The Ripon Forum

Volume 40, No. 5

Oct - Nov 2006 Issue

Reagan in Youngstown

By on October 21, 2015 with 0 Comments

reagan in youngstownby WILLIAM C. BINNING

It’s been said that politics these days is fought along the margins, with each party trying to motivate its political base while the political center is virtually ignored. If that is true, then perhaps it is a good time to recall a candidate who reached out toward the center and, in doing so, was able to win support that crossed and, in fact, transcended party lines. 

The candidate was Ronald Reagan; the year was 1980. Reagan’s overwhelming victory over Jimmy Carter that fall was not just a repudiation of a failed presidency that was preoccupied with malaise and paralyzed by hostages. It was also the result of his success in connecting with a group of voters who had spent their entire lives voting Democratic. 

Much has been written about Ronald Reagan’s appeal to these ethnic blue collar voters – voters who would forever become known as Reagan Democrats. But little if anything has been written about how his ability to connect with these voters matters today, and why the example he set in reaching out to them is relevant to Republican candidates trying to win election and reelection this fall. 

In the wake of Black Monday

Twenty six years ago this October, Ronald Reagan made a campaign visit to one of the strongholds for Reagan Democrats in the United States – the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, which is anchored by the city of Youngstown and is located in the northeastern part of the state. 

To get a sense of the political climate at the time of his visit, one need only look at the local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator , the afternoon after he arrived. The front page was filled with headlines that, in many ways, were very similar to those being seen today. There was a headline about the latest scandal in Washington (“Jenrette Guilty; Stays in Race”) and one about the latest incumbent Senator to lose a primary election in his home state (“Sen. Stone Is Defeated In Fla. Democratic Race”). There was also a reminder about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and the 52 Americans who were being held against their will (“Lest We Forget, 340 Days.”)  

Youngstown Sheet and Tube, circa the late 1950s. (Credit: Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor)

Youngstown Sheet and Tube, circa the late 1950s. (Credit: Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor)

To get a real understanding of the mood of the local electorate in the Mahoning Valley that fall, however, one really needs to look beyond the newspaper headlines of that day. One needs to go back three years, to September 19, 1977. On that day, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, one of the largest steelmakers in the world and the largest employer in the area, announced that it was eliminating 4,000 jobs.  Valley residents now refer to that moment as Black Monday. Without a doubt, it changed the complexion and outlook of the area forever. 

Up until then, the Mahoning Valley had been one of the centers of steelmaking in the United States. Blast furnaces lined the banks of the Mahoning River, which cut through the center of the valley. Drive across the South Center Street Bridge, and you would not only be driving over a river, but you would also be driving literally through a working mill, with molten steel being poured off to the one side of the bridge, and massive smokestacks rising up into the sky off to the other side. Attend a football game at Campbell High School stadium on a Friday night, and you would be sitting in a stadium where a layer of smoke hung above the field of play, partially obscuring the lights above. No one thought anything of it, though, because steelmaking was the way of life. But in the years following Black Monday, it was coming to an end. 

By the fall of 1980, an additional 9,000 jobs had been lost in the area. The smoke that hung in the air above the Mahoning Valley had been replaced by an air of uncertainty that was growing every day. The second and third generation children of the various ethnic and racial groups who had migrated and immigrated to the area to make steel and work in the mills were very anxious and uneasy about their future. These groups had  inherited and held dear very conservative social values. Their families and their churches were the center of their lives.  Culturally, many of them continued to have accents, customs, and diets from various parts of eastern and southern Europe. Politically, many also inherited loyal support for the New Deal and the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

In fact, the Mahoning Valley had become so Democratic that most Republican presidential candidates would not even bother making a visit.  If the Republican candidate did appear, it was simply to make a brief tarmac appearance at the local airport. Richard Nixon did just that in his landslide victory in 1972. Four years later, Gerald Ford never came near the Valley at all.  Despite the Republican decision to effectively write off the region, the Democrat’s hold on the area became strained. In the wake of Black Monday, many Valley residents began to view the Democrat leadership in Washington as being disinterested in the economic uncertainty affecting their families and disconnected from the conservative values around which they were raised. 

Pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote about this kind of sentiment in his book about Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan, Middle Class Dreams. “These were disillusioned, angry voters,” he wrote, “but they were not Republicans. They spoke of a broken contract, not a new vision. Their way of life was genuinely in jeopardy, threatened by profound economic changes beyond their control, yet their leaders, who were supposed to look out for them, were preoccupied with other groups and other issues.”  

Although Greenberg was describing voters in Macomb County, he could have been describing voters in the Mahoning Valley – voters who, in the fall of 1980, were finally being given an opportunity to find out for themselves what the Republican candidate for President was all about.  

Straight talk and no instant solutions

Ronald Reagan touched down at the Youngstown Municipal Airport the evening of October 7. According to the Youngstown Vindicator, he was “greeted by a crowd police estimated at 3,500 to 4,000. Though no speech had been scheduled, Reagan talked briefly, thanking them for coming out on a chilly night. Some had been there for hours.” 

At 9:30 that evening, Reagan traveled to St. Rose Church in the nearby town of Girard to meet with a small group of Catholic priests and union leaders. The group had been trying to get a steel mill reopened, but had met with very little success in Washington. In their meeting with Reagan, they emphasized they did not want welfare, they just wanted to work. He listened to what they had to say, but promised them no instant solutions.  Relating how his own father had once come home with a layoff notice when he was a boy, he also said he understood their concerns.  According to one of the priests who attended the meeting, Reagan was well received. 

The next morning, Reagan, with his entourage and the national press following, visited some of the economically hardest hit steel towns in the Mahoning Valley, touring some of the mills that were still open, as well as some of the ones that had already been shut down. David Broder covered the tour for the Washington Post. He wrote of one such visit. “Speaking in a largely abandoned and rusting Jones and Laughlin plant in the Mahoning Valley, where 13,000 steel jobs have been lost in the last three years, Reagan told the workers: ‘We’ve got to protect this industry and all industries against dumping’ of below-cost foreign steel in the U.S. market, ‘and we’ve got to get rid of those thousands of regulations that make it impossible for us to compete’ with Japanese and European producers.” His message of hope, support and understanding delivered, Reagan departed the Mahoning Valley shortly after this speech. 

A few days later, Clingan Jackson, the political writer for the Vindicatorand one of the most astute observers of local politics at the time, wrote that, “Ronald Reagan undoubtedly helped his candidacy in the Mahoning Valley in his visit here Wednesday.” A straw poll taken by the Vindicator after the visit seemed to bear that out. When the final ballots were cast on Election Day three weeks later, Reagan won 50,153 votes. This was not a plurality of the vote – ultimately, he was unable to break the political stranglehold that 50 years of New Deal politics had placed on the area. But he did succeed in capturing more votes than any Republican candidate for President had ever won in the Valley.  

More significantly, in coming to Youngstown and campaigning in an area that had always voted Democratic in the past, he succeeded in charting a path that no Republican presidential candidate had ever taken before – a path across party lines and into the hearts and minds of blue collar, unionized industrial workers. 

Lessons for today

How did he do this? How did Ronald Reagan connect with steelworkers and others with whom, on the surface at least, he seemingly had little to nothing in common? For one thing, what Stanley Greenberg observed about the voters in Macomb County was true for the voters in the Mahoning Valley as well. “These defecting Democrats,” he wrote in Middle Class Dreams, “saw in him an essential honesty, a willingness to stand tough for his beliefs and to stand with ‘small’ America against things ‘big’ particularly government.”   

Campaign aide Lyn Nofziger, outside a local hotel, the morning of Reagan's visit to Youngstown. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Library)

Campaign aide Lyn Nofziger, outside a local hotel, the morning of Reagan’s visit to Youngstown. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Library)

But there was another thing, as well. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was not running out of Washington D.C.  He was an outsider and he campaigned as an outsider. His mind was not cluttered with inside-the-beltway-policy-wonk-double-talk. For the troubled people in the Mahoning Valley, he seemed like a man who spoke their language and understood their problems. He did not promise them he would bring their mills back. He did promise them an America that reflected their values, and he offered hope of a better and brighter America. 

So what lessons does this hold for Republicans running for office this fall? The challenges of 1980 were not unlike the challenges America faces now: high energy costs, stagnation, inflation and strife in the Middle East. These challenges did not deter Ronald Reagan from giving America hope for a brighter and better tomorrow. They should not deter Republicans running for office from doing the same thing today. 

Of course, Republicans in 2006 now find it more difficult to run against the Washington establishment as Reagan did in 1980; Republicans are the establishment. Still, there remain lessons to be learned from Reagan’s visit to Youngstown that could be useful to Republican candidates this year. These lessons include: 

Talk Straight – Before John McCain, there was Ronald Reagan. He invented the Straight Talk Express. He didn’t sugarcoat the difficulties facing the Mahoning Valley; he didn’t gloss over them. He just listened to what people had to say, told them he understood their problems, and promised to work hard to solve them if he were elected. And people believed him.  

Be Yourself – Reagan was comfortable in his own skin, and people could sense that. He was always able to laugh at himself, but he always took the concerns of others seriously.  When David Broder derided Reagan as a “Hollywood hardhat” a few days after his visit to the Mahoning Valley, the charge didn’t stick (the Teflon was working even back then!) because the people of Youngstown sensed that he was not just some  former actor and former Governor of California running for President. Ronald Reagan was also one of them. 

Throw Away the Talking Points – Reagan stuck to a script, but it was a script of his own making. The positions he took were the positions of his party, but the words that he used to sell them were his own. Campaigns today are bombarded by talking points from Washington telling them what to say. But in today’s era of 24/7 cable news coverage and Internet blogs that print things word for word, talking points have a shelf life of one to two hours at best. Candidates who simply repeat things verbatim sent to them by the RNC do so at their own peril, and run the risk of being revealed as someone who can’t think for themselves. Spout the party line – but do so in your own words.

If there is one final lesson to take away from Ronald Reagan’s visit to Youngstown, it is this – candidates should never be afraid to look beyond their traditional constituencies for votes.  Reagan did not win the Mahoning Valley in 1980. But the unprecedented level of support he ended up winning in the area helped put him over the top in the state, and contributed to his overwhelming victory nationwide. It also reflected his view of campaigning. 

If there is one final lesson to take away from Ronald Reagan’s visit to Youngstown, it is this – candidates should never be afraid to look beyond their traditional constituencies for votes.

“I don’t think of the voters as voters,” he wrote in a letter to a supporter on March 14 of that year. “They are people. And I have to tell you something else. I find it most stimulating and even inspiring to meet the people of this country as you meet them during a campaign. You learn what truly great people they are.” 

Ronald Reagan viewed voters as people – not Republicans, not Democrats, but people. It’s what brought him to Youngstown 27 years ago. It’s also what made him great.  RF


Dr. William C. Binning is the Chairman of the Political Science Department at Youngstown State University.  He is also the former Chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

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