Ri­val vot­ers liv­ing miles - and worlds - apart

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

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

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