How Democrats lost Dubuque, and middle America

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Story highlights

  • Many political analysts predicted Trump would carry Iowa
  • But few experts saw it as part of a Midwest wave

Dubuque, Iowa (CNN)Once a week, a dozen or so grandmothers trickle into an elementary school to spend an evening enjoying one of their favorite hobbies: Basketball.

They're members of the Dubuque Courtside Cuties, a team in the Granny Basketball League, open to women over 50, with 24 teams across Iowa and seven other states. Every week they practice in the school gym, where they shoot around, run drills and play a scrimmage.
These women are on the same team when it comes to basketball. But off the court, they're on all sides of the political debate. Many were stunned by the results in their historically Democratic-voting county. The school where they practice is aptly named after President Dwight Eisenhower, the last Republican nominee to win Dubuque County — until Donald Trump.
"I was horrified. I was depressed for days. And I think we're all going to hell in a handbasket," said Micki Marlof, a member of the team who was so distrustful of Trump and Hillary Clinton that she voted for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
Many political analysts predicted Trump would carry Iowa, but until the results came in, few experts saw it as part of a Midwest wave that would propel him to the White House.
He won here with a surge in support from white working-class communities like Dubuque, which was one of nearly 100 counties in the Midwest that flipped from blue to red this year.

Counties flip red along the Mississippi

As he barnstormed across Iowa before the February caucuses, Trump held a rally at the Dubuque Regional Airport and told a cheering crowd of thousands, "This is a movement."
Few agree more than Pamelape Gantz, who was raised in Dubuque and still lives there. A registered independent, she attended one of Trump's first rallies in Dubuque and supported him from the start. She proudly wears Trump buttons and "deplorable" shirts around town.
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"I walk my dog six miles every morning, and I walk around Dubuque all over so I don't get bored, and I notice all these Trump signs up," Gantz said. "It was the first time I'd ever seen Republican signs up. I came home to my husband and I said, 'Something's going on here. I'm seeing these Trump signs all over Dubuque.' I never saw Republican signs up before."
Even as political pundits ridiculed the notion that yard signs could meaningfully measure support, the anecdotal sightings along Iowa highways and front yards proved true. Trump finished with a 9-point win in the Hawkeye State, a wider margin than in 16 other states, including places that weren't considered battlegrounds, like Texas, Georgia and Minnesota.
"I started pinching myself," Gantz said, recalling election night. "When finally, they called it. I just screamed in delight. I still can't believe it. It's just unbelievable. It's fantastic."
Trump clinched the Iowa victory with a two-pronged approach. First, he outdid past GOP nominees in rural western Iowa, the base of Iowa's evangelicals and conservatives. Then he flipped traditionally Democratic areas in the east like Dubuque County, where he beat Clinton by about 1%. That's a small yet impressive margin, considering its 60-year Democratic streak, and that President Barack Obama won by 14% in 2012 and a whopping 21% in 2008.
What happened in Dubuque was part of a regional trend: Counties up and down the Mississippi River that voted Democratic for generations switched this year to vote for Trump.
Looking on a map, the wave is clear, and it extends into Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Obama twice carried all 10 counties on Iowa's eastern border. Clinton barely held onto one.
That means Obama-Trump voters -- a bloc few saw coming -- played a decisive role.
"I voted for Obama twice because he was new blood, and I thought he'd bring new things to the county, but I'm not sure if he did all that he needed to do," said Paula Welter, a member of the Granny Basketball team who voted for Trump. "I'm looking at Trump the same way. He's new, he's different. Yes, his mouth is horrible, but he's not a politician, and I really think the country is telling us something with electing him. They're tired of the politicians."

Looking out for the little guy

Dubuque is an industry town. For generations, workers built everything from buttons to ships, even some of the earliest automobiles. The timber industry came and went, too. These days, Deere & Company leads the way, with a factory that manufactures agricultural equipment.
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But the plant, like many in the region, is shrinking. Employment peaked in 1980 with 8,300 workers. Jobs started leaving gradually, the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in the 1990s, and today the plant only employs 2,400 people.
Those workers are represented by the United Automobile Workers, which endorsed Clinton. But that endorsement didn't seem to resonate among the rank-and-file.
According to exit polls, Clinton beat Trump among union households nationwide by 9%, the smallest Democratic advantage since 1984, when Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan.
"There didn't seem to be anyone speaking for the small person anymore," Randy Lyon, the unofficial dean of Dubuque history and a retired educator and historian. "The decline of unions in town has left many people up in the air not knowing who is going to look out for them."
It was the Democratic Party that "looked out for the little guy" in Dubuque, Lyon said, pointing out that after devastating floods in the 1960s, Democrats championed efforts to build a flood wall along the Mississippi River so Dubuque homes and businesses would be protected.

Holding their noses, hoping for change

The election has come and gone, but Dubuque is still divided.
On one side, Trump voters are hopeful that the man they sent to Washington can deliver. Not necessarily on his most brazen promises -- like building a wall on the US border with Mexico, or throwing Clinton in prison -- but on pocketbook issues that matter.
"I would hope he could bring jobs back into the community -- he's a businessman," said Paula Welter, from the Granny Basketball team. "My husband works very hard, probably 16 hours a day. He's a farmer, and we don't make a ton of money. We have beef, and the prices were in the cellar about a month ago. I just hope that we can get a hand on it."
Many voters in Dubuque, a predominantly Catholic community, are also counting on Trump to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. Even some of the Clinton voters on the basketball team said they only want Trump to consider justices who oppose abortion rights.
Diehard Democrats in town are lost: Their one-time stronghold went Republican. They're represented in Congress by Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican who was just re-elected to a second term. Their senators are both Republicans, and so are the governor and lieutenant governor.
"I've been agonizing over this result, and I never really did expect it," said former Dubuque Democratic Party chairman Terry Stewart. "It's very disappointing that it also happened here in Dubuque. Apparently, Americans are very gullible, and that's disappointing to me."
But most voters, on both sides, want to move on and see some progress.
"They have to give Trump a chance now that he's been elected," said Deb Kipper, of the Granny Basketball team, a lifelong Republican who voted for Clinton. "They have to give him a chance. Let's see if his actions speak louder than his words, see if he follows through."