Tillamook County Usually Picks the Presidential Winner. Its Residents Are More Polarized Than Ever.

When you talk to Logen Steinbach and his neighbors, four years under Trump haven’t changed any minds. They’ve merely driven people further apart.

Except for four years in the military, Logen Steinbach has lived his whole life on Oregon's North Coast. He's part of an electorate with an uncanny record of picking presidential elections: As Tillamook County goes, so goes the nation.

In 2020, he expects it will go for President Trump.

"My outlook is, the incumbent will win," says Steinbach, 35. "From what I've gathered, there's good support in this community for Trump."

Steinbach's community is Tillamook, the largest city (pop. 5,355) in the county of the same name. Although it's small in population, Tillamook County (pop. 27,036) occupies an outsized place in the state, home to fertile fishing grounds, a wildly popular surfing beach—Short Sands—and, of course, the namesake cheese factory.

Tillamook County has cast a majority of its votes for the winner in each presidential contest since 1992. In recent years, the county went big for President Barack Obama in 2008, supported him again in 2012, and then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016. That's unusual for a state in which most counties are either red or blue.

Polls show Oregon is voting for Joe Biden next month. But the polling lead for the Democratic nominee is 11 percentage points. If that number sounds familiar, it's because Hillary Clinton carried Oregon by the same margin in 2016.

When you talk to Steinbach and his neighbors, four years under Trump haven't changed any minds. They've merely driven people further apart. Many of those people, Steinbach says, feel disenfranchised.

"The voice of rural Oregon is not really heard," Steinbach says. "The governor and people from Portland are drawing a line and saying you can't do this or you can't have that."

The fact that Trump delivered tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations while destroying farm exports and largely ignoring the real needs of working-class Americans does not bother Steinbach, a loyal Lars Larson listener who's married to a former police officer and runs a small construction firm. He says he can't point to a particular Trump policy that has made his life better—but he likes what he hears.

"He's looking out for us," Steinbach says. "And he's trying to do things that would help, like lower the cost of health insurance."

If you drive Tillamook County's highways—101 along the coast, or 6 through the coast range—you'll see a lot of Trump flags and even a couple of Confederate flags. But you won't see many Biden signs, even though Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 2.3 percentage points in the county (that's down from 6.4 in 2004).

"The North Coast is not red, it's not blue, it's purple," says state Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis) who represents the southern part of Tillamook County in the state Capitol. "And what they are increasingly seeing is their fear that the agenda is being driven by Portland with not enough attention to more rural communities."

Demographics tell part of the story of Trump's popularity: Census data shows Tillamook County residents on average are whiter and less educated than the average Oregonian. More than a quarter of county residents are 65 or older, a percentage nearly 50% higher than the state average.

County residents also earn about 20% less than the state's average income.

For the past 15 years, John Mangano, 70, saw the county from the driver's seat of a Tillamook Transportation District bus. Ferrying county residents as far south as the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, north to Cannon Beach, and east to Union Station in Portland, Mangano saw the county change.

From the passengers on his bus, Mangano, a Democrat, heard a lot of frustration: once-affordable rentals morphing into Airbnbs and attracting free-spending Portlanders who wanted Starbucks, organic arugula and freshly brewed craft beer wherever they went on the coast.

Mangano noticed that a lot of people who graduate from local high schools can't afford to live in their hometowns.

"They are flipping mattresses at local motels for nine to 12 bucks an hour," he says. "It's hard work and it's unpredictable."

Affordable housing is so scarce, Mangano says, that one of the county's biggest employers, Tillamook Country Smoker (home of the 2-foot beef stick), which makes meat products, began running a shuttle bus to carry workers from 82nd Avenue in Portland, about 80 miles away.

It wasn't always this way. State Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), whose district covers the southern part of the county, recalls a time when wealth from coastal forest and fisheries sent money to the Willamette Valley rather than the other way around, as is the case today.

The lack of affordable housing and good jobs have fed into the growth of Timber Unity, a fiercely rural collection of loggers, truckers, farmers and their allies who rose up in 2019 to oppose a carbon reduction bill.

Roblan understands the frustration that buoys Timber Unity. "The techniques of forestry are much different, so you don't need as many people," he says. "The milling of wood is much different. The industry has changed. And a lot of people are angry that it changed out from under them."

Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber, a retired teacher and longtime Republican currently running for the Oregon House, hopes to ride Timber Unity's energy into an open House seat long held by Democrats. She thinks the economic grievances Timber Unity has highlighted are real.

"Everything that comes into Tillamook County and goes out of Tillamook County, whether it is made here or whether it gets bought somewhere else, has to come on a truck," Weber says. "Cap and trade as it was proposed would have raised the cost of goods and gas."

She says Trump struck a chord with her constituents and those she hopes to represent.

"If you push somebody back into a corner, they have two choices: fight or flight," Weber says. "I think a lot of people are deciding that fight is what they have to do. And the only way they can fight is to identify with the guy who's saying all the ridiculous, mean things."

Weber's city, like Hood River before it, is finding that the old brick structures and stately sidewalks are catnip to city slickers. On a recent day, a shiny Tesla with Washington plates sat in front of the award-winning de Garde Brewing, which along with a branch of Pacific City's Pelican Brewing, has nosed out beer-and-a-shot joints.

Recalls Mangano: "The people who used to ride my bus would say, 'I could afford maybe one beer at Pelican or I can get a six-pack of Bud Light, and I can do more with that than this expensive tourist crap.'"

For people like Steinbach, a vote for Trump is a way to fight back. He's resigned to Democratic control of the governor's office and the Legislature but not the White House.

"I see a huge divide between what's going on in Portland and what's going on in Tillamook County," Steinbach says. "Trump's for the average guy."

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