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In Hard-Hit Ohio Steel Town, Trump and Sanders Resonate

Ohio Primary: Trade Makes Trump a Tossup 3:50

LORAIN, Ohio - The landscape here looks like a wasteland. And it's about to get worse.

Two steel mills in this city, 30 miles west of Cleveland on Lake Erie, are set to close by the end of March, laying off hundreds of people in an area that has seen jobs slowly erode for more than two decades.

The final 130 workers at Republic Steel will be out of work when the plant rolls its final order of steel tubular products for oil drilling and fracking equipment in two weeks. And at U.S. Steel, the final 200 workers will also be out of jobs at the end of March.

"It's a sad month," said Brian Sealy, a union official for the United Steelworkers in Lorain. "Overall the trickle-down effect on this community - the closed-up downtown - continues. That trickle-down effect is devastating to a community like this."

Downtown Lorain is dotted with boarded businesses and deteriorating buildings while dollar stores and run-down used car lots fill in the gaps. The downtown is mostly empty, hosting building after building of blight and despair.

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It's a much different scenario than 30 years ago in the 1980s when the steel mills, the largest employers in town, were busy and employed more than 10,000 people.

Now the town of 64,000 people is facing a deficit of more than $2 million dollars in large part because of the loss of tax revenue from steel workers.

Union workers blame trade deals, especially the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, passed in 1993. And with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another trade deal with Asian countries, on the verge of passing, Sealy said the future looks blight.

"There's going to be a lot more offshoring of jobs and that's going to affect us directly," Sealy said.

The closing of the steel mills and the looming threat of TPP are coming to the fore while a contentious presidential primary is heading straight to Lorain as Ohio holds its primary Tuesday.

In this traditionally Democratic stronghold, Donald Trump is working for those voters who feel that their livelihood is in jeopardy.

The county of Lorain backed President Barack Obama in 2008 with 58 percent and 56 percent in 2012.

But not only is Donald Trump the only Republican candidate to open an office there, he's the only candidate in both parties to invest resources by paying staff to be here. His office opened on February 29.

Residents of Lorain reflect the profile of the Trump voter.

For instance, in Michigan, a state Trump won, 54 percent of voters said trade takes jobs away from Americans. Of those, nearly half - 42 percent - voted for Trump.

Trump is also appealing to the voter that identifies as independent. Also in Michigan, 37 percent of self-identified independents backed Trump and in Georgia and 40 percent in Minnesota.

David Moore, a volunteer for Trump in Lorain County, said he's "not surprised" that workers in the heavily Democratic county would back Trump.

"Right now NAFTA has really screwed with this area, and he's talking about NAFTA," Moore said. "That's what these people want to hear. He's talking about jobs. It's all about jobs."

He thought rundown downtown Lorain was the perfect place to set up shop.

"That kind of shows - let's go back to NAFTA -- when jobs leave this is what happens to downtown," Moore said. "It kinda shows what's going on in our area."

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During nearly every campaign speech, Trump is critical of trade deals. It's a position counter to that of traditional Republicans who support free trade.

"China has taken millions of jobs, thousands of factories. What they've done to us, it's actually, I thought about it the other day, it's the greatest theft in the history of the world," Trump said after his win in Michigan Tuesday.

He added: "You take a look at, as an example, in Chicago where you have Nabisco moves its big plant -- they're closing their plant. They're moving to Mexico. Ford, building a $2 1/2 billion factory, cars, in Mexico. I mean, we can't continue to do it."

Trump doesn't sound much different than a union worker.

Politicians have to wake up and see the devastation," Sealy said. "Whether it's a bad trade agreement or like companies going offshore like Nabisco in Chicago. … It's hard to believe the government doesn't see this."

Sealy is not a Trump supporters and his union is likely to back a Democrat when and if it does endorse. But Sealy admits, "I do understand his appeal."

Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, also admitted that Trump has struck a nerve, even with Democratic voters. But Trumka told NBC News that his federation will be educating their members about each candidate's record, including that Trump, he says, is not friend to workers. He points to his efforts to block efforts to unionize at his own property in Las Vegas.

"Ohio will be a big trade state so his clear position on trade will help him there, but when you give the members the full facts," Trumka said, "I think you're going to see more and more people shying away from him."

Trump will be competing against three other Republicans, including Ohio gov. John Kasich, who are much more supportive of free trade deals than Trump.

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Sanders, meanwhile, also has a presence in this working-class enclave of northeast Ohio. He, too, deplores the trade deals and often criticizes his opponent Hillary Clinton for her husband's role in passing NAFTA and her support of TPP until she came out against it during her presidential campaign.

Sanders' campaign office, however, is volunteer-run and -funded. Alan Pugh, who has never participated in politics before, opened the office in downtown Elyria. He and fellow volunteers pay for the rent and all the utilities out of their own coffers.

"Having Bernie and Donald trump both having offices down here speaks to an anti-establishment mentality so the end of establishment politics and economics. People are looking for something a little different than they've experienced in the past 30 years," Pugh said.

Sealy is living it.

"We're struggling everywhere right now. To us it's a crisis."