By Bon Dinneen
In the flurry of post-election punditry and analysis, much credit was given to disenfranchised factory workers and coal miners in the Rust Belt and Appalachia for delivering Donald Trump’s surprising swing state victories on Election Day. To be sure, those voters played a role in securing Trump wins in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
However, these maps from NPR and CNBC tell a different story. They show the counties that “flipped” in the 2016 election; these 218 counties were won by President Obama in 2012, but went to Trump in 2016. It is these “swing counties” that were ultimately responsible for tipping the scales and securing Trump wins in the battleground states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—states that voted for Obama in 2012.
The maps show that the Corn Belt may have been more instrumental in swinging key states to Trump than the Rust Belt. Many of the counties that flipped for Trump actually have very little heavy industry or coal interests. Rather, farming and agricultural processing are the predominant industries in a majority of the counties that changed from blue in 2012 to red in 2016. Specifically, the economies of many of these counties are driven primarily by corn farming and ethanol production.
In fact, our own analysis shows that the 218 counties that flipped for Trump are responsible for a substantial share of the nation’s total corn and ethanol output. The counties produced 1.97 billion bushels of corn in 2015, valued at $7.1 billion. Meanwhile, these counties are home to 33 ethanol plants that produced 2.8 billion gallons of renewable fuel in 2015, worth roughly $4.9 billion.
Of course, not all of these 218 counties have meaningful corn production or ties to the ethanol industry. But 133 of those countries produced more than 1 million bushels of corn, meaning grain production and related industries are central to the economies of these counties. While these 133 counties make up just 4% of U.S. counties, they are responsible for producing about 15% of the nation’s corn and nearly 20% of its ethanol. That’s right—these 133 counties that voted for Obama in 2012, but helped Trump secure the White House in 2016, are responsible for producing one-fifth of the nation’s ethanol and almost one-sixth of its corn.
Not surprisingly, many of the big corn and ethanol “swing counties” are located in the Corn Belt states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. But ethanol plants are also found in counties that flipped for Trump in Michigan, New York, and even Mississippi.
Yes, one could argue that oil and gas states also helped Trump win the election. But there was never really any doubt that those states would go for Trump; they weren’t ever going to be the swing states that would ultimately tip the election one way or the other. Rather, that fate belonged to dozens of counties in a handful of agricultural states in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region.
But beyond these crucial “swing counties,” the rest of farm country turned out for Trump as well. Across the country, 184 counties are home to 205 ethanol plants. Of those counties, 175 (or 95%) voted for Trump, and they were responsible for 93% of total ethanol production in 2015. Similarly, Trump won counties responsible for 91% of total corn production.
So, why did corn farmers and ethanol industry workers vote for Trump on Election Day? The answer is simple. During his campaign, President-elect Trump pledged to support ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a program that ensures consumers will have access to lower-cost, American-made ethanol in a fuel market that is otherwise closed to competition.
“The RFS…is an important tool in the mission to achieve energy independence to the United States,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “I will do all that is in my power as president to achieve that goal. As president, I will encourage Congress to be cautious in attempting to change any part of the RFS. As president, I would encourage regulators to end restrictions that keep higher blends of ethanol and biofuel from being sold.”