The Ripon Forum

Volume 52, No. 5

November 2018

A View from Macomb County

By on October 23, 2018

“Macomb residents are sticking with President Trump.”

 by DAVID A. DULIO & JOHN S. KLEMANSKI

Macomb County, Michigan was a major reason why Donald Trump carried Michigan and its 16 electoral votes in 2016. While Trump won the state’s popular vote by less than 11,000 in 2016, he garnered 35,000 more votes than Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton earned 35,000 fewer than Barack Obama four years before in Macomb County alone.

The foundation for the strong performance in Macomb can be traced back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan. It was in Macomb that Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg coined the term Reagan Democrat. The Reagan Democrats, Greenberg said, were voters who had traditionally voted for Democratic presidential candidates but felt abandoned by their party, liked Reagan’s vision and strength of his convictions, and voted for him in 1980 and 1984. Reagan Democrats were alive and well in 2016 and made their presence felt as many voted for Donald Trump for similar reasons.

The question now is: has the political dynamic in Macomb changed in the two years since Trump’s improbable victory?

The short answer is a firm “no” – Macomb residents are sticking with President Trump. The same kinds of qualities that drew votes to Trump in 2016 appear to be holding strong. Trump returned to Macomb – Washington Township, specifically – in early 2018 for a rally on the same night as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Lynn Vineyard, a self-described “Democratic Trump supporter” said at the rally: “For the first time, I feel like we might get back to what America was founded on.”[1]

Macomb voters are very positive about Trump’s “patriotic” stances and his focus on “making America great again.”[2]

In addition, Greenberg and his colleague Nancy Zdunkewicz returned to Macomb earlier in 2018 to continue their research on voters in the County. One of their key findings: “The majority of Trump voters, including all of the white working-class men, says he is meeting their expectations.”[3] Trump’s “no-nonsense” approach, the fact that he “doesn’t sugarcoat” his comments and his “bravado against competition” are three of the qualities supporters in Macomb like best.[4] They also “feel vindicated that a businessman like Trump has produced a strong macro-economy and kept his promises on immigration. They continue to appreciate how he speaks his mind, unlike a typical politician.”[5] Moreover, Macomb voters are very positive about Trump’s “patriotic” stances and his focus on “making America great again.”[6]

Interestingly, one area where Trump and his allies arguably have some work to do is on the tax cut that passed in late 2017. It is somewhat surprising that it is not more popular across the nation and some of that sentiment can be seen in Macomb. One Macomb resident in the Greenberg/Zdunkewicz focus groups said, “The standardized deduction going up – that’s real good. The $1,000 he’s saying extra we’re going to get here – it’s OK.”[7]

A major factor in Macomb County in terms of perception of the economy is likely Trump’s action on trade. During his campaign, Trump said he would “rip up” the nation’s trade agreements because they were bad for America. One of these was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that many in Macomb blame for their difficult economic times since the 1990s. In late September 2018, the Trump administration announced a “new NAFTA” deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). This could have important effects for Macomb County and Michigan.

First, Trump can claim victory and count it as a campaign promise kept. In addition, several key components of the deal may appeal to Macomb County voters, especially the blue-collar Reagan Democrats. These include that if an automobile enters the U.S. duty-free from elsewhere in North America, at least 75% (up from 62.5%) of it has to originate in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Moreover, at least 40% of the production workers for each car or truck must be paid at least $16 per hour. This is music to the ears of Macomb voters who had responded to Trump’s populist message and his promise to “bring your jobs back” in 2016. We would not be surprised if Trump returned to Macomb just prior to the 2018 election cycle to take a victory lap on the new NAFTA and to mobilize supporters for the midterm election.

One set of campaigns in 2018 where this might be felt is in Michigan’s U.S. House races and the U.S. Senate contest. Macomb County is split between two congressional districts; the southern third or so is in the 9th District and the remainder in the 10th. It is difficult to assess the impact of President Trump in these races because they are both safe seats. The 9th was held by former Representative Sander Levin for decades; his son, Andy, is poised to take over for his father with an easy win in November. The 10th is held by first-term congressman Paul Mitchell and there is no indication that he is in any danger of losing.

While the tax cut could be more popular, the renegotiation of NAFTA is likely going to be a big seller with Reagan Democrats.

The Trump factor is, however, being felt in other races around the state. In particular, in neighboring Oakland County, two GOP-leaning districts are potential pickups for Democrats. Representative Mike Bishop is in the fight of his political life against Elissa Slotkin in the 8th District and Democrat Haley Stevens appears to be running ahead of GOP nominee Lena Epstein in the 11th District’s open seat contest to fill the seat of retiring GOP Representative Dave Trott. In both of these races Trump is playing a role. In a recent debate with Bishop, Slotkin noted Trump’s tone was not what the nation needed. In the 11th, Stevens has focused heavily on Epstein’s connections to Trump – Epstein served as co-chair of his Michigan campaign in 2016. Both the 8th and 11th Districts are two of the suburban districts that many observers have said will determine which party controls the House in 2019.

Back in Macomb, President Trump has likely slipped only slightly in terms of his perception among Macomb County voters in the two years since his victory in 2016. Macomb voters are still with him on his “make America great again” agenda. While the tax cut could be more popular, the renegotiation of NAFTA is likely going to be a big seller with Reagan Democrats. Will this be enough to carry Macomb County in 2020? That remains to be seen, but Trump certainly has a strong base of support that likely is not going to leave him any time soon.

David A. Dulio is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Oakland University, while John S. Klemanski is a Professor of Political Science at Oakland University.  To read Professors Dulio’s & Klemanski’s earlier analysis of the political environment in Macomb County that appeared in the June 2017 edition of the Forum, please click here.

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[1] Henry Payne, “Washington, Mich. vs. Washington, D.C.,” National Review, May 3, 2018 (https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/05/president-trump-macomb-county-michigan-supporters/).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, “Macomb and America’s new political moment: Learning from Obama-Trump working class voters in Macomb and Democratic base groups in greater Detroit,” Democracy Corps and Greenberg Research, May 7, 2018 (http://www.democracycorps.com)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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