Rival voters living miles - and worlds - apart
The city that calls itself “SPAM Town USA” is a two hours’ drive from Minneapolis, one of the largest cities in Minnesota. Laying claim to the title is Austin, located along the state’s southern rolling plains. The food giant Hormel, the maker of SPAM canned meat, employs one in four people here. This is Trump country. But drive just 65 km northeast, to Rochester, and you find a bustling, growing metro area and surrounding rural county that voted for Hillary Clinton.
How the two regions, a short distance apart, have diverged politically, is a microcosm of the broader American rift between those thriving in the current economy and those not. Clinton won Minnesota, a Midwestern state that has voted Democratic in all but two presidential elections since 1932, by a slim margin. While densely-populated urban pockets such as Rochester voted for Clinton, geographically much of the state voted for Republican Donald Trump, including Austin.
Kyle Keenan, owner of the Coffee House on Main in downtown Austin, thinks he knows why. “The perception is that he is this person who’s going to understand the working class and fix our economy for the manufacturing sector,” he said.
Steeples and Wind Farms
Austin is a city of 25,000 people. Arriving by car brings a trio of church steeples into view in the distance. The SPAM Museum is located here. Outside the city, there are wind farms with tall turbines gently spinning in the constant winds of the plains. Aside from food processing, people here work to raise livestock, and grow corn and soybeans. Keenan, whose coffee shop sits on three-block stretch of low-slung buildings with businesses such as Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que restaurant and Belles and Beaus wedding store, is a Trump skeptic.
But he says he understands the billionaire businessman’s appeal for many in his town. “There’s something nostalgic about him, especially for white men, that he’s going to bring us back to some safer place where there’s some kind of stability, in a world that’s changing so fast, with technology taking over,” he said. Paul Meyer, a retired blue-collar worker who lives in Austin, said he voted for Trump because Clinton offered “more of the same.” Trump, he said, represented “change and hope”. “He was saying all the right things that I wanted to hear,” Meyer said of Trump. “There were a lot of people who were thinking and saying the same things as I was thinking, and that’s why this happened.”
While Austin’s economy has newly shown sign of improving, with optimistic forecasts for the next decade, the city’s recent past has been lackluster. Job growth has stagnated over the past 10 years, and the average annual wage here is just under $44,000 a year, below the national average. “The simple conclusion - and this is consistent with Trump’s appeal - is that the people who largely feel that they’ve been left behind voted for Trump,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St Paul.
By comparison, Rochester feels a world apart. The city is home to the worldrenowned Mayo Clinic hospital and one of technology titan IBM’s largest facilities. Rochester and its surrounding county voted for Clinton, albeit by a tiny margin of just 598 out of 77,916 votes cast. At Cafe Steam, near the Mayo Clinic, business people mixed with surgeons in scrubs and college students poring over books. On the brick walls of the 1800’s building hung stained glass, paintings and papier-mache. The economic and cultural divide this presidential election exposed nationwide is on clear display here.
Chelsey Mingone, a 26-year-old with a graphic art degree, voted for Clinton and had trouble understanding that so many others voted for Trump, whose divisive campaign singled out immigrants and Muslims for attack. “It’s embarrassing and disgraceful that our nation would even vote for hatred,” she said. “They’re trying to upset the system. They see this as a solution to all their problems, but voting for a man who stands for so much hatred and injustice isn’t the solution.”
In Minnesota - as was the case nationwide - urban regions with diversified economies tended to vote for Clinton, and college-educated workers in these areas, who see themselves as part of the global economy, may struggle to understand why rural voters wanted a change in direction, political experts said. “We really have two political regions in one state now,” said Stephen Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. “In Rochester, you have growing employment in sectors that are really linked into the international economy, like IBM. People are flying from all over the world to get to Mayo. They aren’t flying into Austin, though,” he said.
That translates into a sizeable income gap: the additional pay workers receive in Rochester could pay for about a half a year’s wage of a mid-level food processing worker in Austin. Melvin Yunker, a 71-yearold farmer who raises 8,000 hogs with his wife Sharon on their family property outside Austin, said Trump “wants to bring a lot of our jobs back that have gone overseas.” And while many in Austin said that immigration, gun control, abortion and a host of other issues were determining factors in their vote, for most - like Yunker - the bottom line is about jobs. — AFP
Paul Meyer, 64, with his cousins Debra Soderberg, 62, and Susan Hays, 50, all Donald Trump supporters, are seen in Austin, Minnesota on Nov 29, 2016. —AFP