LAKEWOOD, Ohio — For Tim Hagan, who’s been on top of Democratic Party politics in Cuyahoga County for more than four decades, Donald Trump’s strength among white working-class voters is no abstraction, nor a new phenomenon. He watched them flock to Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 over issues like patriotism, busing and welfare. He saw them help give Ronald Reagan a 10-point win in Ohio in 1980 and a 19-point landslide in 1984. He saw Democratic majorities in Cuyahoga County trumped by just enough votes among white, working-class voters in 2004 to give President George W. Bush the state—and therefore the White House. Barack Obama’s stronger showings—68 percent in 2008 and 69 percent in 1012, the best showing since LBJ in 1964—helped give him the margins to carry Ohio twice.
Hagan says he’s still “cautiously optimistic” that Hillary Clinton too can win Ohio. But if she does, it will happen because she can repeat the Obama coalition of minorities, young and the better-educated—not because she can win back these disaffected working-class voters.
“Maybe Joe Biden could, with his Scranton working-class background,” he says, “but I don’t think she can. I know she gets it up here,” he says pointing to his head, “but maybe not here,” he adds, tapping his heart. Maybe it’s because she’s been around so much wealth for so long. …”
Right now, the battle for Ohio appears very close; polls show everything from a tie to a 4-point Clinton lead; the RealClearPolitics average puts her ahead by a scant 1.8 points. But Hagan believes that many of his old pals from the neighborhood already have gone over to Trump. And remember: While it’s become a cliché to note that “no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio,” only two Democrats have managed the feat: FDR in 1944 and JFK in 1960. It’s a state Hillary Clinton needs.
At 70, Tim Hagan wears the map of Ireland on his face (though his mother was Italian, which gave him an early lesson on the limits of stereotyping). He has led a life that reads like a template for the numberless foot soldiers of an older Democratic Party. His dad was a World War II Marine Corps vet who flew with baseball immortal Ted Williams in Pensacola, Florida, then spent his life as a Democratic operative and public employee in Youngstown.
Tim—one of 14 siblings—spent 12 years in parochial schools, then was drafted into the Army as Vietnam was escalating—he was lucky enough to be sent to Germany—then used the GI Bill of Rights to get a degree from Youngstown State University. By the 1970s, he was in Cleveland, making politics his vocation and obsession. He was the county’s Democratic chairman at age 32, spent 20 years as a Cuyahoga County Commissioner, was his party’s sacrificial gubernatorial candidate in 2002, signed up for a series of doomed presidential campaigns of liberals like Mo Udall and Ted Kennedy. (“Obama was the first Democrat I backed who ever won a nomination,” Hagan says. “Of course, he lost the Ohio primary to Hillary.”).
And now, he’s plainly worried about how well Clinton will hold up against Trump. His explanation is a ground-level view of what’s happened in community after community. There’s the collapse of the manufacturing base that provided a middle-class life for a hard-working man without special skills…and that offers a bleak future. The stagnation of wages, which has persisted through Presidencies and Congresses of both parties, has provided potent fuel to a candidacy that has attack the “insiders” of both parties whose promises have proven worthless.
“When I was going to college,” he says, “Youngstown Sheet and Tube had three shifts going six days a week. They hired some of us in Youngstown to go to Whitney Indiana, because the demand for workers was so high. That simply doesn’t exist anymore. Go to Youngstown and watch the steel mills collapse. … or go to the GM Lordstown plant, which used to employ 12,000 people; by the time I ran for governor in ’02, it was 3,000. Why? Because there were machines painting the cars and putting handles on the doors. The jobs I used to do simply don’t exist anymore.”
And when times get hard, Hagan says, grievances and resentments blossom. That story—the tale of old good industrial jobs lost and communities that never really recover—has been told for decades. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen have sung about it, and candidates of all hues and persuasions have proposed all kinds of fixes.