What is the Rust Belt and Why Does it Matter on Election Day?

The Rust Belt used to be the industrial heart of the US. President Trump exceeded expectations here in 2016 as he promised to revitalize the struggling region and create jobs and prosperity. Four years later, these promises are on the ballot for many in the region, and the polls ought to concern the incumbent.

Where is the Rust Belt?

The Rust Belt area begins in New York State and runs west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan. It ends in northern Illinois, eastern Iowa, and southeast Wisconsin. It was formerly home to America’s most important and core industries, such as steel and automobile manufacturing, and once comprised the nation’s industrial heartland. However, it has seen a sharp decline in recent decades due to the increased cost of domestic labor and capital-intensive manufacturing.

To this day many manufacturers in the Rust Belt are still utilizing expensive and outdated equipment and machinery and struggle with local labor and materials. To compensate for this, the majority of them began to look elsewhere for cheaper steel and labor, namely from foreign sources.

Globalization’s Pressure on the Rust Belt

Globalization also led to increased capital flows in the US capital markets. This benefited the US service sector but contributed to a higher dollar and less competitive US industries. While once a hub for people from the rest of the country and from abroad, the increasing crisis led to an exodus of people from the region. Hundreds of thousands of well-paid worker jobs have been eliminated, forcing people to move away, searching for work and better living conditions.

As a result, the Rust Belt is now dominated by a declining US manufacturing industry. The economic losses, falling population and ruination of cities like Detroit created a deep crisis consisting of a shrinking population, falling incomes, spiking social issues, and high unemployment in the once-booming area.

Key Swing States in the Rust Belt

Several political swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are part of the Rust Belt. Since these states are often the deciding factor in presidential elections, the Rust Belt plays a crucial role in US politics.

The population structure, which is characterized by white industrial workers, used to be considered a stronghold of the Democrats and part of the so-called “blue wall.” Donald Trump shattered the blue wall in 2016, which made his election possible.

Four years ago, Trump’s strategy was to promise these people a better future. However, not much of it has materialized.

Trump’s Unfulfilled Economic Promises to the Rust Belt

One of Trump’s significant economic policies over the past two years has been protectionism. He introduced 25 percent tariffs on steel imports from China and Europe in 2018, claiming this would help domestic steelmakers reduce competition from imports and cut several regulations the Obama administration had introduced.

The US steel industry temporarily ramped up production – and then quickly went down again – and with it the prices. Although the volume of steel imports has decreased, there is little evidence that the domestic steel industry and its workers actually benefit from Trump’s policies.

While employment and wage growth continued nationally under Trump, unemployment in the steel industry in the Rust Belt states had remained significant, even before COVID-19 hit the economy. Before the corona pandemic in March 2020, the unemployment rate was around six percent – as it was when Trump took office in January 2017. But the many well-paid new jobs that Trump had promised, do not exist, especially not in the steel industry.

‘Promises Made, Promises Kept?’ Hardly

Thus, one cannot speak of “promises made, promises kept,” and the polls reflect this. In almost every Rust Belt state, Biden’s lead is either comfortable or, at best, the situation is a coin toss between the incumbent and the challenger Joe Biden.

What these polls are actually worth will be seen on Tuesday, when the same workers are asked to vote and put their faith in either Trump for a second term or Biden for a first. One thing is for certain: neither of them can win the elections without strong support in the Rust Belt states.