, the reliably Democratic, union-heavy home to hollowed-out Youngstown, Democrats are clearly worried. Party leaders have watched as 1 in 7 people who voted early in Mahoning have switched their party registration from Democrat to Republican since January. Ohio Republicans don’t yet see that happening elsewhere in the state. But a shift of that size, if replicated elsewhere, could flip the state.
Tim Ryan, the area’s Democratic Congressman, has responded by making the rounds, working to undercut Trump’s appeal months before the general election by pointing to his antiunion policies. “He wants to take money out of your pocket,” Ryan says he tells his constituents. Maybe those workers just won’t care. As Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow explains, “He sounds like a Democrat when he talks about currency manipulation.”
The United Auto Workers, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO stayed on the sidelines during the Michigan primary. In some union halls, politics is already a topic too toxic to discuss. “People’s economic anxiety in a state like this is so deep, these one-off simple-sounding solutions get a lot more interest than you would expect,” Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry tells TIME on a visit to Flint, Mich. Roughly 30% of her union’s members are conservatives, and the independent-minded ones might go for Trump too. The once reliably Democratic working-class firewall is crumbling as quickly as the abandoned Rust Belt factories, and Clinton’s campaign is bracing for tough races. Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters the day after Clinton’s rout in Michigan, “will be competitive.” In those states, there will be no avoiding the issue of trade and the anxiety it spreads to workers. Trump, more than anyone else in this race, knows how to wring votes from fears.
This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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