A Dispatch From The (Former) Blue Wall
Is running as an anti-Trump candidate enough for Democrats to win back states they lost in 2016?
President Donald Trump won the 2016 election by fewer than 80,000 votes, across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The blue-collar, union-heavy workforce once represented a reliable base of Democratic support in these states. And four years ago, some of these voters unexpectedly crossed party lines to vote for now-President Trump.
Was that an anomaly? Or is it a sign the Democratic Party’s base is undergoing a more permanent realignment? And how can the party convince the base to turn out?
Our Across America producer James Morrison went to Michigan to speak to three voters from different parts of the Detroit region. Each represents an important political constituency for winning the state in 2020.
Rochester is an affluent suburb about an hour’s drive north of Detroit. It was one of the richest places in the nation during in the 1980s and early ’90s. At the time, most of the people who lived there were managers and executives with the big automakers in Detroit.
This economic prosperity made this area a Republican stronghold for decades, with voters like Kathleen VanPoppelen and her husband. They’ve lived in the area for more than four decades. They’re both retired now, after her career as a nurse and his as a police officer.
“Our local hospital made so much money because everybody had the Cadillac — literally, and figuratively — insurance from Generous Motors [as she nicknames General Motors], they used to call it back in the day,” VanPopplen says.
But that’s changing. VanPopplen is white, fiscally conservative, socially liberal and wants restrictions on access to abortion. And since 1972, she’s voted for every Republican presidential candidate. But she didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016.
“He’s like a tyrant,” she says. “You could tell that he didn’t really have [a] full grasp of a lot of the issues.” Instead, she chose a third-party candidate.
And then, she did something else she hadn’t done before. In 2018, she supported the area’s Democratic candidate for Congress, Elissa Slotkin.
VanPopplen liked Slotkin’s integrity, her background as a CIA officer and her promise to make prescription drugs more affordable.
Not only did VanPoppelen vote for Slotkin, she campaigned for her.
“There is no way in the world I would have done that prior,” to President Trump’s election, she says. “But I felt it was that important [Slotkin] get elected.”
Women voters like VanPoppelen helped Slotkin win Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, and flip a House seat from red to blue.
She represents a potential new constituency for Democratic candidates: suburban Republican women who have defected from the party under President Trump. She says she’ll vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, but only if that candidate is moderate.
“If you don’t want Trump getting reelected you have to give us somebody that we can vote for,” VanPoppelen says. “If you give me somebody so far to the left, we can’t even see that end of the bell curve, you’re leaving me with no choice.”
Clinton Township, Michigan
Women like VanPoppelen might be leaning further toward the left, but Democrats are losing support from white, blue-collar workers like Bryan DeHenau.
He owns a construction company in Clinton Township, Michigan, a suburb about a half-hour north of Detroit. In 2008, DeHenau, and voters like him, helped Barack Obama win Macomb County by 54 percent of the vote.
But in 2016, these voters supported Trump by the same margin. As the end of President Trump’s first term approaches, DeHenau remains a strong supporter.
“The man’s a godsend. I mean, my life has totally done a 180 in the last three years,” DeHenau says. “I can’t attribute it to any other thing other than Donald Trump is in office.”
Many credit this shift in party allegiances as the reason Trump won Michigan.
DeHenau cites Trump’s trade policy and deregulation measures for fueling an eagerly-awaited economic recovery.
“There’s help wanted signs. Very little space for lease,” DeHenau says as he drives down Groesbeck Avenue — a manufacturing corridor in Clinton Township. “All these places used to be empty. You should have seen this place five, six years ago. This place was a ghost town.”
DeHenau says the economic recovery in his community represents a stark contrast to Detroit, which has faced prolonged economic woes, including filing for bankruptcy in 2013. He blames Democratic policies for the city’s economic failures, which is why he’s committed to voting for President Trump in 2020.
Jacinda Cason calls herself an “agitator” as well as an activist and advocate, who works all over the majority-black city of Detroit.
8 Mile Wall was built in north Detroit to separate white families from black families at the apex of policies that used race to determine to whom banks and the US government loaned money. Standing beside the six-foot-tall concrete barrier, Cason gets passionate when she talks about how redlining’s legacy continues to fuel economic inequality in Detroit.
“They could get a home loan to fix their roofs,” Cason says, pointing at one side of the wall. Gesturing to the other side, she says “this community got no home loans because they was in a community that had a red-letter grade.”
Cason says policies that have denied black Detroiters loans, forced them to live near industrial production zones via segregation and busted their labor unions are responsible for many of the problems people here face.
But she blames capitalism for these failures, not only the Democratic or Republican parties. She says that’s why progressive messages from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren resonate with voters here.
But Cason isn’t yet ready to offer any candidates her support, because she says Democrats have taken black voters for granted. She says that failing to energize this key part of their base is partly why Hillary Clinton got nearly 100,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama did in Detroit eight years earlier.
“None of these candidates are speaking to the issues that affect black people,” she says. “And for them to totally disregard us because they know we’re going to vote Democratic anyway is kind of insulting. It’s extremely insulting,” she says. “This is one of the most lethargic races that I’ve been in because I feel sad. I feel sad that [Trump] just might win again because nobody is looking to talk to the black people to energize the base and it’s frustrating.”
She says Democrats need to offer black Detroiters policies that allow them to access the same economic success as their white neighbors. Midtown and downtown Detroit are currently in the midst of an economic revival that has eluded the city for the past decade. But Cason says many of Detroit’s black families are being left out of the city’s newfound economic prosperity.
And if Democrats are expecting black Detroiters to simply turn up to vote against President Trump, they’re making a huge mistake.
“A vote against Trump is not a vote,” Cason says. “It might energize other bases, but that’s not an energizing base for black people. We need our issues addressed. Period.”
We also produced a show featuring Jacinda, Bryan and Kathleen. Here’s where you can find the podcast version.
1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.