Bruce Logan is exactly the type of voter Donald Trump needed to reach, exactly where the President needs him.
A 70-year-old former salesman, Logan had been a registered independent who usually voted for Democratic candidates. Then, along came Trump, a brash businessman who was the anti-politician. The Youngstown resident registered last year as a Republican so that he could support Trump in his primary, and then worked to help him win the head-to-head general election against Hillary Clinton last year.
“He shoots straight from the gut. He’s not your typical politician,” Logan told TIME on Tuesday as he spent hours waiting in line to hear from the President directly at a rally. “He is exactly what this country needs right now.”
Adds his wife, 68-year-old, Carol: “He’s the first politician with rocks.”
They are hardly alone here in this corner of northeast Ohio, a one-time Democratic stronghold that also once was a hub of the American steel industry. Plumes of soot once translated into cash for union members and the merchants they supported. As in other cities in the industrial Midwest, times got tough—so tough, in fact, Bruce Springsteen chronicled the city’s downturn on a 1995 album. Then, things kept getting worse.
Enter Trump, with promises that ignite the voters’ imaginations.
“We are reclaiming our heritage as a manufacturing nation again,” Trump said Tuesday night to a packed and adoring crowd inside a convention center on the banks of the Mahoning River.
The promises were, at times, utter fancy. Trump pushed $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending during the same speech with pledges of the largest tax cut in the nation’s history. Trump ignored the reality on the ground, where old abandoned factories are rusted and crumbling, even as tech incubators are expanding to handle highly skilled workers.
“We are going to use American iron, American steel, American aluminum,” Trump said of the new bridges, airports and roads he has promised.
As he drove to the site of the event, Trump said the First Lady turned to him and asked what happened in the hollowed-out manufacturing core. “Those jobs have left Ohio,” the real estate mogul roared during a rally Tuesday, organized by his 2020 re-election campaign. But he then made this promise to the working-class audience: “They’re all coming back. Don’t sell your house.”
Voters cheered Trump’s exaggerated promises with typical gusto.
To the most pessimistic Democrats, the crowds at Trump’s re-election rally on Tuesday night suggest their party shouldn’t even both fielding a candidate in 2020. Without this region, there’s almost no way a Democrat can win this battleground state, and without it, it’s almost impossible to reach the 270 electoral college to send Trump packing. In other words, Democrats need to take back the Mahoning Valley if they’re going to take back the White House. And, given Trump’s showing here, that may be more difficult than firing up the Jeannette Blast Furnace at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, which went cold in 1977 and has stayed that way.
“This state arguably won my father the Presidency of the United States,” first son Eric Trump said Tuesday. Unlike his father’s speech, this was not a boast.
To the most optimistic Democrats, Trump will be seen as a salesman who made pledges he couldn’t keep. The attack ads write themselves: the GM plant at Lordstown cut 1,200 workers this year, new trade deals likely won’t be the salve the bleeding economy needs and middle-class pockets in this area won’t be overflowing with prosperity. “He made a lot of promises, so far he hasn’t delivered on any of them,” said Carlton K. Ingram, the vice president of the Western Reserve Building Trades, a three-county council of workers in the region that counts about 10,000 members among its ranks in 23 unions.
But first, Democrats have to shake the confidence of Trump’s loyalists who like his style. It will not be easy. “He speaks his mind. I speak my mind,” said Kevin Lowdermilk, a 62-year-old Marine and Army veteran from Massillon, Ohio, who attended the Inauguration in January and on Tuesday was at his sixth Trump campaign rally. “Do I sometimes put my foot in my mouth? Yeah. No one meets the standards set by Jesus.”
Trump won Ohio, in large part because he chipped away at this deep-blue firewall. Mahoning County, the home of Youngstown, saw Hillary Clinton win just 49% support in a place where Barack Obama won 63% in 2012 and 62% in 2008. Next door, in Trumbull County, Trump became the first Republican to carry the county since 1972. He outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing in all but five of the state’s 88 counties.
To understand the shift, though, is to understand the very voters Trump successfully wooed. For the last five decades, a cyclone of factors barreled toward what, during the 1970s, was known as the Steel Valley: automation, consolidation and globalization among them. Their home values fell through the basements. The plummeting tax base made road repairs too costly, so much so that when Trump called them “great roads” Tuesday night, the audience laughed. Schools in Youngstown were taken over by the state because the were failing by almost every measure. A population exodus, on top of it all, means one less job paying taxes to support these communities.
Workers here find a champion in Trump: someone who promises to fight for the working man, to bring back the jobs and to punish the outsiders who threatened a way of life these voters still cling to. His largest applause lines came as he promised a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Ralph Meacham, the Mahoning County auditor who called the crowd Tuesday night Trump’s people, said Democrats should heed the change. “Seven-thousand people for Republicans in the Mahoning Valley. Who would have thought?” he said. “His message resonated with the working people of northeastern Ohio.”
Explains Jane Timken, the Trump-backed chairwoman of the Ohio Republican Party: “He was the voice of the forgotten man and woman.”
Voters here merely call that person their neighbor. “He gets that people here have been struggling for years. We felt a lot down,” said Andy Arehart, a 47-year-old financial planner from Medina. “It’s not a religion to believe in Donald Trump, but he believes in America.”
Residents like to blame trade deals like NAFTA and the influx of cheap foreign steel for upending their economy, but they seldom link either with the big box stores that sell cheap big-screen televisions or auto megaplexes that sell the small Chevys that roll off the assembly lines in nearby Lordstown. (The automakers’ third shift, however, is quiet these days. Cheap gas has made the small cars less attractive given it now costs less to fill up SUVs’ gas tanks.) Americans hate the idea of globalization but love the cash they save because the clothes on their backs are made cheaply in Vietnam.
Trump understands these voters, even if he doesn’t understand just how difficult the initial North American Free Trade Agreement was to haggle. “If we don’t negotiate a great deal with Mexico and Canada, we will terminate NAFTA and we will start all over again,” Trump said, casting it as an easy-peasy afternoon renegotiating a continent’s multi-lateral trade deal.
Northeast Ohio is not unique in its struggles. Throughout the country, the new economy has left millions of Americans behind, and they want answers. Trump offered them, even if they were as fanciful as they were loud. There’s a reason Trump won not just Ohio, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
During the six days that TIME spent in this region before Trump spoke, interviewing local officials and voters alike, no one voluntarily brought up the news that has consumed Washington: the Russians’ meddling in the 2016 race, the suspicion surrounding Trump’s inner circle and its conversations with Moscow, or whether the President’s tweets crossed lines. “There’s no definite proof yet. They’ll have to keep digging,” said Karl Lakstigala, a retired engineer from Avon Lake. “To me, the word is witch hunt.”
To a T, almost everyone at Trump’s rally instead brought up some combination of the hack of the Democratic National Committee, Clinton’s use of her personal email server and the CIA—perfectly parroting Trump’s own jumbled understanding of the facts around Democratic technology. To many of them, Trump was the victim of the Russian hack and its publicity.
What voters from both parties said they wanted to know what Washington was going to do to make health care cheaper, jobs more plentiful and politicians less slimy. The White House isn’t wrong when its officials say Americans want to hear about jobs, the economy and health care.
Down the road, in nearby Warren, Wheatland Tube has been making pipes for more than 80 years. Workers there largely survived the economic downturn in the region by focusing their production to serve the fracking industry. But there has been a scale-back in fracking, too, thus fewer needs for the pipes, thus greater uncertainty for the industry in this corner of the state.
Ruthanne Phillips has been working at the plant for “years and years.” She was among the first women hired to forge pipes. She’s now 60 and considering retirement. “I’m too old to do this much longer,” she says. She has a small pension and has saved for an independent retirement fund, but she isn’t quite ready to hang up her yellow hardhat. “It really depends on you guys,” she told Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown when he visited her workplace on Monday.
And therein is yet another reason Trump can win in places like this. It’s not that he has the power to remedy an economy. It’s that these workers grew up hearing about the power of government as dogma. FDR, JFK, LBJ—Democratic titans—harnessed the power of government to promise a New Deal, to inspire a generation and to build a Great Society. Even as the electronics plant around the corner is converted into a warehouse for fireworks, and their city blocks are razed to reduce urban blight, workers like Phillips think government still has the answer.
“A lot of this is the imports’ fault,” says Phillips, who lives in Fowler, Ohio. “They need to stop importing things so we can get this area busy again.”
Democrats are trying to nudge their former base back into the fold, but there’s a risk at pushing too hard. One Ohio Democrat likened it to the problem Republicans had with their base in 2008 and 2012, when they were running against Obama: voters might not have agreed with Obama, but they thought he was sincere. Union officials, in particular, are having a tough time breaking through with their members, who find Trump’s bombast likable.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress, spent last weekend campaigning in a white working-class neighborhood of Youngstown for a Democratic mayoral candidate, who is African American. The going was slow and the rain didn’t help, but there’s little question Youngstown’s next mayor would be a Democrat. As much as they flirt with Trump, voters here still want their local officials to be like them.
“So far, six months in, he hasn’t done anything with a trillion-dollar jobs package that he said he was going to do,” Ryan said of the President. “Now, he’s coming back because he’s really good at the marketing piece. He wants to come back and do another road show here in Youngstown. We need him to focus on helping our people.”
But Ryan recalls running into a union member at a movie theater on a recent weekend. He had his son with him and wanted to avoid explicit politics, but this union member had known Ryan for years, and wanted to needle him a bit on Trump. Ryan, wanting to move his focus back to his three-year-old son, bluntly asked him: “You voted for Trump, didn’t you?” The union member responded with a smile: “I’ve been waiting for 30 years to vote for someone different.”
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin sees it in his neighborhoods, too. The second-term Democrat watched last year as Trumbull County flipped for the first time in 10 presidential cycles to back a Republican. Local Democrats like him fared fine, but anyone outside the county line was seen as corrupt and hostile to the values of the Midwest. “That was a lot of frustration with business-as-usual in Washington. The vote in Trumbull Country reflected that,” Franklin said. “They wanted to change.”
Now, Franklin is working to tell his constituents what they voted for—and against. Under Trump’s proposed budget, the economy in Franklin’s Warren could crater. “All of our housing programs,” Franklin says of his city. “A lot of infrastructure programs in low- to moderate-income areas. A lot of education programs that help low-income families. Senior services, they’ll all go away. You name it.”
None of this mattered to people like Derek Kozlowksi, a 20-year-old chemical engineering student at Youngstown State University. Wearing his red Make America Great Again hat, he shifted from foot to foot while waiting for the security gates to open for Trump’s rally.
“He’s taking back the American initiative,” he said. “He’s a force for good in the world, a force to be reckoned with. You can’t beat him.”
That is reason for the Democrats and their allies to fret. The imagination of Trump’s supporters has hardly slowed to a trot.
“Our members didn’t know better unfortunately, and they did vote for him.” Tony DiTommaso Jr., the secretary-treasurer of the Western Reserve Building Trades, a coordinating body for workers. For DiTommaso, those workers swayed the outcome the wrong way in 2016. “Our members, flat-out, voted for him,” he said. “They wanted a change. They didn’t care what it was.”