Resetting red and blue in the Rust Belt

Updated 12:15 PM ET, Mon April 25, 2016

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Story highlights

  • CNN spent a week visiting three Rust Belt cities
  • Voters are fed up with the status quo and hungry for change

The voters of the Rust Belt have shaken up the 2016 presidential campaign: Hoping to jolt a political system they see as ineffective and out of touch, they have repeatedly revolted by supporting unlikely, anti-establishment candidates.

In both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, these voters see a potential for change they haven't felt in generations. They say they are willing to shed party allegiances and reimagine their priorities this year, even voting for a self-described democratic socialist, or for a flame-throwing real estate developer who has never served in government.
In doing so, they have become the engine of one of the most extraordinary elections in modern U.S. history.
CNN spent a week visiting three Rust Belt cities: Buffalo, New York; Youngstown, Ohio; and Erie, Pennsylvania. In nearly 30 in-depth interviews, voters in these economically depressed areas shared an unmistakable fascination with Trump and Sanders and their offbeat candidacies. They were willing to break out of their long-held voting patterns to back an unconventional choice. And Trump supporters expressed a raw anger at the idea that party leaders might try to deny him the nomination — a warning for establishment Republicans publicly challenging their front-runner.
"The politicians that are going out of their way to destroy him -- it's a very bad move," says Tim Wiles of Buffalo. "This is America; this is not Russia."
Frustration with the economic and political system is especially strong in the Rust Belt, a section of the country in the Northeast and Midwest once at the heart of the United States' manufacturing boom. Decades after the decline of heavy industries like steel production and coal mining, the region continues to struggle with decaying infrastructure, population decline and high unemployment.
    Voters there are worried about economic stagnation and crime plaguing their communities. They are disappointed in Washington's elected officials. They are calling out for swift, radical change.
    But even among fans of Trump and Sanders, there are serious reservations -- that Sanders may be too old and his ideas too "out there," and that Trump's tough rhetoric turns off too many people.
    Among Democrats, there is a widely shared belief that Clinton, more than anyone else in the entire field, is best prepared to handle the immense responsibilities of the presidency. She notched a decisive win in New York and enjoys a commanding lead in Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary Tuesday. But passionate enthusiasm for the former secretary of state was difficult to come by during CNN's trip.
    There is also a pervasive mood of impatience and exhaustion with a political system the voters say is failing them. For every voter who is hopeful that 2016 could be the year of a political revolution, there is another who feels deeply pessimistic that anyone, including the populist outsiders on the right and left, can fix the broken system.
    Even as a new spate of attacks in Europe have heightened concerns about ISIS, many voters in the Rust Belt say they desperately want the next president to prioritize local issues like unemployment, crime and infrastructure over international concerns. "There's enough going on in the United States," is how one undecided Ohio voter, Carolyn Halverstadt, put it.
    Above all, many of these voters say they are still undecided -- and willing to be persuaded.

    Buffalo, New York

    Overlooking Canada from the northeast corner of Lake Erie sits Buffalo, a former home to industrial heavyweights like Bethlehem Steel and a city of 258,703 now in the midst of a long fight for an economic comeback.
      Buffalo demonstrates Trump's remarkable appeal across the country to non-traditional Republican voters. Here, there are working- and middle-class voters, former supporters of President Barack Obama and individuals who have supported Democrats in the past now drawn to Trump's promise of dramatic change.
      In the First Ward of South Buffalo on the corner of Ohio and Michigan Avenues, there is a favorite spot among locals called the Swannie House. Wiles has owned the place for 33 years and sits on a stool in the corner of the bar every day, his feet elevated on the window sill because of a bad back. It's "the perfect corner because you hear everything," he says.
      These days, it seems everyone wants to talk about one thing: Donald Trump.
      From his seat at the Swannie House, it's Trump
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      "It doesn't matter if you're black, you're green, you're white, you're a Martian with tentacles. It doesn't matter," Wiles, 60, says. "They're all talking about Trump."
      Wiles is disgusted by how the election has unfolded so far, and is especially offended by Republican efforts to stop Trump from winning the nomination. "If the Republicans don't lay off this man, I will never vote Republican."
      Trump's broad appeal in places like Buffalo has helped make the New York real estate mogul and first-time political candidate into a presidential front-runner. Trump dominated the New York GOP primary last week, sweeping the entire state with the exception of Manhattan. In Erie County, where Buffalo is located, Trump won with 66% of the vote.
        Dan Ivancic is a 32-year-old born and raised in Tonawanda, a suburb north of Buffalo. Ivancic is a college dropout who says he has made a good living working at a lumber company located off the Buffalo River for nine years. He is old enough to remember what a ghost town Buffalo was after steel and grain mills closed all along the river.
        But over the last five years or so, the city's skyline has begun to change. New buildings are being constructed along the waterfront, an area Ivancic says he wasn't allowed to visit as a kid because it was unsafe. And with major investments in the University of Buffalo's medical school and SolarCity -- the largest solar panel production facility in the Western Hemisphere -- the city is aiming to attract tens of thousands of college-educated and younger workers.
        Ivancic, who backed Obama in 2008 and didn't participate in the 2012 election, voted for Trump last Tuesday. "I know a lot of people think Trump's crazy," he says, "but he's different."
        "I can respect what he's built and what he's achieved. He's a businessman and if you run our country like a business, it should run successfully," Ivancic adds. "And I think he stands for change. He's tired of the same old, same old -- just like everyone else."
        In East Buffalo, home to a sizeable Polish community, the Broadway Market is bustling ahead of Easter weekend. There are kiosks selling all kinds of treats: Italian pastries, freshly made Polish pierogis, jars of horse radish and pickles, and barrels filled with colorful Easter eggs.
        Here, Tony Krupski, who was born and raised in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, represents a segment of the population that is less preoccupied with the economy.
        He and his wife were largely untouched by the manufacturing decline and the recent financial crisis. These days, he plays the accordion in his free time, performing in places like the Broadway Market and senior homes. The grandson of Polish immigrants, Krupski's overwhelming concern is national security. Just that morning, terrorist attacks in Belgium had killed dozens at the Brussels airport and a train station.
        Krupski, a registered Democrat who twice voted for Obama, is turning his back on the party this year. He plans to vote for Trump in November.
          "It seems like Donald Trump has a better idea of trying to tighten things up so this ISIS thing doesn't hurt people," Krupski says.
          But in last week's New York primary, Krupski voted for Sanders. For one, he didn't want to change his party affiliation: "I vote for the person and not the party." Plus, Krupski doesn't want Clinton to get the Democratic nomination. "We have to go in another direction with the leadership for this country," he says.
          Still, there are grave concerns about Trump outside his white, working-class base, and fears that his election would unwind Buffalo's economic gains. Greg Carter, a Buffalo native who works in construction at the University of Buffalo's medical school, says he considered Trump "a joke" with dangerous ideas.
          "If he wins, we're done," says Carter, 57, who is black and voted for Clinton last week. Of black voters, Carter says, "None of them will vote for Trump."

          Youngstown, Ohio

          Downtown Youngstown looks like a booming college town. The streets are filled with Youngstown State University students, lined with restaurants and coffee shops that boast craft beers and fresh-squeezed juices sold in mini mason jars. Obama recently praised the Youngstown Business Incubator as a "state-of-the art" lab helping to drive the country's high-tech boom.
          But away from the center of downtown, things get bleak -- fast.
          Along the former industrial corridor of Steel Valley, giant structures that used to be steel mills are now rusting and vacant. There are abandoned homes all across the city, a reminder of the thousands of residents who fled the area in the 1970s and '80s when the mills shut down.
          Although Ohio's unemployment rate mirrors the national figure of 5%, it is much higher in Youngstown: 8.2%. Many residents here share a familiar complaint: the city's unemployed youth are restless because they don't have jobs, so they wander the streets and act out. Youngstown, with a population of around 65,000, saw a 28% increase in robbery during the second quarter of 2015 from the previous year, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
            For Youngstown native Darlene Hood, the plight of the city overwhelms all other issues. "It's a lot of killing going around. Lots. They're just about everywhere now," Hood says.
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            She is one of the state's many undecided voters. Although Hood likes the idea of Clinton becoming the country's first woman president, she feels certain that none of the candidates can do much to help communities like hers.
            "It don't really matter to me because ain't nobody gonna help me no way, I help myself," she said. "I gotta help myself. They ain't gonna get me no job, they ain't gonna feed me, they ain't gonna clothe me, they ain't gonna do anything for me."
            Hood, 61, has a small, wiry frame and moves quickly around the kitchen of a group home where she works on the north side of the city, making spaghetti on a recent Thursday afternoon. Here, she takes care of eight men with mental disabilities, whom she refers to as her "clients" with obvious affection.
            Like others born in the area in the middle of the 20th century, Hood is nostalgic for the city's glory days. The youngest of four kids -- and the only girl -- she says she had a happy childhood. Life had felt easy for her family when jobs were plentiful.
            But in 1965, her father died. In 1968, her family picked up and left Youngstown, after the murder of her uncle distressed her mother so badly that she couldn't bear to stay. In 1978, her mother died. In 1985, her brother was stabbed to death.
            Though haunted by these tragedies, Hood returned to Youngstown in the 1990s, a move she now says she regrets. "I should have got out of here and never came back."
            As she takes a cigarette break on the front porch, Hood points out four houses across the street that she says are empty. Residents here constantly fret about the vacant homes, eyesores that reinforce the city's troubles.
            Ahead of the 2016 election, Youngstown's residents overwhelmingly say they want presidential candidates to focus on policies that can help cities like theirs.
            Youngstown Mayor John McNally, a Democrat, says plenty of his constituents are intrigued by Trump, particularly the candidate's forceful message on national security. But he feels strongly that those issues are second to Mahoning County's infrastructure problems, like deteriorating roads and the high price of water bills.
            "Those are the things that I hear about the most," says McNally, who has not endorsed in the presidential election.
            Leroy Halverstadt, 68, is one of those residents. Recently laid off from a manufacturing company, Halverstadt says he's far more concerned about troubles at home than what is happening overseas, including ISIS' recent attacks in Europe.
            "There's enough going on in the United States," says Halverstadt. "All you have to look is Youngstown with the crime and the dope."
            His wife, Carolyn, is a likely Trump supporter. Although Ohio Gov. John Kasich won his state by double digits, Trump won Mahoning County by 13 points and Columbiana County, where the Halverstadts live, by nine points. Halverstadt did not vote in the primary and says he will likely vote for Clinton in the general election -- somewhat grudgingly. He quips that he's bothered by "Benghazi, emails, and all that stuff."
            "Even though she lied and all that stuff, I think she knows more than (Trump) does," Halverstadt says.
            Going by the map, Mahoning County is Clinton country. She defeated Obama here in Ohio's 2008 primary, and Sanders in this year's March 15 primary. But even voters who are supporting Clinton here say they have their doubts.
            This lack of enthusiasm was a recurring theme among the Clinton supporters that CNN interviewed along the Rust Belt. Democrats largely view the former secretary of state as deeply qualified to serve in the White House. But her handling of Benghazi and her use of a private email server at the State Department have clearly affected how voters view her character.
            Mabel Neail, a 63-year-old African-American Youngstown native who twice voted for Obama, is a prime demographic target for the Clinton campaign. But Neail, sitting on her front porch on the south side of Youngstown on a street that is dotted with boarded-up homes, is one of the many voters toying with unconventional choices this year.
            "I think she's a nice lady and everything. That's all I can say. I don't know," Neail, who didn't vote the primary, says about Clinton. Then her face brightens: "But I'll tell you who I do like -- what's his name -- Barney?"
            She is talking about Bernie Sanders. Neail is captivated by Sanders' promise of free college. Not all of her six children went to school, and she feels easier access to higher education is exactly what's needed to help steer the youth in a place like Youngstown away from crime.
            Neail says she's even willing to consider voting for a Republican for the first time this year.
            "We need a big change around here, I'm telling you," she says.

            Erie, Pennsylvania

            Spend a day talking to the residents of Erie — some 90 miles southwest of Buffalo -- and you're likely to learn two things. First, the General Electric plant in Lawrence Park is laying off 1,500 workers. Second, Presque Isle was recently voted in USA Today as the number one freshwater beach in the country.
            Erie bled thousands of jobs over the years as manufacturing-based companies left the area, moving to the South or overseas in search of cheaper labor. Some of the city's residents are haunted by Erie's "Rust Belt" label, and eager to leave that in the past. And they are increasingly turning their attention to areas around Presque Isle State Park and the bay front, pouring resources into the growing tourism and service sectors there.
            It's clear that the populist messages of Trump and Sanders have struck a chord here, as they have elsewhere in the region. But even among the residents who badly want to see change, there is a nagging sense that no candidate in the field is capable of anything beyond promises and lofty rhetoric. For all the appeal of the fire-breathing outsider candidates, there's still deep skepticism that either of them -- Trump or Sanders -- can actually deliver.
            Terri Eddy, a 45-year-old widow who works at a Fuel-n-Food next to a Shell gas station on Greengarden Boulevard, belongs to a segment of the city that feels hopeless and left behind. She is tired of having her bikes stolen and the chain in her yard cut, fed up with feeling scared to walk alone at night, and alarmed by what she says is a growing heroin epidemic in the area.
            Erie County had Pennsylvania's 13th highest rate of drug-related deaths in 2014, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. With a population of 278,000, it had 59 drug overdose-related deaths that year, according to the county coroner's office, and heroin was the leading cause.
            Eddy says she is unlikely to participate in the Pennsylvania primary because she is uninspired by the field of candidates. She questions whether any of them will address her hometown's plight.
            "I believe when they get in, they don't do what they're supposed to," she says.
            After saving up enough money to finally buy a car, Eddy is now just looking for the right opportunity to get out of town. "I wouldn't recommend nobody live here," she says.
            Sean Candela, also born and raised in Erie, runs a camping ground and restaurants at the entrance of Presque Isle. The 62-year-old says it's clear that both Trump and Sanders are giving voice to those in this community who feel disenfranchised -- "the ones that feel like their voices aren't being heard."
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            But Candela, who prefers not to share which candidate he is supporting to avoid upsetting customers, also doesn't totally buy it. "There's appeal, and there's reality. Can anybody in the system get a lot accomplished anymore?"
            Over the past ten months, the residents of Erie have watched Trump with fascination. His rapid political rise, his colorful language and propensity to offend, along with his promises to build a wall and keep Muslims out of the country, are frequent topics of conversation at hair salons, gas stations and diners.
            As they take in the media's around-the-clock coverage of Trump, there is also mounting frustration for some residents here who feel Trump has turned the 2016 election into a political spectacle devoid of authentic policy prescriptions that can help communities like Erie.
            "I'm waiting for the circus to quiet down and the real conversations to start happening," said Beth Zimmer, a 51-year-old Erie native who founded the non-profit Innovation Collaborative to foster start-ups in the area. "And it's getting to be late for that, it seems."
            Barry Rider has worked at Liberty Iron and Metal Co. since 1976, overseeing a plant where metal scraps are collected, sorted, compressed and sent out to be recycled. The 65-year-old Erie native has watched the city's transformation, and remembers when industries like plastics, locomotive, and recycling thrived and fueled the city's economy.
            The last year has been particularly tough for his business. When things are good, his company has about 75 full-time workers and 10 temps. These days, he's down to about 45 workers -- no temps, and no overtime pay.
            Rider is fiercely defensive of his city, citing its low cost of living and its proximity to several major urban centers. For all its flaws, it's a great place, he says, to raise a family.
            But Rider, who says he has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past, sees no candidate with a convincing message on the most important issues: jobs and the economy. In Erie, he says, "People need to work."
            Trump's promises to "do this and that" ring hollow for Rider: "He won't be able to do half the things he wants to do if he's elected."