Terri Loffreda-Weston recently wore her red “Make America Great Again” hat to a boat club in Macomb County, Michigan, where Kid Rock was singing country ballads in front of a giant American flag for a predominantly older white crowd of Donald Trump supporters.
Few wore masks at the outdoor event, although Loffreda-Weston said sanitiser was available and there were temperature checks. She was excited she got to shake Donald Trump Jr’s hand. She said it was “uplifting” to see so many people supporting the president.
In 2016, 12 counties in the historically Democratic state flipped from blue to red, handing Trump a victory. The Detroit suburb of Macomb County was one of them.
Loffreda-Weston voted for Barack Obama before switching to Trump in 2016 because she thought Obama was not cracking down on immigration. The retired veteran thinks Trump is doing a great job – she blames Democratic governors for the high unemployment rate because they closed businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She believes the disease is not that deadly and does not trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) tally of more than 200,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Asked about the reports by The New York Times that Trump’s tax returns show his properties are struggling, that he used vast write-offs to pay little or no taxes, is in an IRS audit fight and is hundreds of millions in debt – Loffreda-Weston did not believe it.
“I would have to see his [tax] returns for myself.”
Trump won Michigan by only 10,704 votes in 2016 – the slimmest margin of any state, and the first time it had gone Republican since 1988. This November, Michigan is among a small number of states that will decide the presidency. Trump’s path to victory in 2020 will be made more difficult if he cannot hang on to Michigan and its 16 electoral votes. Polls show Joe Biden ahead in the state, but given the fact that Hillary Clinton led in all of the pre-election Michigan polls in 2016, not everybody is convinced the race is over there.
While running a mostly virtual campaign, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris have only made a handful of in-person campaign stops in Michigan. In addition, Democrats have been worried at the Biden campaign’s lack of a visible ground game there.
In contrast, Trump is holding theatrical rallies in the state, but polling indicates his handling of the pandemic, his response to the police shootings of Black people and the sagging economy may have taken a toll.
There are fewer undecided voters than in 2016 and no strong third party candidates, meaning this election is all about turnout. But the twist is, in a pandemic, how many will vote in person versus by mail, and what will that mean for turnout?
Wayne County, home to Detroit, is crucial for Democrats. “They are definitely going to win it because it is dominated by [Black people],” University of Michigan Political Science Professor Vincent Hutchings told Al Jazeera. His question is: “Are they going to have sufficient turnout?”
In 2016, Clinton won 89 percent of the Black vote, but minority turnout in Michigan dropped seven points from 2012 to 2016. While part of the blame for Clinton’s loss in Michigan is directed towards her campaign’s lack of attention to the state, leading political experts say it was also because of her low engagement with Black voters. Hutchings believes Black voters will not turn out for Biden as much as they did for Obama. “But they don’t have to. They just have to do more than they did for Clinton.”
Yolanda Herbert, an African American precinct delegate in the county, is working the phones and delivering Biden signs. Volunteers are going door to door but are not making contact due to COVID-19, she said. “Everyone wants to stay safe.”
Herbert said she has lost about 40 friends to COVID-19. She referenced a commonly-heard saying: “When America catches a cold, Black America ends up with pneumonia, and that’s because we get hit worse.” She believes Black voters will be motivated to come out and vote because of what they see as Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic. And she also thinks Harris will energise Black voters.
Wayne County is also home to Dearborn, home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the US, per capita.
Nada al-Hanooti, executive director of Muslim get-out-the-vote group Emgage Action, said Bernie Sanders enchanted voters there in the primary. “It’s definitely harder to get the vote out for Biden,” she said.
She said it helps that Biden promised to rescind the Muslim ban on day one and that he quoted the prophet in a July video.
Al-Hanooti told al Jazeera her community knows the stakes are high this election, and with 270,000 registered Muslim voters in the state, they could make an impact.
“When Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away the other day, my organizers, who are from 16 to 25 years old, they’re like, we’re gonna make every call count now. That just encouraged them more.”
Trump’s base is in northern Michigan and the upper peninsula but the real battle is in the suburbs of Detroit. Clinton won the city subur Oakland County by eight points in 2016. Governor Gretchen Whitmer told Democrats in August, “The key to the White House goes through Michigan, and the key to Michigan is Oakland County.”
Hutchings predicts Trump’s 2016 razor’s edge win in Michigan was a blip, not the start of a trend. It was followed by a landslide victory for Whitmer in 2018, combined with Michigan’s two Democratic senators, suggesting it is still a Democratic state.
Voting more accessible
Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for ACLU Michigan, has worked to make casting a vote more accessible. She helped pass a ballot initiative in 2018 that made it easier to register to vote, and allowed voters to access an absentee ballot or mail-in ballot for any reason.
The first statewide election with new voting rights was the March primary, which saw a surge of votes by mail. In the August primary, during the pandemic, 60 percent voted by mail and 40 percent in person. “You did not see our election system collapse as you did in some other places, right?” Dolente said, and that makes her cautiously optimistic the presidential election will run smoothly.
But turnout is usually higher in a presidential election, and Michigan voters have already requested a record number of absentee ballots: More than two million.
The biggest issue is sending out a high volume of absentee ballots, getting them back in time, and counting them, Dolente said. A normal election has lots of poll workers on a single day to handle in-person voting, but with more votes by mail, the state will need extra staff over a longer period of time.
The state House passed a bill on September 24 to allow clerks to start processing absentee ballots one day early, but not count them before election day. A group of election clerks signed a letter saying one day is not enough – they need seven days. To become law, the bill must be signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who supports it.
Dolente does not expect COVID-19 to have a negative effect on turnout because she said Michigan voters recognise how historic this election is.
Loffreda-Weston said she plans to vote in person with her dad, who also flipped to Trump in 2016 after voting Democrat for 50 years. “I want my vote to be counted immediately when it goes to the machine,” she said. She predicts civil unrest no matter the outcome. “One party’s not going to be happy.”