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Michigan's White, Blue-Collar Voters Helped Give Trump the White House. Will They Turn on Him in 2020?

Trump won Michigan by just over 10,000 votes in 2016 in part by promising to bring jobs back. But now GM is laying off workers.

by Cameron Joseph
Jul 29 2019, 2:30pm

WARREN, Michigan — Ryan Hartung has worked at General Motors’ Warren transmission plant for 13 years, a short stretch compared to his dad and many others who put in decades at the plant. When he drives off on Wednesday, it’ll be for the last time.

Hartung is one of 260 GM employees in Warren and almost 3,000 nationally who are facing layoffs, relocation or early retirement, part of a series of GM factory idlings that are disrupting workers’ lives. He’s not sure what he’s going to do next — he’s hoping to get picked up at a GM factory in Flint, over an hour away, but isn’t willing to move for a new job.

He does know one thing, though: He won’t be voting for Donald Trump again.

“He said that he was going to keep jobs here, keep them from moving to Mexico,” Hartung said as he idled in his truck on the edge of the GM lot last Wednesday. “I think it’s ‘blah blah blah.’”

The macroeconomy might be cruising along in Michigan, where the Democratic presidential field will convene this week for its second pair of debates and where the 2020 presidential race may be decided. Companies like GM are doing a lot better than they were a decade ago, in part by eliminating poor-selling brands.

But workers like Hartung aren’t feeling any better off in the current economy. That could have a big impact on the 2020 election.

Blue-collar white voters

Warren’s GM plant is in Macomb County, crucial swing territory whose downscale white voters helped inspire the term “Reagan Democrat” after they swung hard to the GOP in 1980.

READ: The Democratic Party is getting crushed in fundraising: "They need to get their shit together"

The county’s voters have swung back and forth ever since. Brutalized by the great recession, the county went twice for President Obama, who workers credit for saving the auto industry, the largest local employer. Things had vastly improved by 2016, but President Trump’s populist promises to bring back manufacturing jobs and attacks on Hillary Clinton’s NAFTA support helped him carry the county and the state en route to the White House.

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GM's Warren transmission plant in Warren, Michigan. (Cameron Joseph/VICE News)

Trump and his team see Michigan as a key battleground that could decide 2020, along with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. He’s been there multiple times, most recently in March. But as a seemingly strong economy wasn’t enough to save Democrats in 2016, it doesn’t look like it’s helping Trump much in a state that’s key to his re-election efforts.

A poll commissioned by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and released Friday found significant cognitive dissonance between voters’ views of the overall economy and their own standing. Fully 61% of Michiganders think the U.S. economy is on the right track, but only 36% say their own households’ economic situation has improved in the last three years, with 48% saying it’s stayed the same and 16% saying they’re worse off.

Solid pluralities said Trump’s trade wars with China, Canada and Mexico are hurting both the auto industry and farmers and were bad for consumers like them, while three quarters say they’re paying the same amount of taxes or more after Trump’s tax cuts.

“A lot of people have recognition that the market may be doing well and unemployment may be low but personally say they haven’t seen a change,” said Richard Czuba, the head of the Glengariff Group, which conducted the polling. “There's something to this argument we’re hearing coming from the Democratic side that the economy may be doing better, but is it doing better for you? It doesn’t seem to be translating to a lot of individual households.”

Retired customer service rep Terri Rook, a Democrat, said the local economy was “not better” despite the low unemployment rate.

“It hasn’t improved for us. Maybe the wealthy. The tax cuts, we didn’t see any.”

“I’m interested in healthcare, stuff that affects me, Social Security and things like that. I know the unemployment rate has gone down, but a lot of people are working more than one job too,” she told VICE News as she shopped for groceries at an Aldi in Sterling Heights. “It hasn’t improved for us. Maybe the wealthy. The tax cuts? We didn’t see any.”

Democrats are "scary"

Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes in 2016, and he has little margin for error in the state. Recent polls have found his job approval numbers upside-down, and he’s trailed Democratic front-runner (so far) Joe Biden by around 10 points, though he’s been within the margin of error against some other Democrats.

READ: Why Democrats could be headed for a dreaded contested convention

The state is a must-win for Democrats if they hope to take back the White House, along with demographically similar Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and Macomb County is a key part of that effort. Trump carried the county by an 11-point margin and more than 48,000 votes last time around, more than four times his total margin of victory in the state. It swung back to Democrats during the 2018 midterms, but not as much as the rest of Michigan: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) carried it by 3.5 points as she won by 9.5 statewide, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) won it by two as she won re-election by a 6.5-point margin.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg did a seminal 1985 study of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, and has returned regularly, most recently conducting focus groups there in 2018.

“In Macomb they are very sensitive to NAFTA, angry the political leaders sold them out, angry at senior management and CEOs of the companies,” he said.

Greenberg found many of Macomb’s white, blue-collar Democrats and independents who backed Trump were fed up with their ancestral party — but aren’t any happier with Trump.

“They were pretty angry when he was going after Medicaid in his budget. By the beginning of ‘18, they’d pulled off, the women in particular, because of corruption, big money was in control, none of the stuff about draining the swamp was true, but above all because healthcare costs were rising and they’d had it.”

Ken Shelton has worked for GM for 41 years, and is considering retirement if he can’t land at another plant near his home now that his Warren plant job is disappearing. He voted Democrat most of his life before backing Trump, but hasn’t been pleased with what he’s seen.

“His loyalties lie with the people who got the money, not those that are out here making it,” he said as he pulled out of GM’s Warren-plant parking lot.

But that doesn’t mean Shelton is ready to come back to the fold. He called modern Democrats “scary,” and said he wouldn’t vote for them despite his misgivings about Trump “as long as they keep preaching gun control and socialism.”

While Trump’s numbers aren’t good, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce poll shows warning signs for Democrats as well. Voters oppose Medicare for All, a plan that’s been embraced by all of the top-tier Democratic candidates besides Biden, by a 14-point margin. And Biden, like Clinton, backed the deeply unpopular NAFTA.

Fed-up workers

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a moderate Democrat, told VICE News that Democrats lost his home base in 2016 because blue-collar workers were “fed up” with the same old political rhetoric. He’s not impressed with any of the current presidential front-runners, and worries that history might repeat itself.

“There’s still a chance for Donald Trump to win Macomb County if Democrats don’t get their act together,” he warned. “It’s going to be a close one.”

Macomb County actually led the nation in terms of new manufacturing jobs last year. Its unemployment rate is way down from the depths of the recession, when it topped out at 18.3%. But there are signs that the county and state’s decade-long economic expansions are slowing. The county’s unemployment rate was 4.2% in May, up nearly a full percentage point from last year and pretty close to its 4.6% unemployment rate on election day 2016.

Michigan’s unemployment rate is 4.4%, near historic lows but virtually unchanged since election day 2016. It was the only state in the nation to see a negative three-month change on its coincident index, a measure that assesses states’ economic health.

Trump has shown he’s deeply concerned that blue-collar workers see him as fighting for them. He was vocally critical when GM announced its plant closings.

Democrats didn’t just lose Michigan because of disaffected white working-class voters, however. Nonwhite voter turnout plummeted in Michigan from 62% in 2012 to 55% in 2016, while white voter turnout only dipped from 68% to 67%. It didn’t help that Clinton barely campaigned there. But are black voters dialed in now?

“I think things are changing. I don't think that they're where they need to be just yet,” Detroit Councilwoman Janee Ayers told VICE News. “A lot of the folks that did not turn out, now they kind of see what happens when you don't turn out.”

A number of black voters told VICE that the economy is their top concern.

That includes Danielle Murry, whose final shift at GM’s Warren plant was Sunday after 21 years with the company. She’s not sure how she’s going to pay her bills and help her son with his student loans if she doesn’t get assigned to another plant — and she does, she may have to move away from her home and uproot her ailing mother who lives with her.

“It’s a very stressful time... I feel like I have no stability. I feel like I don't know where my future is going to be,” she said. “I'm just hoping come November [2020] that things change. And we actually get some people in that will help support us.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) made a point to stand with a heavily black crowd of Detroit security workers who are trying to unionize while she was in town last week for the NAACP convention.

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California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris campaigning in Detroit during the NAACP convention. (Cameron Joseph/VICE News)

“Detroit was built by workers. That's who built this beautiful city,” she declared at a Wednesday rally staged in front of at the soaring Michigan Labor Legacy Monument.

Trump’s allies insist that voters will reward the president in 2020 for Michigan’s continued growth.

“Our economy is booming around here like it hasn’t been in some time. There are people here who are thankful they voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” said Jamie Roe, a Michigan GOP strategist who’s worked extensively in Macomb County.

But Democrats think that just like then, blue-collar voters in Michigan and throughout the heartland are feeling left behind and ready to punish the party in power. After voting for Trump, Michigan handed Democrats huge wins in last year’s midterm elections.

“Both in 2016 and 2018 what Michigan voters voted for is something new and different than what they’ve experienced for decades: a system that’s overlooked them,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose represents a nearby blue-collar district that includes Flint. “People only feel the economy is good when it’s good for them.”

Cover: President Donald Trump addresses the crowd speaking on the recent findings of the Mueller report and allegations of collusion with Russia during a rally in Grand Rapids Mich., on March 28, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)