A bright mural welcomes people to downtown Saginaw, where a new indoor market opened along the riverfront last year — part of the city’s decades-long effort to reinvent itself after the auto industry started leaving. Inside the market, vendors sell falafel, fresh-baked pies and T-shirts.
For Mike Wilson, who sells sports cards and collectibles, it’s a sign that mid-Michigan has adapted since the days when his father and all four of his grandparents worked for General Motors. He says President Donald Trump — whom he supports “100%” — deserves credit.
“When people can spend what they’re spending with us you know it’s going well, because what we sell isn’t cheap,” says Wilson, 46.
But at the soul food booth just around the corner, Denise Anderson is still searching for the life Trump promised.
“I haven’t seen it,” Anderson said as she served up fried catfish. Things “felt better” when Barack Obama was president and her brother could get health care, she says.
The contrasting views are at the heart of the battle for Michigan, a state that helped Trump win the White House in 2016 and that both the president and Democrats agree he must hold to win a second term. It’s among Democrats’ top 2020 targets, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and its 16 electoral votes and diverse electorate are a reason Democrats will hold one of their presidential primary debates in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Whether Trump can win again may hinge on a list of unknowns, including turnout on Election Day and which Democrat emerges from a crowded field of candidates. It also rests on how voters see the economic health of a state cautiously eyeing a slowdown in the auto industry, which cuts to the core of Trump’s promise to Michigan four years ago.
The president came to Saginaw County and vowed to revive manufacturing here, part of his vision of returning America to an earlier moment of greatness. In Michigan, a state trying to regain the roughly 1 million jobs lost from its peak in 2000, the message resonated. But there was never a plan behind Trump’s promise. His economic policies have brought only slight manufacturing growth and his trade policies may actually have harmed it. Still, Trump is presiding over a stretch of larger growth in other sectors. The overall impact is an uneven economy and a clash over whether Trump should be getting credit or blame.
Trump’s path to a second victory in Michigan runs through working-class places like Saginaw County, about 100 miles northwest of Detroit. In 2016 Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to carry it since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide.
His success here — and in the 11 other Michigan counties that supported Obama and then Trump — was significant. Democrat Hillary Clinton received about 10,000 fewer votes in Saginaw County than Obama did in his 2012 win. Trump won Michigan by just over 10,700 votes.
For much of the 20th century, Michigan was relatively prosperous thanks to a strong manufacturing sector, and the state largely supported Republicans for president. Then, boosted by a strong labor influence, the state in the early 1990s became part of the Democratic “blue wall” that supported Democrats for president, even as the GOP dominated state races.
The state swung again after Trump’s win in 2016, giving Democrats every statewide office on the midterm ballot along with two more congressional seats. The electorate’s mood next year is the subject of intense speculation.
Michigan is again seeing hiring gains and benefiting from the strong stock market. Detroit is growing again after leaving bankruptcy, and the aerospace and cybersecurity industries have expanded. Manufacturing is up slightly, but now accounts for only about 20% of the state’s jobs, down from half in the 1960s.
The auto industry, meanwhile, is trying to find its way through rapid changes that include a huge shift by consumers away from cars to trucks and SUVs, and massive investments in electric and autonomous vehicles that may not pay off for years. As a result, there have been cuts. Ford recently let go of 2,300 white-collar workers in Michigan as it downsized, while General Motors cut about 8,000 engineers and others, many through retirement offers and layoffs at its sprawling technical center north of Detroit. GM also announced plans to close four U.S. plants and shed about 3,000 jobs, including 265 at a car transmission factory in Warren, Mich., near Detroit that will shut down Thursday. Most of those workers were placed at other plants, but face long commutes or relocation.
However, Michigan’s poverty rate is 14.2%, higher than the national mark of 12.3%. And it still ranks in the bottom half of states in percentage of residents with college degrees.
While Michigan’s per capita personal income is higher, the income of the median household, adjusted for inflation, is still well below what it was in 1999, with African Americans faring the worst.
“Unemployment continues to drop,” said Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University, at 3.9% in May, “but a lot of those jobs are just so-so jobs.”
The disparity is especially clear in places like Saginaw County, which is about 70% white, and where growth has lagged upscale areas such as Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Traverse City, which have attracted highly educated residents, high-tech jobs and tourism.
GM once employed roughly 25,000 people in Saginaw County, including at GM-owned Saginaw Steering. Today those jobs have largely been replaced by work in the service industry, where wages are lower and benefits spotty. With four hospitals and a medical school, the area is increasingly a medical nexus for the region, and it is trying to attract more tourists with a sports complex for hosting tournaments.
Analysts are issuing warnings about the impacts of Trump’s trade policy. The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor said that while there are many moving pieces, the likely outcomes “are all profoundly negative for consumers, for new vehicle dealership revenue and employment, and for overall U.S. economic output and employment levels.”
Angie Miller, president of the Mid-Michigan Area Labor Council in Saginaw, said there are a lot of workers like herself who “grind it out every day” but don’t feel like they’re further ahead.
“I don’t sit at home and watch the stock market. I don’t see more money in my bank account,” said Miller, who works in the telecom industry. “Maybe if you’re a business owner you feel differently.”
It’s not clear how this good-bad picture will translate politically in light of Michigan’s pattern of pendulum swings.
Miller said the labor council will begin registering voters soon to try to unseat Trump next fall.
She said she’s been buoyed by the activism she’s seen, including dozens of local people who boarded buses outside a Saginaw shopping mall to attend a 2017 march in Washington, D.C.
Labor isn’t the force it once was. Union members were just slightly more likely than other voters to support Democrats in 2018. Six in 10 union voters supported Democratic candidates in House races, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters nationwide.
Other groups are jumping in. Priorities USA, the largest Democratic outside group, said it is spending $300,000 to $450,000 a week on digital advertising in four swing states, including Michigan, and will focus its message on wages and health care.
The group’s head, Guy Cecil, said winning Michigan will require turning out Democrats who did not vote in 2016 and targeting persuadable voters in the middle.
“We think there are a lot of those voters,” he said, citing younger voters and black voters. In Detroit, a Democratic stronghold, about 41,000 fewer people voted compared with Obama’s 2012 re-election. Statewide, 84,290 people who voted in 2016 did not cast a ballot for president — a measure of discontent with the candidates.
Much depends on which candidate Democrats nominate. In 2016, some people just didn’t like Hillary Clinton, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many workers blamed for lost jobs, said Mike Hanley, a former United Auto Workers official who campaigned in rural parts of Saginaw County.
“People would say ‘don’t come up here if you’re with her,’” Hanley said.
Wilson, who owns Curveball Sportscards & Collectibles, said he backed Trump because he wasn’t a politician, and he had turned “a small amount” of money he received from his father into “a huge amount.” Trump has denied reports that he received far more from his father than he claims. Wilson also said that as a Christian he supports Trump’s stand against abortion.
He’s expecting a close election and another Trump victory.
“It’s kind of hard to take somebody out the way things are going,” Wilson said.
Associated Press reporters David Eggert in Lansing and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed.
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