CLEVELAND/PITTSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA - Shiny new Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees, lined up in their thousands, wait to be shipped out by train from the Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, where Donald Trump has come to court blue-collar voters with promises of jobs.
The industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie, which has lost a quarter of its population since the 1970s as jobs dried up, is a Democratic stronghold with a big union presence.
President Barack Obama saved the local auto industry from bankruptcy, and the Democratic White House nominee Hillary Clinton enjoys solid support among the city’s black voters.
But the Republican Trump hopes to chip away at that support in the final stretch to the Nov. 8 vote.
“My economic agenda can be summed up in three very beautiful words: jobs, jobs, jobs,” Trump told more than 2,000 supporters at a local theater on Wednesday.
“If Trump is president, you watch how good it will be.”
Starting next year, pledged the real estate magnate, “jobs are going to start leaving other countries and coming back to us, believe me. That includes Apple products.”
The target of Trump’s pitch are voters like Dusky Raker-Bishop, 40, who cares full time for her husband and mother, both disabled.
In 2008, she voted for Obama — but she has since soured on the Democrats.
“I would never vote for Hillary, she’s going to do the same things that Obama is doing, ship everything overseas,” she told AFP.
On her chest she had pinned a badge reading “Deplorable” — a jab back at Clinton who sparked an uproar this month by describing half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
Brandon, a 33-year-old union member who withheld his last name, works at a local tire factory.
“Sometimes you’ve got to play both sides,” he said.
While his union supports Clinton, he says he himself cannot back her, arguing that “she is in favor of bad trade deals that are going to close down my factory.”
Hillary Clinton now stresses that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership backed by Obama. But many voters mistrust her on the issue — since she defended the deal when she was part of the Obama administration.
So many blue-collar workers find themselves leaning toward Trump — who has waged a staunchly protectionist campaign even though his Republican Party is traditionally anti-union and pro-free trade.
It isn’t the first time Trump has come to court Toledo voters; he came in May as well, promising that economic help was on the way.
His return here highlights how critical local white voters are to his electoral strategy.
Why Ohio rather than neighboring Michigan?
The presidential election is effectively the sum of 50 state elections, with each candidate gunning for a majority of 538 electoral votes divided among the states.
Trump would only need to get one more vote than Clinton here to take home all 18 of Ohio’s electoral votes.
Michigan, which faces similar economic challenges, still appears most likely to vote Democratic. But Ohio is so close as to be considered up-for-grabs.
Trump at the moment has a slight poll lead over Clinton in Ohio — thanks in part to backing from 57 percent of white men in the latest CNN survey.
Democrats in turn are going door-to-door in mostly black areas of Toledo and Cleveland to try to boost turnout — and counter Trump’s surge with white working classes.
The Clinton campaign has just opened its 55th local office in Ohio, it told AFP; Trump had just 16 earlier this month, according to PBS.
What his campaign lacks in organization, Trump hopes to make up for by whipping up voter excitement, helped by social media.
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012, also came to Toledo in the last campaign but his opposition to Obama’s auto industry bailout cost him votes.
Above all, he offered none of the populist rhetoric that has propelled Trump so far — most recently with a pledge to create 25 million new jobs over 10 years.
Trump’s recipe is simple: slam today’s decision-makers and promise, if elected, to renegotiate trade deals and start again from scratch.
“Jobs will return, don’t you like the sound of that? Income will rise, and new factories will come rushing onto our shores.”
Trump meanwhile vowed to speed the government’s approval of energy infrastructure projects — after the Obama administration moved to stall an oil pipeline in the Dakotas that has drawn protests.
He also promised to rescind a bevy of Obama administration environmental regulations in remarks to the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh, a summit representing natural gas producers.
“We will streamline the permitting process for all energy infrastructure projects, including the billions of dollars in projects held up by President Obama — creating countless more jobs in the process,” Trump said.
The Army Corps of Engineers said earlier this month it would not allow construction of Energy Transfer Partners LP’s Dakota Access pipeline on federal land in North Dakota and South Dakota while it considers permits for part of the project. Native American groups had protested its construction, saying it would damage sacred land.
Trump portrayed opponent Clinton as having policies that would expand Obama’s regulatory regime, making it harder to build the pipelines, export facilities and other projects he said are “needed to move our energy resources to market.” Right now, he said, billions of dollars in projects are tied up in “regulatory limbo.”
Trump made the remarks in a city with voters that are crucial to his effort to win the state and its 71 delegates. The economy surrounding Pittsburgh and the southwestern portion of the state are rooted in oil, coal and gas production.
Polls suggest that Clinton still has a significant lead in Pennsylvania, with Trump trailing by 9 percentage points, according to the latest Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll taken between Sept. 12 through Sept. 16. Trump will spend the rest of Thursday campaigning in Philadelphia’s battleground suburbs, while also attending a fundraiser in Philadelphia.
Trump’s comments, ironically, were being delivered to the very industry that is driving much of coal’s downturn. The surge in natural gas production has made it not only cleaner but cheaper than coal. Utilities have responded by shuttering coal-fired power plants and switching to gas.
Trump’s promises to streamline energy production and infrastructure also came in a city that has had a ban on fracking since 2010 — illustrating the limits of the president’s power.
But Trump’s focus on the barriers to building infrastructure found a receptive audience in the drillers, service companies and pipeline developers listening to his presentation Thursday.
When energy dollars aren’t invested in the U.S., that money — and the jobs and energy production that come from it — are forfeited to other countries that have lower environmental standards, Trump said.
Calling for an “America first energy plan,” Trump highlighted his plans to revive the coal sector in the heart of western Pennsylvania, where miners have been laid off amid an industry downturn.
“I’m going to lift the restrictions on American energy and allow this wealth to pour into our communities including right here in the state of Pennsylvania,” Trump said to applause, while reading from a teleprompter to a crowd about 1,500 conference attendees inside a Pittsburgh conference hall. “We will end the war on coal and on miners.”
Energy producers in the area fret about persistently low natural gas prices in the region as production overwhelms the capacity of pipelines to ferry it to other markets. And proposed pipelines to get the gas out have run into opposition from local landowners and environmentalists, with the prospect of delays and cancellations, even after federal regulators have signed off.
Williams Partners LP’s proposed Constitution pipeline to carry Marcellus Shale gas to New England has been stalled in New York, where regulators are requiring permits connected to the project’s impacts on wetlands and have denied a separate water quality permit. The state decisions came after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission certified the project; developers are challenging both decisions in federal court.
Greenpeace USA spokeswoman Cassady Sharp accused Trump of pandering to industry, by “singing the praises of a dangerous energy extraction process that threatens the health and safety of families and communities all over this country and promising to slash critical regulations and the EPA.”
Trump reiterated a previous promise to rescind a Department of Interior moratorium on new leasing of federal coal reserves, and he vowed to conduct “a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration.”
He also capitalized again on a gaffe by Clinton in March, when she said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work” while describing plans to help the people who “labored in mines for generations” to “turn on our lights and power our factories.”