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Ohio Blue Collar Voters Express Uncertainty On The Election


Now let's turn to Ohio. It's a state that President Trump won easily in 2016, and it is in toss-up territory this year. The closure of an auto plant there is looming large. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith visited the site of the former plant.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When President Trump talks about how amazing the economy was before the pandemic, there is a glaring exception, one he's come back to over the course of his presidency, as he did in May 2019.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That was the only thing they could say about our whole economy - Lordstown. They kept saying Lordstown, Lordstown.

KEITH: The GM Lordstown plant, which most recently had been making the Chevy Cruze, shut down in March 2019. And no amount of angry tweets berating GM management and the union could make it reopen. Over the course of a few years, it went from employing 4,500 people to essentially none.

BILL JANIK: Hi, my name is Bill Janik. I was there 17 years.

KEITH: And he was one of the last to go.

JANIK: If you saw the sign that said the last Cruze, I made it, and I hung it on the car.

KEITH: For Jon Alexander, who also worked at GM Lordstown, it's been a nightmare.

JON ALEXANDER: I planned on retiring at this plant. I literally had money, savings put aside to get a home and property in Lordstown, Ohio.

KEITH: Instead, if he wanted to stay with GM, he had to relocate to Michigan.

ALEXANDER: I'm a factory rat. I'm a dumb auto worker. I have to follow GM.

KEITH: His ex-wife and kids didn't make the move, and the whole experience has left him broken. Janik, who is a mechanical engineer, has since found another job in a different industry. His wife, who also worked at GM Lordstown, took a transfer to a plant in Indiana. But making the long drive home on weekends for a few hours with their kids wasn't working.

In 2016, support for Trump surged in the counties around Lordstown. Voters there liked his message on trade and boosting manufacturing. But there's something he said at a rally in nearby Youngstown in 2017 after he was already president that everyone seems to bring up.


TRUMP: Let me tell you folks in Ohio and of this area, don't sell your house. Don't sell your house.


TRUMP: Do not sell it. We're going to get those values up. We're going to get those jobs coming back. And we're going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build brand new ones, so it's going to happen.


JANIK: And it was odd that he said that...

KEITH: Again, Bill Janik.

JANIK: ...Because a year or two later, our friends are gone. They're all over the country. They sold their houses, and they're gone because they worked. They transferred from GM to other plants.

KEITH: As we talk in the Janiks' garage, my eye keeps returning to a high shelf where an old Trump-Pence yard sign is propped up, not so much displayed as stored.

JANIK: That's my '16 sign. Yeah.

KEITH: This election, Janik is deeply undecided. He knows he's not voting for Joe Biden, but he's not sure he can bring himself to vote for the president.

JANIK: You know, how do I vote for him now after, you know, we're out of a job, basically, because of things - and he did say, we're going tax Mexico. We're going to - he didn't do that. He did some things, but he did not help us one bit.

KEITH: Shortly after the plant closed, GM sold it to a company called Lordstown Motors that plans to manufacture electric pickup trucks there. Right before last month's debate in Cleveland, President Trump held an event at the White House to show off a prototype.


TRUMP: It's an incredible concept. I think it's an incredible concept.

KEITH: And at this point, it is just a concept. The company hopes to ramp up production and have 1,500 employees by the end of 2021. But there on the South Lawn, Trump was already declaring victory.


TRUMP: It's incredible what's happened to the area. It's booming now. It's absolutely booming and really great. And you also have room for expansion in the plant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yep. Oh, yeah. We'll come out with multiple...

KEITH: I'm in the employee parking lot of what used to be the GM Lordstown facility, and it is a huge blacktop with hundreds and hundreds of parking spaces. And right now they're almost all empty. This is not a booming facility anymore. This is a ghost town.

ALEXANDER: I mean, I hope they work. I hope it's great. But there's no jobs there.

KEITH: Jon Alexander, who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, seethes at the president's South Lawn remarks about Lordstown.

ALEXANDER: I could have been there right now working, making a good living, still with my kids. We're not booming. How are we booming?

KEITH: Alexander is pouring all this into support for Joe Biden with more enthusiasm than he had in 2016.

ALEXANDER: I'm not saying he's the best. But I'm saying the people behind him - pretty good, pretty awesome. And some of them might be the best. What we have now - disaster.

KEITH: Biden sees an opening in this battered, blue-collar part of Ohio that had been Democratic for generations until Trump. Biden is visiting the state and is running ads all over Ohio, including the local media market around Lordstown. But Trump's campaign insists they aren't worried, and his economic message will deliver the state to him once again.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.