WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes face serious headwinds in Michigan, despite being fresh off a State of the Union address on Tuesday in which he sounded like a man making a case for his re-election.
In his speech, when not arguing for a politically divisive border wall and calling for an end to what he called “ridiculous partisan investigations,” he touted his accomplishments. He claimed credit for a strong economy and praised legislation that cut taxes. He ballyhooed his administration’s rolling back of regulations.
After his address, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said Trump had “delivered historic results to the American people.”
But there is evidence, based on polls, last year’s midterm elections and other data, that he faces a tougher time taking Michigan again in 2020.
Less than half of likely voters believe he’s doing a good job, according to some recent polls, and many, if not most, plan to vote for someone else.
Meanwhile, General Motors has laid off thousands of employees counter to what Trump promised when he won in 2016 — a point he didn’t touch on in his speech.
He’s also running into trouble in terms of getting congressional approval for a new North American trade agreement to replace NAFTA, another key campaign promise that helped energize a base of white, working-class voters in Michigan at a time when Democratic enthusiasm seemed at a low point.
“I don’t think the (conditions) that got him elected (are) holding together,” said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University. “His base is still with him … but there was also an underperformance on the Democratic side in terms of turnout. That’s not the case any more.”
Trump won the White House three years ago by taking three Rust Belt states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They hadn’t supported a Republican presidential nominee as a bloc since 1984.
Since then, he has taken credit for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement to try to get a better deal for workers, even if its future in Congress is far from certain and it has been criticized as potentially not doing much. He also has seen the economy expand, though it has been more volatile in recent months. Job growth and wages rose even as he shouldered blame for a 35-day government shutdown.
But last year’s midterm elections showed clear Democratic gains, with that party’s candidates becoming governor, attorney general and secretary of state in Michigan. Two formerly Republican congressional seats flipped to Democrats as well.
Similar results were seen elsewhere.
It’s not that Trump can’t or won’t win, seeing as how the election is 21 months away — almost anything could happen.
“But it’s an uphill battle,” said Dulio. “It all depends on who the Democrats nominate.”
How Trump won Michigan the first time
Trump won Michigan in 2016 by running up the vote in rural areas and older manufacturing communities along the I-75 corridor, like those in Macomb and Monroe counties.
At the same time, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton struggled to turn out voters. In predominantly Democratic Wayne County, she got 76,000 fewer votes than President Barack Obama did in 2012.
In Oakland County, the state’s second-largest county, her support was down by less. But 28,000 more voters went for third-party or write-in candidates than they had in 2016, diluting her potential support.
Trump won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes — two-tenths of 1 percent of the 4.8 million-person vote.
He won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 77,745 votes, slightly more than the capacity of Spartan Stadium in Lansing.
But circumstances look better for Democrats as the 2020 political cycle gets underway.
Turnout may win the day for Democrats
Voter turnout was way up in last November’s midterm elections, compared with previous midterms. If it follows the same pattern in 2020, it could be a big problem for Trump because it likely means even more voters from predominantly Democratic areas are flooding the precincts, unlike in 2016.
Trump’s election came as a shock to many, since predictions based on polls suggested the race was Clinton’s to lose. Since then, however, Democrats appear to be energized.
In Michigan’s November midterms, overall turnout was nearly 58 percent. That was up significantly compared with 43 percent in 2014. It was also higher than other non-presidential election years going back decades.
And that turnout was higher everywhere — including rural areas and other areas where Trump did well.
But the turnout was particularly notable in some big Democratic areas. In Wayne County, turnout compared with 2014 rose by 182,367 voters, from 38 percent to 54 percent.
Clinton won Wayne County with 67 percent of the vote in 2016 even as she lost the state. So, if the midterm turnout translates into a larger than normal turnout in Wayne County in 2020, it could turn the tide against Trump.
There is no guarantee that will happen. But it’s not just Wayne County, either. There were notable increases in turnout in other large counties that have tended to vote Democratic in presidential years, including Oakland, Washtenaw and Ingham.
The same was seen in some traditionally Republican areas in western Michigan, including Kent and Ottawa, where Trump won but underperformed GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s totals in 2012.
“You have to remember, in our state in 2016, it was not so much that there was this massive outpouring for Trump,” said John C. Austin, a Democratic former State Board of Education president and now head of the Michigan Economic Center. “Nobody voted for Hillary basically.”
Democrats have already seen gains
There’s evidence that those midterm results paid off for Democrats.
Not only did Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer win, she did so by racking up impressive numbers including in some traditionally Republican areas.
For instance, she won in Kent County in west Michigan, where then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, won with 62 percent of the vote four years before. She also narrowed the gap in Grand Traverse County Up North and in Ottawa in west Michigan, despite long histories of supporting GOP candidates.
In Macomb County, widely credited for putting Trump over the top in 2016, she beat Republican Bill Schuette 50 percent to 47 percent. In fact, of the 12 counties that Trump won that had voted for Obama in 2012, Whitmer took six of them back for Democrats.
It’s possible those trends will change. And it’s possible that Trump and his populist message will draw voters out in areas that support him while more Democratic areas don’t feel as much passion for their candidate.
“He needs every one of them,” said Dulio, speaking of counties that voted Democratic in 2018 after backing Trump two years before. “Literally. Every one of them. He has to turn some of those folks in suburban areas who voted Democratic this time around and make them gettable again.”
But there are other reasons to believe that voter participation will remain high and that Trump’s running into problems.
Polls show problems for the president
There has not been too much polling done regarding 2020’s election season. What polling has been done doesn’t look too good for the president.
The RealClearPolitics.com national average of job approval ratings show that the percentage of those surveyed in the U.S. who disapprove of Trump’s job performance have outnumbered those who approve since the earliest days of his administration.
At present,the national poll average shows 55 percent disapprove of Trump’s performance, compared with 41 percent who approve.
Meanwhile, the research firm Morning Consult put out figures for all the states from late January. In Michigan, it found 55 percent disapprove of Trump, with a 1 percentage-point margin of error.
Late last month, the Glengariff Group in Lansing did a poll for WDIV and the Detroit News, surveying 600 likely voters in the state. It not only found that 53 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Trump’s performance but that roughly the same percentage said they would vote for someone other than him to be president in 2020. Only 31 percent said they’d vote for Trump.
Trump also trailed former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders by 11 percent or more in hypothetical matchups. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Trump lags in some neighboring states as well
There are other indications of headwinds, too, namely those coming in from other states.
For instance, in Wisconsin, a poll done last month by the Marquette Law School showed 52 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump’s performance. Forty-nine percent would definitely vote for someone else and 8 percent said they would probably vote for someone else.
“That doesn’t mean Trump is doomed to lose,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal wrote. “But it means his window for victory is a very tight one.”
In Ohio, like Michigan, little 2020 polling has been done but the January numbers from Morning Consult showed Trump with 51 percent disapproval to 45 percent approval.
Michigan tends to track both Ohio and Wisconsin somewhat in elections, though Michigan tends to run a few percentage points more Democratic in presidential elections than Ohio especially.
And given that Wisconsin just elected a Democratic governor over an incumbent Republican and Ohio elected a Republican by a relatively slim 3-percentage-point margin — after Trump won Ohio by 8 points — it suggests a harder road for the incumbent president.
Incomes, college grads seem to matter
Austin, the head of the Michigan Economic Center, which is part of a nonprofit group doing research in Ann Arbor, recently wrote an article for Washington’s Brookings Institution. In it he noted that Democrats tended to do better in 2018’s midterms in areas with higher incomes and a greater percentage of college-educated residents than the state average.
Trump, meanwhile, did better in areas with white working-class voters nostalgic for their hometowns’ former economic and manufacturing glory. In some ways, Austin said, Democratic gains seemed to rely in part on candidates who could appeal to both.
If Democrats can’t find a presidential nominee who can do so, he said, it could accrue to Trump’s benefit once again. But it could be a tricky balance — finding a candidate who can appeal both to millennials and older voters, working-class and white-collar voters.
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He said increased turnout of voters likely to back Democrats — younger voters, African-Americans, college-town voters — could make it “very hard for Trump to win.” But that outcome would be bolstered “if the candidate can excite and get votes out of the white, working-class union voter who … went over to Trump.”
So far, here’s who is running against Trump
Right now, there are more than 20 potential Democratic candidates, 10 who have announced they’re running or have formed an exploratory committee, according to the New York Times.
They include U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; former Housing Secretary Julian Castro; former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; author Marianne Williamson, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Others looking at a run include Biden, Sanders, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Without question, Trump will have arguments to make in his defense of re-election against any of them. And his current poor approval numbers could be partially attributable to the long government shutdown, which has since ended.
Despite a volatile stock market, he can claim a seemingly strong economy. And despite GM’s layoffs, manufacturing jobs, at least as of the most recent figures, are up substantially, including in Macomb County. The state has added about 73,000 jobs since Trump took office, though jobs have been growing in the state for much of the last seven years.
And if his demand for a southern border barrier has been criticized by many, it is still likely to excite his base of voters.
Still, others may ask: Where is the infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges that was promised? Where is the additional investment in Detroit?
“Anything’s possible,” said Dulio. “If we go back to the end of Obama’s first term, his approval rates were not good. He did some quality work in the last bit of 2011 and first part of 2012 to get his approval ratings up over 50 percent. Trump has to do that. He’s got to get close to 50.”
“If the economy continues to perform well and he can stop turning people off with his tone, he has a chance.”
Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.
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