Mahoning County: A battleground within the battleground

Trump's immigration message is gaining traction in primarily white voting block still recovering from economic downturn.

    At a Republican Party booth, supporters built a wall symbolising Trump's pledge to erect a barrier on the Mexican border [Chris Sheridan/Al Jazeera]
    At a Republican Party booth, supporters built a wall symbolising Trump's pledge to erect a barrier on the Mexican border [Chris Sheridan/Al Jazeera]

    At the annual Canfield Fair in Ohio, you can gobble down a deep-fried Twinkie, ride the Scrambler or watch a pony contest. But this year, in the midst of a heated US election season, you can also help Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump build his wall.

    At the Republican Party booth, for a donation, anyone can buy a fake brick and place it on a board in an effort to construct a wall, a symbolic gesture meant to elicit support for Trump's most popular pledge: to erect a barrier on the border with Mexico to keep "illegal immigrants" out. It's a promise he repeated on Wednesday during a speech in Phoenix, Arizona just hours after meeting Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

    "If you love America," someone's scrawled on one brick, "Vote Trump".

    Welcome to Mahoning County, USA. It's nowhere near the Mexican border but this is a battleground within a battleground state and Trump's immigration message is resonating with a primarily white, working-class voting block still smarting from an economic downturn that started in the 1970s when steel mills began closing and thousands of jobs disappeared.

    The interest in Trump's message has energised people like Kathy Miller, a real estate agent and campaign volunteer.

    Mahohing County is Democratic Party territory. President Barack Obama won it in 2008 and 2012 during his bids for the White House. But Miller argues that things are different this election cycle.

    "As people are getting older, they're looking back and saying, 'nothing got done'," says Miller, referring to years of Democratic promises of jobs and opportunities. That's led to a messy economic and social climate, she argues. "People don't really want to go work any more. They'd rather sit home. They'd rather get a benefit package from the government."

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    Even though the unemployment rate has gone down in the county from just over 13 percent when Obama first took over in January 2009 to 5.6 percent in 2015, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that hasn't reduced the discontent.

    A report in March by Ohio's secretary of state showed three times as many Democrats switched their party affiliation to the Republicans than the other way round during primary voting. Many of those voters are in this county of 232,000 people.

    "There’s a huge silent majority of people who are not voicing anything," Miller says. But when the time comes, she contends, "they are going to go vote.”

    Democrats are taking nothing for granted. Hillary Clinton was in Youngstown, the biggest city in this area, just after she secured the Democratic nomination in July.

    US Vice President Joe Biden, who grew up in neighbouring Pennsylvania, was back in here stumping for Clinton on Thursday at an autoworkers union hall. In classic, folksy Biden style, he countered the image of Democrats as the establishment, painting Trump as the greedy boss.

    "This guy doesn't understand," Biden told a sparse crowd. "He doesn't have any idea what it's like." Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he added. "Now he's choking because his foot's in his mouth."

    Nicole Zayas, 37, agrees. She's lived in Mahoning County most of her life and works in Youngstown. Her grandfather was a Mexican immigrant who received his citizenship after joining the US military in World War II. His last wish before he died was for his granddaughter go to college, which she did. If Donald Trump were president, says Zayas, that probably would never have happened.

    "I have choices in life that I would have never had if my family were not a hard-working immigrant family," Zayas says. Like many Democrats, she worries that Trump's plan to build a wall will win over voters in this area.

    But Carlton Ingram, who attended the Biden event, is confident that Ohio will not go for Trump. "This has always been and always will be a working folks state."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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