‘Trump would not be caught dead in Macomb County unless he wanted our votes’.

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Michael Taylor is a lifelong Republican.

The mayor of Sterling Heights, a suburb in northern Detroit, has already cast his vote for Joe Biden. The reason? Donald Trump.

“He’s not the type of candidate that I’m used to voting for as a Republican,” he says of the US president. “He’s totally out of the mainstream. He’s somebody I don’t trust who is harmful to our democratic institutions.

“This goes beyond policy issues – the question is, is this a decent human being, somebody I can trust to share my values and the values the United States has held dear for more than 200 years?”

The committed Republican, who has been in his mayoral role since late 2014, says he voted for Trump in 2016 but regrets it. “I did it because that’s what Republicans do. Republicans vote for Republicans. At the time I thought he was a really distasteful person, but there were also a number of qualities in Hillary Clinton that I didn’t like. I didn’t like either choice, so I defaulted to the candidate with whom I seemed to be more politically-aligned.”

He believes Biden is a better candidate, one who can connect with voters in his community. “He’s somebody who I think that people in Macomb County can relate to. He’s a guy that could have easily grown up here, worked here, retired here. Donald Trump would not be caught dead in Macomb County unless he wanted our votes.”

Though Macomb County voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, it opted for Trump in 2016 by just over 50,000 votes

Democrats are hoping that Taylor’s views are held by the voters of suburban Detroit – a key focus for both campaigns as the election enters its final days. Trump campaigned here on Tuesday, while Biden is due to visit on Saturday.

Michigan was one of three upper mid-west states that flipped Republican in 2016, helping to elect Trump to the presidency. It was also the state where Trump scored his narrowest victory – clinching the state by just 10,700 votes in a state of about 10 million people.

Macomb County, a populous, mostly working-class white suburb just north of Detroit is in particular focus. Michigan’s third-largest county, it represents about 9 per cent of the state’s vote. While most of Michigan divides politically along urban-rural lines, it is in suburbs such as these where the election may be won or lost next week.

Though Macomb County voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, it opted for Trump in 2016 by just over 50,000 votes. In fact, the non-partisan Cook Political Report argued that Macomb was one of three counties in the country that secured the election for Trump – if the Republican candidate had not won here, along with York County in Pennsylvania and Waukesha County in Wisconsin, he would have lost all three states and hence the electoral college.

Macomb County encapsulates some of the socioeconomic changes that have gradually altered the political leanings of America’s industrial heartland. For decades, many of its residents worked directly or indirectly for the car industry that drove Detroit’s booming economy. Like many cities in the US, Detroit experienced a “white flight” with many residents leaving for the suburbs after the 1960s. Today, downtown Detroit and its inner ring are shadows of their former selves, despite efforts at urban regeneration.

Michael Traugott, professor emeritus in political science at the University of Michigan, says that one question in this election will be if Macomb County really has become reliably Republican. “In 1980, for example, there was the phenomenon of the Reagan Democrat – defectors from the Democratic Party. Since then, that potential for defection has persisted” in Macomb County, he says.

He also points out that Clinton did not prioritise Michigan during her campaign. “I think that the consensus is pretty clear that voters didn’t come out in Detroit, primarily because they weren’t energised by the Democratic candidates.” Trump, in contrast, campaigned in Macomb County in the days before the 2016 election.

While Democrats are hoping that a strong turnout among African-Americans in the Detroit area will help turn the state back blue, support for Trump in the area is still strong.

Mark Forton, chair of the Macomb County Republican Party, Michigan. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

Mark Forton, chair of the Macomb County Republican Party, Michigan. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

Mark Forton, the chair of the Macomb County Republican Party, is confident that the 2016 result is not an anomaly. Wearing a Trump 2020 hat, when we meet he has just been campaigning in the southern part of the county, focusing on Democrat-leaning neighbourhoods.

“We’re going to take Macomb County big,” he says, describing “phenomenal enthusiasm” at the doorsteps for Trump. “The only thing we’re worried about is fraud,” he says. “This idea about being able to count votes so many days after the election . . . give me a break. People have known about this forever, if they can’t get their ballot in, or not vote personally on November 3rd . . . What they’re trying to do is stuff the ballots.”

Michael Salyers has been busy delivering Trump signs around the neighbourhood from the back of his enormous pick-up truck. He says that for decades, this was a reliably Democratic area, due in part to the power of the unions. But the Democratic Party changed, he says. “They got too radical. They went too far left. People said ‘no, we’re tired of it’. It was the silent majority speaking.”

Trump supporter Michael Salyers in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

Trump supporter Michael Salyers in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

Nonetheless, polls suggest that, of the three “Rust-Belt” states that voted Republican in 2016 – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – Biden is best-placed to win back Michigan. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has the Democratic candidate eight points ahead(though Clinton was 11 points ahead in some polls in Michigan a month before the 2016 election).

The results of the 2018 midterm elections also point to huge enthusiasm towards the Democratic cause, particularly in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas. Three Democratic women were elected to leadership position at state levels, including governor, attorney general and secretary of state, such as Gretchen Whitmer who won the gubernatorial race.

Democrats increased their share of seats in the state House of Representatives from five to seven, with Rashida Tlaib becoming one of two Muslim congresswomen elected.

A protester yells at Michigan police after demonstrators occupied the state capitol building in Lansing during a vote to approve the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order in April. Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

A protester yells at Michigan police after demonstrators occupied the state capitol building in Lansing during a vote to approve the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order in April. Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

The recent uncovering of a kidnap plot against Whitmer has also injected a new dynamic into the Michigan race. The state gained national attention earlier this year, when Whitmer introduced stringent lockdown measures in the early wave of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting push-back from Republicans, some of whom tried to storm the state capitol in Lansing, and Trump who repeatedly denounced “that woman from Michigan”.

Elissa Slotkin, who was elected to US Congress in 2018, also said she has received anonymous threats of violence.

How this background of rising tensions and escalating threats of violence plays in the election remains to be seen, though it may well help motivate suburban women voters amid signs that Trump could be losing the female vote.

With the margins so tight in the Great Lakes state, for both parties turnout will be key to political success on November 3rd.

Sign up to get Suzanne Lynch's US Election Diary by email every weekday morning of the campaign here

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