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For years, Republicans have insisted that they don't engage in identity politics. But many political science researchers disagree. And they point to Donald Trump's success as proof. NPR's Asma Khalid brought us this story. It's about the transformation of Mahoning Valley in eastern Ohio. This is a place where a conservative version of identity politics, tied to race and class, is flourishing.
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ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When I walked into the GOP office in Mahoning County, there was a festive feeling - and not just 'cause it was the annual Christmas party but because Republicans in Ohio dominated the midterms. This area hasn't had a GOP state legislator for as long as anyone can remember. But in November, two Republicans won seats in the state house. Paula Muir is one reason this county's changing. She used to be a Democrat. But when Donald Trump joined the presidential race, she officially became a Republican.
PAULA MUIR: I felt that he truly always seemed to be, you know, just American all the way. And that - I liked that he wasn't politically correct.
KHALID: According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, three-quarters of Republicans are upset that there are too many things people cannot say anymore. For Muir, there was another thing that drove her to the GOP - immigration.
MUIR: We are a land of opportunity, but don't storm our borders. And the Democrats seem to be pushing those storming the borders in front of those that are waiting that came in the right way.
KHALID: I asked her why she thinks the Democrats are doing this.
MUIR: I think they look at them as voters. Honestly - honest to goodness (laughter), I do.
KHALID: To be clear, Democrats are not encouraging people who've entered the country illegally to vote.
The Mahoning Valley is about an hour-ish east of Cleveland. It's a blue-collar place, but the factory work is not as plentiful as it used to be.
DAVID BETRAS: And the Democratic Party has lost its voice to speak to that pain.
KHALID: That's David Betras. He heads the Mahoning County Democratic Party. Like a lot of local Democrats, he feels the national party has become too coastal, too elite. Betras says people around here just want job security.
BETRAS: The impression that I'm getting is that our volume is too loud on identity politics.
KHALID: But Democrats aren't the only ones talking about identity.
MICHAEL TESLER: We've found that much of the rise of Trump can be explained through the lens of identity politics.
KHALID: Michael Tesler is a researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
TESLER: This idea of white grievance and white identity, that whites are the ones who have it worst in society, was a really powerful resource for Trump to tap into in a way that other politicians haven't.
KHALID: Tesler studies voters over time and has noticed that their attitudes on immigration, race and Muslims are essentially predictors for how they'll vote. But here in Ohio, sometimes those feelings are mixed in with a nostalgia for when this area was prosperous. That's how it is for Connie Kessler, the 78-year-old former hairdresser who volunteers every day at the local GOP headquarters.
CONNIE KESSLER: You go to Youngstown, you have boarded-up houses, sidewalks that haven't been changed since I was going to school. It's ridiculous.
KHALID: We talked for almost an hour about the economy, immigration, her frustration that people don't want to play the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" anymore. And eventually, our conversation took a personal turn.
KESSLER: You're probably a Muslim. I don't care for them. I'm sorry.
KHALID: I am a Muslim from the Midwest. I've interviewed Kessler twice before, so maybe she felt she could be more open with me. I asked her why she doesn't care for Muslims.
KESSLER: Because they want to take over America. Why can't they just come here and live like us? I want you to be an American, do what we do. We were here first. OK? You're second.
KHALID: Local Democrats are convinced that fears over immigration are misplaced and the only way to win Trump voters back is to talk to them about jobs. David Betras says the worst thing his party could do is to write this part of the country off.
BETRAS: You can never get anyone to vote for you if you insult them. You know, if you say to someone - oh, you're a Trump supporter; oh, you're a racist - if the Democratic Party is going to take that route, I don't think they're going to win in 2020.
KHALID: Political science researchers are warning that partisanship is increasingly about our identities, not about the issues. And what that means is that when your team loses an election, it feels like you're personally under attack.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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