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Why Trump Lost Bloomington-Normal But Won McLean County

Brandon Hepner and Brian Taylor
Ryan Denham
Republican precinct committeemen Brandon Hepner, left, and Brian Taylor from rural McLean County.

Bloomington-Normal is a large metro area that’s home to several college campuses and plenty of Chicago transplants. So how did Republican Donald Trump still manage to win McLean County?

It’s because of rural voters like Brandon Hepner. He lives east of Lexington in tiny Lawndale Township (population 158), where he’s the Republican precinct committeeman. Trump won big at Lawndale’s polling place at Immanuel Lutheran Church, where Hepner and 92 other voters cast ballots. Trump won 72 percent of the vote compared with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 25 percent.

“(Trump) spoke what a lot of people think. There’s a connection there,” Hepner told GLT’s Sound Ideas. “There’s another part of the country that’s not known by the mainstream media. They call us flyover country. This is where a lot of the support came from for Donald.”

Trump narrowly won McLean County as a whole, 45 percent to Clinton’s 44 percent. That’s because of how well he did in rural McLean County, outside Bloomington-Normal, where he picked up 63 percent of the vote. In West Township near Arrowsmith, Trump won 83 percent of the vote.

It’s no secret that rural voters vote more Republican, and urban voters vote more Democratic. Recent NPR analysis found that gap widened even more during this year’s election. Indeed, Clinton actually won Bloomington-Normal, with around 50 percent of the vote.

Lawndale Township is “6 square miles of nothing but farms,” Hepner says. “There’s never been a town, never been a railroad.” Most of the residents are in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, he says.

Hepner, who works in sales, initially supported U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas during the Republican primary, but Trump eventually won him over for the general election. Hepner is "sick and tired of government controlling our lives" and he's hopeful that an outsider like Trump can change that. He was also encouraged by Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice president.

“I’m satisfied with my vote for Trump. But I’m also quite pleased the other party didn’t get in.”

It’s a similar story for Brian Taylor, who is the GOP precinct committeeman for rural Cropsey Township. Trump won 77 percent of voters in Taylor’s area.

“A lot of it has to do with the Bill of Rights and constitutional protections. The Second Amendment is very big, especially out where I’m at. For some people, that is the whole vote,” Taylor said.

“The Supreme Court nomination was probably the biggest issue for me,” he added. “That is going to shape the future of the country for quite awhile. You’ve got one (vacancy) for sure, and the possibility of more. And I just don’t want to see the court 100 percent way one or the other.”

Trump vs. Romney vs. McCain

Nationally, Trump did better than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney among rural voters, especially those in the smallest communities away from big cities.

But that wasn’t the case in McLean County, where Romney (67 percent) actually outperformed Trump (63 percent) in precincts outside Bloomington-Normal. In fact, Trump won a smaller percentage of overall McLean County voters (45 percent) than both Romney (54 percent) and 2008 Republican nominee John McCain (48 percent).

Taylor supported Cruz in the primary but came around to Trump. Yet he’s bothered by what he calls Trump’s “very thin-skinned” tendencies. Another sign that Trump may have been the lesser of two evils for some voters: Other Republican candidates, like Comptroller Leslie Munger (55 percent), outperformed Trump (45 percent) in McLean County.

“I don’t like the lashing out or the attacking people he disagrees with,” he said. “He needs to get over that. Twitter and everything else. It needs to stop. It needs to be presidential.”

What about Trump’s more inflammatory comments about women, immigrants, and other groups, and what they may signal about his administration?

“You have to give him a fair shake,” Taylor said. “You have to give him a chance. Take a deep breath, sit back, and wait to see how things unfold. We do live in a great country that has checks and balances. And hopefully, I believe, they will kick in. He’s not a dictator. He’s not going to be able to whatever he wants. And the people who disagree with him need to push him on that. Just like the people that disagreed with Obama.

“That’s the way the country works,” Taylor added. “That’s what makes it work.”

Listen to Taylor and Hepner explain Trump’s rural appeal:

You can see which presidential candidate won your McLean County neighborhood using this interactive map, created by Twin City web developer Michael Gorman, via Carto.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.