Can shutdown plant, struggling community predict the 2020 presidential race?

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LORDSTOWN, Ohio (Gray DC) -- An Ohio village and its autoworkers may learn the final fate of their shutdown plant soon. The United Autoworkers contract expires September 14th – and many expect General Motors will clarify its plans for the facility in Lordstown, Ohio.

Lordstown, Ohio struggles following the closure of G.M. complex (Source: Gray DC).

Ohio lawmakers and President Trump sharply criticized G.M. when company leaders decided to close the plant, citing poor sales of the car produced there. That drove the issue into the national spotlight, and led some political observers to suggest the community’s experience could provide a hint of what’s to come in the 2020 race for president.

Behind locked fences and beyond largely empty parking lots, manufacturing remains stalled at the Lordstown Complex: home of the Chevy Cruze. The few hundred workers who remain in the area hang onto the hope the company will reverse its decision to close.

“It’d be nice, be very nice if that would happen,” said Michael Giovannone, a former worker at the plant, “but it doesn’t look that promising.”

Giavannone recently came off medical leave. Now, he’s prepared to move away from his family and friends to find work at another G.M. plant elsewhere. It’s the only way he sees to get the full retirement benefits he’s only a few years away from earning.

President Donald Trump won Trumbull county – the plant’s home -- in 2016. Four years earlier it went to President Barack Obama. Some attribute President Trump’s 2016 victory in Rust Belt states like Ohio to his pledge to bring back manufacturing.

“They say the Chevy Cruze is not selling well,” Trump said in November 2018, “I say well then get a car that is selling well and put it back in.” But so far, his public efforts to persuade the automaker to save this plant have fallen short.

In May 2019, the President told the country G.M. would sell the plant to an electric truck manufacturer. Any further developments on that potential deal have not become public.

“It’s not his fault,” Giavannone said of the president and on-going uncertainty surrounding the plant, “it’s the decision the executives at G.M. are making.”

Union leaders would not go on-camera, but said President Trump will pay a political price in Lordstown if GM doesn’t restart its economic engine. Manufacturing jobs are growing ever so slightly statewide.

We wanted to know whether that’s enough for the president to keep his support in the Buckeye state, and took that question to Justin Buchler, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Case Western University.

“I think we have to be careful of a logical fallacy,” Buchler said of suggesting the President won Ohio in 2016 by promising to bring back blue collar jobs.

Buchler also pushed back on the idea that voters in any given community base their votes for national offices on local issues. “The saying all politics are local, it’s kind of a myth,” he said.

Richard Nixon was the last candidate to win the presidency without winning Ohio. That was 1960.

Buchler argues the state tends to vote for the winner because its split of Democrats and Republicans generally mirrors that of the nation, not because winning candidates are particularly good at selling their messages here.

Buchler said the strength of the national economy is the most likely factor to determine how the state and county will vote, not whether the president is successful in his efforts to revive manufacturing. He said personal finances can also steer any given voter.

Buchler did say it’s odd that this president’s approval rating remains low even as the economy stays strong. “That’s very unusual, and it’s not entirely clear what that means for 2020,” he noted.

As for the Democratic race to challenge the president, Buchler said it’s nearly impossible to say what factors will matter. That’s because in primaries the rules, timing, and size of the field are always shifting, dramatically complicating experts’ ability to spot patterns.

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