How Trump won the vote of Mich.’s white working class

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Warren — Michael Liburdi, Matt Szlaga and Gregory Maley are among the white working-class voters in Michigan who voted in large majorities for Donald Trump.

Szlaga and Liburdi each voted for Obama in the two previous elections, but chose Trump this time. This was Maley’s first chance to vote in a presidential election and the 18-year-old from the small town of Ruby in St. Clair County has much faith in Trump.

“I see hope in him,” Maley said. “I’m part of the forgotten middle class. Ruby is near Port Huron. Drive through the Thumb area of Michigan and you see a lot of small towns that are just destroyed — the businesses are closed. He wants us to work again.”

Trump tapped into the economic pain that many working-class Michigan residents feel, the three contend. In this normally blue state, 61 percent of white voters who hadn’t graduated from college chose Trump, according to exit polling conducted for The Detroit News and national television networks.

“It was the lesser of two evil-isms,” said Liburdi, 32, of Harper Woods. “I don’t expect anything magical from any politician. He has limited power like any president, but I think he can stop those trade agreements and stop jobs leaving the country.” Liburdi said he still considers himself a “Democrat with Libertarian leanings.”

Like half of all voters surveyed in Michigan, Trump’s claim of trade agreements taking jobs away from the state resonated with these three.

“I’m not sure he can bring a lot of jobs back. But he can probably stop the flow,” Szlaga said. The 33-year-old lives in Shelby Township in Macomb County. Like a majority of the county’s residents, he voted for Obama for both terms.

“In 2012, Obama could say he saved the auto industry,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor think tank that explores workforce issues. Glazer was referring to the $80.7 billion in federal assistance received by GM, Chrysler and GM’s financing arm in 2009 during the economic meltdown that roiled world markets.

While the auto industry is reporting record profits and there has been plenty of job creation, the jobs never came back to the numbers before the recession. In 2000, there were 106,415 manufacturing jobs in Macomb County. Last year, there were 62,006, according to the 2016 economic forecast for the county by James Jacobs, an economist and president of Macomb Community College.

“You keep hearing a lot about how the auto industry and manufacturing has come back, but it’s not great for everyone,” Szlaga said.

During the presidential campaign, Trump argued the recovery had failed, pouncing on trade deals as the reason for the loss of jobs overseas.

This time around, a majority in Macomb County voted for Trump. He won 53.6 percent of the Macomb County vote this time. In 2012, Obama won the county with a 51.4 percent majority.

“I saw affordable health care. I thought he would improve opportunities in schools,” Szlaga said, explaining his Obama votes.

Szlaga tried for several years to get work as a teacher but he could never get more than sporadic assignments as a substitute. He then worked for a few months as a material handler at a Macomb County auto supplier for $12 an hour. “That was more than substitute teaching,” Szlaga said. But it didn’t lead to full-time work.

Lyke Thompson, a Wayne State University political scientist, said when Trump talked about economic disaster and trade deals, “he was targeting the kind of voters in Macomb County.”

Many who follow manufacturing and auto industry trends say Trump’s promise of killing trade deals to bring back a large number of manufacturing jobs to the U.S. is not based on reality.

“There was $2 billion in investment in auto plants in Macomb County” in 2015, said MCC’s Jacobs. “But that doesn’t translate into $2 billion worth of jobs.”

What’s changed is the growing reliance on automation that reduces the number of workers needed, Jacobs and others said.

“It’s unlikely manufacturing jobs increase. We are almost at the peak” in Macomb County, Jacobs said. “This idea that somehow you renegotiate a trade deal and that brings back jobs placed overseas, that’s ridiculous. It oversimplifies the situation. That’s the nature of a political argument.”

Jacobs is proud his college offers free courses for unemployed or underemployed state residents like Liburdi, Szlaga and Maley that gives them extensive training in high-skilled jobs in manufacturing.

All three are in a federally funded program that gives them training in advanced manufacturing skills.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN