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Wide Streets, Narrow Margins: President Trump’s Appeal In White Working Class Suburbs

A street in Burlington, North Carolina, a middle suburb. Middle suburbs delivered a national victory to President Trump in 2016. But will they do so again?
A street in Burlington, North Carolina, a middle suburb. Middle suburbs delivered a national victory to President Trump in 2016. But will they do so again?

On a recent drive through a working-class suburb in North Carolina, Elon University Professor Megan Squire points out a slew of Joe Biden yard signs.

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Megan Squire is surprised at how many lawn signs she’s seeing in support of Joe Biden.

“I’m surprised,” she says. “Because in 2016, there was not a Hillary sign anywhere that I ever saw. I think maybe one time in my friend’s neighborhood.”

Large two-story brick houses with immaculate sprawling green lawns pass by the car window. In one neighborhood, a Black Lives Matter flag waves across the street from a Trump-Pence banner strung between two trees. This is a common sight in Alamance County, North Carolina.

Alamance County is one of 77 counties the American Communities Project at George Washington University has identified as a middle suburb. You can think of it as the place where deep red rural areas mix with the outer fringes of bright blue urban centers. If you rolled out a map of some of the most important places to win this presidential election, you’d be staring at America’s Middle Suburbs.

These areas are where presidential races used to be tightly won, but they’ve been trending redder. In 2016, they voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. In Alamance County, he beat Hillary Clinton by 14 percentage points.

“I’d argue [Trump] won because of the middle suburbs,” says Dante Chinni of the American Communities Project. “They swung so heavily to him. If he won these counties by 10 points, he doesn’t win in 2016. He wouldn’t be president now.”

Alamance County fits the Middle Suburb profile almost to a T. It is nearly 80 percent white. Fewer than a quarter of the population hold college degrees. Median Household income is roughly $45,000.

“Blue collar suburbs are a really good way to describe them,” says Chinni. “They’re full of people who used to be in unions a lot of time. They used to be Democratic. When you look at where they’re based, they’re historically based around the Midwest and they’re around industrial centers.”

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Picket Hosiery continues to operate in Burlington, North Carolina — a former textile manufacturing region.

Burlington, North Carolina is a city that makes up most of Alamance County. It’s one of the few middle suburbs outside of the Midwest. It doesn’t have steel or autoworkers, but it was once the center of a thriving textile industry. Burlington Industries was one of the world’s leading textile manufacturing companies before filing for bankruptcy in 2001.

Many blue-collar voters  blame the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and cheap Chinese products for factory closures in their towns. That’s one of the reasons candidate Donald Trump appealed to these voters when he promised to renegotiate NAFTA and be tough on China.

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Jason Turner, owner of Ace Speedway, likes that President Trump has been tough on China.

“I just feel that the man has done a great job,” says Jason Turner, who co-owns and manages Ace Speedway in Alamance County. “Now, is he nice and polished? Absolutely not. But that brash attitude is what makes America feel respected again. In the international community, when he goes to a summit, they know that we’re not gonna be messed with anymore.”

Turner, who sports a Trump-Pence license plate on the front of his truck, likes that President Trump renegotiated NAFTA and stood up to China. He also credits the president with the rebound of America’s automobile industry.

Earlier this summer, Turner’s raceway came under legal and political fire for opening during the pandemic. Turner had planned a race under the state’s phase II reopening guidelines, but just a couple days before the event, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper limited crowd sizes to 25. But Turner continued with the race.

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Ace Speedway, just north of Burlington, North Carolina.

“I don’t see why Lowes can have 2,500 hundred people inside and I can’t have that many people spread out throughout my stands. There’s plenty of room to social distance,” Turner says. “I can fit a Lowe’s in the center of my racetrack.”

The Republican candidate for Lt. Governor, Mark Robinson, spoke at that race. He called Governor Cooper “that tyrant we have for a governor.”

Ace Speedway also served as the staging ground for a convoy of 200 Trump supporters in trucks and motorcycles this past September.

And as the convoy snaked through Elon University, Megan Squire recorded some of the participants yelling “white power” and “all lives matter.”

“It was not a great display by Alamance County racists that day,” she says.

Turner didn’t organize the convoy and he didn’t participate, but he says he saw the video. He says he was appalled that the convoy could be seen as representing anything close to his politics.

“I really don’t know how to describe that any other way than idiotic,” he says.

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A Confederate monument outside the Alamance County Courthouse has become the site of protests.

Racial tension is common in middle suburbs, according to Chinni.

“These are really some white flight communities,” he says. “They have not diversified as quickly as the rest of the country.”

Alamance County hasn’t had a Black commissioner since  Wyatt Outlaw in 1870.

Outlaw was the first Black town commissioner in Graham, North Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan lynched him across the street from the county courthouse. A Confederate monument remains in front of the courthouse, and it’s currently an organizing point for racial justice protests.

Justasia Drayton, an organizer with Down Home North Carolina, recently let 1A join her while she canvassed voters on Burlington’s east side. She talks with voters about early voting and shares information about candidates Down Home North Carolina has endorsed.

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Justasia Drayton of Down Home North Carolina canvasses voters in Burlington, NC.

Many of the low-income residents say they’ve become disengaged from the political process and don’t vote.

“I wouldn’t vote for [Trump or Biden],” says a woman who we’re referring to as Ms. Robinson, based on her fear of harassed. “They don’t look like me. They don’t come from where I come from. That is going to be very hard for me as a voter to believe that my vote would make a real difference when each side is pretty much the same.”

Drayton hopes to change the political dynamic of this middle suburb. But even so close to the election, it’s hard to tell which direction it’ll swing.

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A sign welcomes visitors to Burlington, North Carolina — a Middle Suburb.

As November nears, we’re featuring a range of special reports that go beyond the traditional idea of the suburbs as picket fences and nuclear families. 

For our series, Wide Streets, Narrow Margins, we’re visiting a range of different types of suburbs to meet the people who live there and to hear about the issues that resonate with them.

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