One of the biggest questions being asked in the weeks following the election of Donald Trump as president is why some voters who previously supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 switched their support to Trump in 2016.
To try and get some answers, a group of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students recently traveled to parts of the Mississippi River Valley to get to know some of these voters.
"We went out there, and we actually talked to many people who flipped from President Obama to Donald Trump," said Jessica McBride, senior lecturer of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "And we had long, ranging conversations with them."
The group traveled to several counties in western Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. The selection was no accident, as these counties had some of the highest percentages of voters in the entire country who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
"I felt like, you know, it's the river, in a sense, that's uniting this phenomenon," McBride said. "And when you look at the map, it's striking. It's just stunning how these counties flipped and how they're clustered in this area of the Midwest."
In a live blog, McBride and her students shared some immediate findings from their project. And while they talked to numerous people in their travels, McBride said one explanation kept coming up for why former Obama voters switched to Trump.
"What we found in town after town after town, it was economic stress" she said. "They have a desire for change, and they're motivated by a feeling that they're simply not able to get ahead whatsoever."
Other issues important to these voters often took a backseat to economic stress, McBride said.
"They didn't bring up immigration right away, they didn't bring up Muslim bans right away, they didn't bring up these things," she said. "I felt like the media were talking about the Billy Bush tapes and the (James) Comey letter and groping allegations and all of this stuff, and these people are worried about economic stress."
On that note, McBride said she sees a real disconnect in the issues the media prioritized during the election cycle versus the ones that matter to many rural Americans. "I really felt after I got back home that there are two different conversations going on in America," she said.
She also noted that while many in the media were surprised by Trump's win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, these voters weren't. "So that's another disconnect," she said.
McBride's recommendation for the media? A return to reporting, and less time with opinionated talking heads.
"It's a war of strategy and punditry and spin," she said. "It's not reporting, it's not what these students did, which is literally knocking on people's farmhouse doors and going in their taverns and the places that they live."
She said she hopes this election will convince media organizations to allocate more resources for original and in-depth reporting, especially in communities like the ones McBride and her students traveled to.
The full project will appear in December on Media Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee's student-produced news website.