Trump looks to base to shore up support in Michigan

Speaking to car workers at a Ford Motor Company plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, last week, Donald Trump repeated one of his favourite stories about the Midwestern swing state, claiming he was once named Michigan’s “Man of the Year”.

While there is no credible evidence Mr Trump received such an accolade, voters in Michigan did give the US president one big prize in 2016: a razor-thin win over Hillary Clinton that propelled him to the White House.

Four years later, Mr Trump has zeroed in on the key battleground state as he seeks re-election, often clashing with Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, over the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Trump began referring to Ms Whitmer, a former state legislator who is seen as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as “the woman in Michigan” in March. He later offered full-throated support to armed anti-lockdown protesters who stormed the state capitol, tweeting: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

The president then threatened last week to withhold federal funding after Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state said all registered voters would receive applications for absentee ballots. Mr Trump has said widespread postal voting would spell the end of the Republican party, even though research suggests postal voting draws roughly equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The president’s aggressive tactics have earned him plaudits from many of his staunch supporters.

Chris Vitale, a local councillor in Macomb County, a bellwether area north of Detroit that swung to Mr Trump in 2016, voted for the president four years ago. But he said his support for Mr Trump reached a low point earlier this year when the president called for the closure of non-essential businesses.

Mr Vitale, who works full-time as a prototype mechanic for Fiat Chrysler, was laid off for nearly two months before returning to work on Tuesday.

“I think [Trump] went against his instincts with trusting Dr [Anthony] Fauci and some of the lockdowns that he pushed out to governors,” Mr Vitale said, questioning whether stay-at-home orders were constitutional.

“However, since then, a number of the Democratic governors, and ours in the state of Michigan, seem to be revelling in the idea of keeping things locked down,” he added. “They have done more to restore my faith in the president than I suppose he had done to lower it.”

But there are also early signs Mr Trump’s combative strategy could backfire, especially in a state where Democrats made significant gains in the 2018 US midterm elections, picking up two congressional seats, 10 seats in the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

More recently, Michigan has been among the states hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, both economically and from a public health perspective.

Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Bill Clinton, said Mr Trump’s chances of winning again in Michigan “have been significantly reduced given the impact of Covid-19 in the state”.

“It is difficult to overstate how much Michigan has been impacted by the coronavirus,” Mr Sosnik said in a memo earlier this month, pointing to the number of coronavirus-related deaths, as well as the share of the state’s workers who are out of work. 

Nearly 55,000 people in Michigan have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Covid Tracking Project, with 5,266 dying from the disease, making it the state with the fourth-highest coronavirus-related death toll, behind only New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Some 1.4m people in Michigan have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March, according to state labour market statistics, giving the state an insured unemployment rate of 22.6 per cent.

“If the election were held today, it would be a Biden landslide,” said Joe DiSano, a Lansing-based Democratic strategist.

Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by a 5.5-point margin in the state, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Sixty-four per cent of the state’s registered voters approve of Ms Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus, according to a poll conducted earlier this month for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

“[Trump] failed in his role as leader of the country,” said Joel Rutherford, chair of the Democratic black caucus in Macomb County. “You just don’t see those expressions of empathy; he would rather have Twitter wars with our governor. From what I see here, it will hurt him come November.”

Both Mr DiSano and Mr Rutherford emphasised that with just under five months to go until election day, mobilising voters would be crucial for the Biden and Trump campaigns — especially given the president won Michigan’s 16 electoral college votes by about 11,000 votes, or a 0.23-point margin, in 2016.

“Here in Michigan, you are looking at two very animated, angry bases, and that is on both sides,” said Mr DiSano. “This is entirely a turnout game, and there are very few issues that are going to change anyone’s mind. It is a question of who is angrier on election day.”

His comments were echoed by Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist and president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, who predicted “maximum turnout” for both Democrats and Republicans in November.

“I always start with the premise that Trump did not win Michigan, Hillary lost it,” Mr McNeilly said. “In 2004, George W Bush lost Michigan but with more votes than Trump won Michigan [in 2016].”

Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters nevertheless remain confident the president will win Michigan — and re-election — in November.

Nelson Westrick, a team leader at the Ford Sterling axle plant in Macomb County who returned to work earlier this month after being temporarily laid off, said the president had done a “good job” in confronting the coronavirus and was right to be pushing for businesses and churches to reopen.

“The cure has become worse than the disease. People are devastated,” said Mr Westrick, who added that he has a sign in his front yard reading “We the People Are Essential”. “[Trump’s] base is all behind him.”