Warning signs for Trump in a famous swing county

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Macomb County residents gather in St. Clair Shores' Veterans Memorial Park for an outdoor concert. St. Clair Shores is a swing town, in a swing county, in a Midwest swing state that could determine President Trump's reelection.
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If President Donald Trump loses Macomb County, Michigan, next November, he probably won’t be able to win reelection. That’s because it’s a key swing county in a key Rust Belt swing state. In 2016, President Trump carried Macomb by 11 points – and became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988.

Macomb County voters aren’t yet focused on the coming political storm. But a reporting swing through the area digs up indications that President Trump is far from a sure thing to repeat his victorious 2016 performance.

Why We Wrote This

Victory in Macomb County, Michigan, in 2016 helped put President Donald Trump in the White House. But some supporters in the land of “Reagan Democrats” say they are tiring of his constant combativeness.

Many Macomb voters still like him – but others no longer think the president reflects their “Midwestern nice” values. 

“The bashing of everyone and everything, is that necessary?” says Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager who voted for President Trump last time around.

Asked about possible Democrats, more voters mention Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren than a moderate like former Vice President Joe Biden. One thing is clear: the candidate that wins Macomb in the 2020 presidential election will need to actually campaign here.

“You have to work to get the support of this county,” says Andrea LaFontaine, a former Republican state representative in Macomb.

As Lake St. Clair laps against the park shoreline, families and friends listen to live music and eat hot dogs. Parents sit in lawn chairs as kids scramble to catch prizes from the T-shirt launcher. At Veterans Memorial Park in the Michigan suburb of St. Clair Shores on this summer evening, the drama of the presidential race seems very far away.

But while the hundreds of concertgoers may be presently uninterested in 2020, 2020 is very interested in them. That’s because St. Clair Shores is one of three swing towns in a notorious swing county in a Midwest swing state. If President Donald Trump can’t win here next November, it will be very hard for him to win reelection.

Several days spent talking to voters here revealed some common, if sometimes contradictory, themes. Assumptions that President Trump will handily win a second term, or that a moderate Democrat has the best chance of winning back white working class voters are not necessarily true. Some county voters say they are happy with the president and plan to vote for him again. But many others who spoke with the Monitor – particularly female voters – are not so sure.

Why We Wrote This

Victory in Macomb County, Michigan, in 2016 helped put President Donald Trump in the White House. But some supporters in the land of “Reagan Democrats” say they are tiring of his constant combativeness.

Many feel it’s important that candidates be direct about what they want to accomplish and work hard to do it – just as they do. But at the same time, Macomb County voters don’t want their president to abandon “Midwestern nice” values.

“I voted for Trump in 2016 because I thought he was saying what everyone was thinking. But I’m disappointed,” says Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager, as she pushes her cart through the aisles of a Meijer grocery store in Sterling Heights. “The bashing of everything and everyone, is that necessary? I’m an outspoken person, so when he says things that bother me, I know it must bother others.” 

Over the past year, Ms. Dymek has felt embarrassed about her vote. She’s not sure if she’ll vote for President Trump again in 2020. When asked if she has a favorite 2020 Democratic candidate, she admits with a guilty whisper that she really hasn’t started paying attention. She tries to remember the name of one candidate in particular that she’s seen on TV. 

“Warren?” she says, confirming that she named the Massachusetts senator correctly. “I like her because she’s forceful in a good way. I think she believes what she says.” 

A swing city, in a swing county, in a swing state

Michigan is one of three Rust Belt states – along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – that surprised Democrats and helped give the presidency to Donald Trump. Of all 50 states, Michigan’s race had the closest margin of victory: President Trump won by just 0.23 percentage points, or less than 11,000 votes. He won Macomb, the third largest county in Michigan and home to about 9% of the state’s population, by just over 48,000 votes. 

To the south, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, is solidly Democratic. Up north are less-populated counties that are deeply Republican. In close contests, like the 2016 presidential election, it often comes down to Macomb and its large contingent of socially conservative working-class whites – dubbed “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s.

In all but three of the last 20 elections for governor or president, Macomb has sided with the winner.

“A Republican can’t win the state without winning Macomb County,” says Republican strategist Jamie Roe from his kitchen table in Macomb.

Macomb’s demographic distribution mirrors the state’s. The county’s southern towns typically vote Democratic, while the county’s northern towns typically vote Republican. It’s the middle – parts of Warren, Sterling Heights, and St. Clair Shores – that swings.

What sort of politician does the swing portion of the swing county in a swing state tend to like? Voters and local analysts describe a commonality to most winners here: bold personalities, unapologetic messaging, and apparently honest intentions.

In 2018, for example, the first election after President Trump’s victory, Macomb voted for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Part of her success in Macomb and across Michigan can be attributed to a quote that soon became her punch line: “Fix the damn roads.” Her future support, say voters, will hinge on whether she does, in fact, fix Michigan’s notoriously potholed roads.

Local analysts and voters say President Trump’s similarly direct four-word catchphrase went over well with Macomb County voters two years earlier. And many Trump supporters, particularly white men, are happy with the president’s first term, despite the fact that his promises to bring back Midwest manufacturing haven’t been realized here. The General Motors and Chrysler factories lining Van Dyke Avenue through Warren and Sterling Heights aren’t booming. GM’s Warren transmission plant closed last week, leaving at least 100 workers without a job.

Voters in Warren don’t immediately bring up the cuts, however, because they are happening within a greater economic boom. Since President Trump’s election, employment has only grown in Michigan. “Help needed” signs are posted throughout these towns. One diner in Sterling Heights has a “hiring” sign posted on its door advertising five open positions.

But just because there are jobs to be had, it doesn’t mean they are satisfying local workers’ economic needs. As the Federal Reserve’s late July interest rate cuts signal, the Trump administration’s booming economy isn’t working for everyone. 

“I had a little more faith in him,” says Kim Orosz from her lawn chair in Veterans Memorial Park, her friend nodding in agreement. “Unemployment is down, sure, but people make so little money that they work more than one job.”

Ms. Orosz, an occupational therapist at a nearby public school, is speaking from experience. She has a master’s degree but still works two jobs to make ends meet. She wanted President Trump to draw a hard line on immigration, but the “inhumane” situation at the border is too much. She wanted him to rein in social programs, but she still sees people working the system for their own benefit. 

“I don’t even know who the Democratic candidates are yet,” says Ms. Orosz. “But I’m not sure I’ll vote for Trump again.” 

Trump in trouble?

Macomb voters who are dissatisfied with President Trump, such as Ms. Dymek or Ms. Orosz, aren’t gushing over a particular Democratic presidential hopeful. In fact, many have a hard time naming one candidate. Like most Americans, they have yet to tune into the 2020 race.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager, pushes her cart through the aisles of a Meijer grocery store in Sterling Heights, Mich. Ms. Dymek is one of many voters in Macomb County who voted for President Trump in 2016 but are considering Democratic candidates for 2020.

Some voters here, however, do have positive things to say about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ideological left of the current Democratic field. That might seem surprising in a 2016 Trump county. But Macomb voted for President Barack Obama – twice – before going for President Trump. And both Senator Warren and Senator Sanders display some of the bold messaging and confidence that played well in the county for President Trump and Governor Whitmer.

Still, many voters in Warren, Sterling Heights, and St. Clair Shores are happy with President Trump. At the Lowe’s in Warren, one man shopping for light bulbs says with a smile, “I’m a Republican, so I’m not too upset about what’s happening now.”

Three men having lunch at a bar in Warren say they love President Trump just as much as they did on Nov. 8, 2016. One man loading groceries into his car says he plans to vote for President Trump again in 2020, but his wife, who also voted for President Trump, plans to vote for the Democratic candidate. 

Mr. Roe, the GOP strategist, says President Trump is still “wildly popular” in Macomb County. His political consulting firm recently did polling in the 10th congressional district, and he says that support for President Trump is stronger in the area now than in October 2016.

But other early snapshot polls show President Trump in trouble in Michigan. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of state surveys has him more than 10 points behind former Vice President Joe Biden. A June poll from EPIC-MRA of Lansing put him more than 25 points behind in Detroit’s outer suburbs, an area that contains some of Macomb.

One thing is clear: to win Macomb County in the 2020 presidential election, candidates will need to show up, as in visit the place.

“You have to work to get the support of this county,” says Andrea LaFontaine, a former Republican state representative in Macomb. “They want you to check in and say ‘I know you supported me before, but I want you to vote for me again.’”

Voters here are quick to remember that Hillary Clinton visited Macomb County just once during her campaign, says Mr. Roe. President Trump, on the other hand, visited Macomb County at least five times, including a rally in Sterling Heights two days before the election. Mr. Roe says one rally, after being announced 24 hours in advance, drew about 25,000 people.

Democrats seem to have learned the “show up in the Midwest” lesson from 2016. They made Detroit the location of the second televised Democratic debate. They picked Milwaukee to host the Democratic convention.

“Michigan is back on the map,” says Ms. LaFontaine. “The world now knows about Macomb County.”

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