In the Lenape Indian language, the word “Ashtabula” means, roughly, “always enough fish to go around.” For much of the history of Ashtabula County, Ohio, that reputation for plenty rang true.
Nestled in the northeastern-most corner of the state, on the shores of Lake Erie, Ashtabula benefitted from its access to the water – its ports were active, as were local manufacturing outfits, and summer homes dotted the picturesque parts of the shoreline in towns like Geneva-on-the-Lake. At some point people discovered that its lake-adjacent climate made for decent grape cultivation, and now there are over 20 wineries in the county. Home to farmland that looks like passages from a Robert Frost poem come alive, Ashtabula has 18 covered bridges, horse paddocks aplenty and a tourism industry that has been growing of late.
But the collapse of manufacturing in the region hit Ashtabula hard. The county lost around 3,000 such jobs in the first decade of the century, according to Bureau of Labor and Statistics numbers, hitting a low point during the 2008-09 recession. This distinct economic pain, along with the county’s mostly white demography — 90 percent of its 100,000 residents are white – have made Ashtabula fertile ground for Donald Trump support.
While Ashtabula voted for President Obama in both 2012 and 2008, with around 55 percent support each time, this year the race is much tighter. According to data gathered from August through early October by the polling firm Morning Consult, Clinton has only about 41 percent support, Trump 39 percent. If Trump wants to win Ohio, he must do it in places like Ashtabula, and win voters who haven’t seen the virtue of Republicans until now. He’ll need white voters without a college education to turn out in force nationwide.
Trump’s path towards victory in the county is likely to be eased by many residents’ gut inclination towards his message of American decline. Good jobs are scarce in Ashtabula, but heroin isn’t. The county’s lack of diversity hasn’t meant a dearth of race-based unease. And institutions like government and media have lost people’s trust.
“I’m 45 years old, I’ve never missed an election and I don’t think I ever voted for a Republican,” Dave Ray of Conneaut told me on a recent Friday. He’d wandered into Ashtabula’s local GOP office looking for Trump yard signs since someone had stolen all of his in the middle of the night.
Ray, who has worked in the same factory since high school, voted for Obama twice, but there was something about Trump that struck him this year. He called himself “converted,” though he’s still technically registered as a Democrat and voted for Bernie Sanders in Ohio’s Democratic primary. Ray is not alone. White voters without a college degree have been trending heavily towards the Republican nominee this year, and 41 percent of Obama voters in Ashtabula in 2012 were in this Trump-shifting group, making it one of the counties where Trump stands to gain the most compared to four years ago.
Ray brought up the protests against police violence that have swept the country over the past couple of years as a point of departure between himself and the president. “Obama has done nothing to help protect these police,” he said. “Obama has invited Black Lives Matter into the White House and I’m sorry, I’m not a racist, but if I had a White Lives Matter group, I think I would be singled out and I would be considered a racist.”
Ray liked Trump’s bluntness about the country’s problems. “I work in a factory, I know how people actually talk,” Ray said. “[Trump] says what a lot of us think and he’s not afraid to rattle a cage.” He liked the idea of “draining the swamp,” a term Trump has used to describe getting rid of the Washington establishment, and had even taken his daughter the previous evening to try to get into a Trump rally in Geneva. While the candidate excited him, the coarse T-shirts worn by people at the rally had bothered Ray, particularly the ones referencing Monica Lewinsky with heavy sexual innuendo.
“That’s hard for me when I’m walking by with my daughter and my daughter’s asking me what that means,” Ray said.
“That was out of place,” Barbara McGehee, 71, said in agreement. A volunteer at the Republican Party headquarters and a Trump supporter since the primaries, she wasn’t surprised that Democrats like Ray were losing faith in their party, which has long dominated local politics in the County.
“Look at Ashtabula, how run down it is, how few stores,” McGehee said, a note of anger rising in her voice.
Ashtabula Towne Square mall opened in 1992 with enough retail space for 70 stores, a food court and a movie theatre. Dillard’s, J.C. Penney and Sears were all anchor stores.
Today, the only one left is J.C. Penney. Two vast wings of the mall are shuttered, so most of the still open stores are concentrated around the food court area, souk-style. Most of the food stalls are empty too. When I walked through on a recent Saturday, the long central aisle was filled with tables topped by homemade cupcakes and Etsy shop-type merchandise, all for a Halloween-themed fundraiser, “Ashtabula County, Scare Away Hunger!” No music was playing, and it struck me that it was the quietest mall I’d ever encountered.
“You picked a good day to come,” Mike Donnelly, one of the fundraiser volunteers, told me. “Normally you’d see 20 people.” There couldn’t have been more than 100 there, if that.
“The big thing in this town is poverty,” Donnelly, 45, said. He works at what he called “one of the better paying jobs” in Ashtabula, as a quality auditor at a fiberglass plant and considered himself lucky to have found it. “You see signs everywhere that say, ‘we’re hiring, we’re hiring’ but it’s that they don’t pay enough,” Donnelly said. A Gallup study from earlier this year concluded that while economic distress wasn’t directly linked to Trump support — his supporters overall tend to be better off than the average American — Trump found backing in places where people are worried about the next generation’s job prospects. That rang true in Ashtabula.
The county’s problems with heroin don’t help matters. Ashtabula had 21 overdose deaths in 2015, actually an improvement on the previous year’s 27. If you have friends who do it, as Donnelly does, you notice the problem everywhere, he said. “They’re paranoid all the time, they’re tweaking all the time, they have scars on them.”
Voting, he’d found, didn’t change things much, and he didn’t plan on doing it this year. Donnelly said he’d only done it twice in his lifetime, and only because, “I thought maybe they’d change the country.” They didn’t.
I took one last turn around the mall, and overheard a group of middle aged men and women at a table by the Bath & Body Works talking about the recent developments in Clinton’s never-ending email scandal. A discussion of the election unfolded. Someone was worried that Trump would come into office, be assassinated, and Clinton would take over – “yeah, I’ve heard that,” another chimed in. Someone else said that the Illuminati existed and that they’d play a role in determining the outcome of the election. There were credulous murmurs of agreement. It made perfect sense to the group that a faceless cadre of elites were out to screw them over.
“People ask kind of off-the-wall questions,” Carol Lovas, director of Ashtabula County’s Board of Elections said of the inquiries she’s been getting from voters lately about the elections process. It was a Saturday morning and we sat in her office, away from the buzz of early voters tramping in and out of the building to cast their ballots. “It’s because they’re reading all this stuff online, obviously, and they’re starting to get concerned,” Lovas said. It was her job to explain the process of the secret ballot to voters, to assure them that their votes would be counted correctly. An October survey showed that 41 percent of Americans were worried that the election could be “stolen” thanks to voter fraud, including 73 percent of Republicans.
Outside the Board of Elections, I met Richard and Julie Urch. They’d just voted and I asked what they thought of all the talk of rigging and the election — were they worried?
“A lot more information is known now but also perverted now,” Richard, 55, a mechanic said. “People don’t trust already, naturally, people who’ve been wounded in the past for various reasons.” He wasn’t sure, he said, what Trump’s basis was for claiming there would be “rigging” of the election.
Julie, 54, who builds electronics, said there was one big thing she was worried about in the election – the media. Only 32 percent of Americans say they trust it, a historic low.
“If you state something as a fact and it is proven it’s not a fact, there should be some serious repercussions and I don’t believe that’s happening right now,” she said.
The stakes surrounding elections were all that much higher, she added, making the accurate reporting of facts about them all the more important. It seemed clear that the Urch household was fed up with the campaign, and many people in Ashtabula seemed to feel the same way. Trapped in an election hothouse, the air thick with negativity and fear, the county needed the bracing rush of November air and an escape from the presidential campaign
After a few minutes of talking, Richard and Julie needed to go, but wanted to see my press credentials before they did, just to make sure I was who I said I was. My business card in hand, the Urches said their goodbyes.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Julie said to me as we parted, meaning the truth. “Whatever I said better be as I said it, right?”