Michigan's Macomb County is a crucial blue-collar battleground for Trump and Biden

Key Points
  • Michigan's Macomb County, once home to "Reagan Democrats," is considered a key battleground for the presidential election in a state that turned red by a small margin in 2016.
  • The county twice voted for former President Barack Obama before voting for Donald Trump in 2016.
  • Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor is a former Trump voter in the county who says he has tired of Trump's rhetoric and decided to vote for Joe Biden.
US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden pictured during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. For small business owners across the nation, casting a ballot in the 2020 election presents a difficult series of economic, personal and political choices.
Getty Images

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, but he said his "buyer's remorse" kicked in on the first day of his presidency.

Taylor, the mayor of Michigan's fourth-largest city and a lifelong Republican voter, said he was turned off by then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer's nakedly false claim that Trump's inauguration crowd was the largest ever.

"Why lie about things that are verifiably false?" Taylor said. "Also, why lie about something so petty and so insignificant as your inauguration turnout?"

Since then, Taylor said, he has continued to be disillusioned with the president. Taylor was never Trump's biggest fan but defaulted to the Republican candidate in 2016, hoping Trump's campaign talk was like "a WWE persona" he would drop in office. Taylor calls himself a moderate who supports free-market policies but also government help for those who need it. He supports gay marriage and says the science of climate change shouldn't be up for political debate.

He also said he assumed then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win anyway and wanted to cast a protest vote to show that her victory did not represent a sweeping mandate.

Taylor said Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic was the final straw because it displayed a lack of leadership. He now says he regrets his vote and that Clinton clearly would have done a better job for the American people, despite disagreeing with many of her policy positions.

So for the first time in his life, Taylor said, he is voting for the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Taylor is one of the more than 687,000 registered voters in Macomb County, who represent a critical bloc that could help decide this year's election. The county twice voted for former President Barack Obama before turning red for Trump in 2016. Macomb is largely White (about 80%) but its Black and immigrant populations are slowly growing.

"It's a transition county that's very middle class and very blue collar," said Jonathan Hanson, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. "In some ways it's a snapshot of Michigan overall, but also in a lot of ways it kind of looks similar to a lot of the rest of the country."

Blue-collar identity

Bordering Detroit's Wayne County, Macomb's history lies in automotive manufacturing. But in the 21st century, steady manufacturing jobs have become more uncertain. As recently as last year, a General Motors factory closed its doors in the county.

Macomb won political notoriety for its "Reagan Democrats" back in 1980, the moniker for the blue-collar union workers who swung their votes to the right for former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan Democrats "would have been sort of prototypical Democratic-leaning voters except that they were feeling strain in the economy and Reagan offered a message of economic change and hope," Hanson said. "And in a lot of ways, that was Trump's message, too."

In 2016, Trump promised to renegotiate trade deals to benefit American workers and build back manufacturing towns. In the years since, Hanson said, Macomb voters have credited Trump with economic growth and low unemployment rates that persisted prior to the pandemic, some of which was set in motion before he took office.

In a statement, the Biden campaign's Michigan State director, Eric Hyers, blamed Trump for recent hardships in the manufacturing sector.

"In 2016, Donald Trump stood in Macomb County and promised Michiganders, 'if I'm elected, you won't lose one plant.'" Hyers said in the statement. "Since then, Michigan's economy has been crushed by the President's failed leadership, with an unemployment rate that has more than doubled since March, a manufacturing industry shedding jobs, a decline in motor vehicle manufacturing jobs even before the pandemic started, and plants shuttered across the state. On his first trip to Michigan as the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden stopped in Macomb County to roll out his Buy America plan that will bring jobs back to Michigan and the United States, and revitalize American manufacturing."

Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso emphasized the president's support from blue-collar workers for his "America First agenda."

"Just this week, Eric Trump was in Macomb County campaigning on behalf of his father at a local manufacturing plant, and it couldn't be more clear that the enthusiasm for President Trump is off the charts," Farnaso said in a statement. "Blue collar workers took a chance on President Trump and know that his America First agenda will always put everyday Americans first compared to Biden's radical, Bernie-inspired manifesto. With President Trump in the Oval, Michiganders can rest assured that they've got a fighter working for them." 

Hanson suggested looking at the most recent midterm election as a way to gauge how Michiganders feel about the status quo.

"If the 2018 election is any indicator of where Michigan is heading, Republicans are in pretty deep trouble," said Hanson, referring to the wave of statewide races won by Democrats. Macomb County voters contributed to a victory for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has taken a tough stance on stay-at-home orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic but maintained a 59% overall approval rating according to an early September poll of 600 likely Michigan voters by the nonpartisan Glengariff Group. That's up from a 43% approval rate in January.

Trump, by contrast, has struggled to prove to voters he has the virus under control. Only 37% of American adults approved of his handling of the pandemic, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week.

Trump's lead over Clinton in Michigan in 2016 was not so large that it would take a whole lot to overcome, Hanson said. Trump carried the state by about 11,000 votes.

"If Trump is not putting up numbers like a margin, say, at least 30,000 in Macomb County, it seems unlikely he could win Michigan," said Hanson. "So it doesn't really take a whole lot of support to peel off Trump to kind of shift things in the other direction."

Biden leads Trump by more than 7 percentage points in Michigan, according to Real Clear Politics' polling average.

Biden's background from the blue-collar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, could be one of the things to put him over the edge.

"While Biden left Scranton a long time ago, Macomb County is a lot like Scranton," said Sander Levin, a former congressman who represented part of Macomb County as a Democrat from 1983 until 2019. His son, Andy Levin, now represents his former district. "I think people can identify. If they can't identify with Joe Biden exactly, they can accept him. He's been in the Senate for a long long time, so he's not so easy to identify, ... [but] I think there remains that kind of blue-collar upraising in him."

Hanson said Biden may appeal to voters like the Reagan Democrats.

"They can sort of think that Biden understands where they're coming from a lot more than Clinton," he said.
"In some ways, it might be less about Trump than it is about how Biden plays compared to how Clinton did for these voters."

Tired of the rhetoric

By now, voters like Taylor who assumed Trump's strong language would tone down once in office understand that's not the case.

Trump has continued to show a willingness to appeal to his largely White and male base while displaying a hesitancy to disavow even the most fringe groups. It took two days for Trump to clearly state that he condemns White supremacists and the far-right group the Proud Boys after he told them to "stand back and stand by" during the first presidential debate.

Taylor said many other people he's talked with in his county also feel weary. The ratio of Trump to Biden signs he's seen on walks around his neighborhood still favors the president, but by a smaller margin than he observed in 2016. Taylor said the large wave of new voter registrations in the county indicate to him that plenty are unhappy with the way things stand.

"One thing about Macomb County voters, there's only so much bull---- they'll take," Taylor said. "When [Trump] blames other people, when he blames China — he's at the top. You don't get all the credit when things go good and get to pass the buck when things go bad. And I think there's a significant amount of people that see that that's what's happening."

Taylor admits that for the first three years of Trump's presidency, he was disappointed but saw himself and those around him doing pretty well. His 401(k) was growing and neighbors held onto steady jobs, even as he bristled at Trump's shattering of political norms.

But the pandemic crystallized Taylor's decision not to vote for Trump this time. And the presidential debate drove the point home. He said of the many people he has spoken to in the county since the debate, not a single one was pleased about Trump's performance.

"It's very rare that you hear someone say, 'I'm proud of President Trump,' but what they will say is, 'You know what, I understand why he does what he does because the media attacks him or the liberals attack him,'" Taylor said. "But with that debate, there were no excuses, there was no rationalizing it. ... Some of them will go and vote for him anyways. But to anybody who's mind wasn't made up, I think that could have been the final nail in his political coffin."

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