Former President Bill Clinton made an unexpected trip Wednesday to Detroit to meet with city political and religious leaders in an effort to boost African-American voter turnout on Election Day for his wife.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a prominent black leader from New Jersey, plans to campaign Thursday in Detroit for Democrat Hillary Clinton with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as she is suddenly in a pitched battle with Republican Donald Trump for Michigan’s prized 16 electoral votes.

“Election’s coming. We want a good turnout,” Bill Clinton said as he arrived for a private meeting Wednesday night for Detroit clergy and Democratic elected officials at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit.

The Clinton campaign’s latest efforts to shore up support in Detroit come as Democratic political operatives in the city have grown concerned that Clinton faces waning enthusiasm among African-American voters. They say she needs to use a Friday rally in Detroit to boost Democratic turnout.

Michigan’s largest city of predominantly African-Americans has always been viewed as an electoral firewall for Clinton against Trump, who has made more trips to Detroit and other Michigan urban areas than recent past GOP nominees.

“There has been a real enthusiasm gap,” said Rebecca Thompson, executive director of Good Jobs Now, a union-funded organization focused on boosting the minimum wage to $15 per hour. “People are vehemently opposed to Trump, but very lukewarm to Hillary.”

Detroiters had returned 37,150 absentee ballots through this past Tuesday. Democrats want to get tens of thousands more absentee ballots in by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“I think it’d be good if President Obama rode through town before Election Day,” said Ernest Johnson, a Democratic operative who works to turn out Detroiters to vote. “He’s the spark that could really get out the vote here.”

Trump spokesman Jason Miller greeted news of Bill Clinton’s visit as a sign of weakness.

“Clinton campaign pushes panic button in Michigan,” Miller tweeted.

With Obama not on the ballot this year, Johnson sees signs of trouble in early absentee voting.

“The early vote last election, we could see people standing outside the election bureau on West Grand Boulevard with a line down the street, and you don’t see that now,” Johnson said.

Detroit’s Department of Elections and four satellite voting sites will be open Saturday for voters to cast absentee ballots if they meet the requirements, such as being older than age 60 or planning to be out of town on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, 37,150 Detroiters had cast absentee ballots, down slightly from 37,972 cast seven days out from the 2012 election. The city elections department had issued 53,488 ballots as of Tuesday, about 2,700 fewer than seven days out from the 2012 election.

Four years ago, Obama helped generate 80,162 total absentee votes when he was up for re-election as the nation’s first African-American president. In 2008, 77,683 absentee votes were cast in Detroit.

Detroit elections director Daniel Baxter said Wednesday that getting another 43,000 Detroiters to vote by absentee ballot before Tuesday’s election could be a monumental task.

“I think it’s highly unlikely they’ll be on par with 2012,” said Baxter, who forecasts that absentee voting in Detroit will approach 70,000.

Steve Hood, a Detroit Democratic political consultant, said he doubts absentee voting will get close to 80,000 “unless something miraculous happens.”

“She’s gotta fire up the base ... or this thing is done,” said Hood, a radio host on Superstation 910AM, about Clinton. “In Detroit, it’s not (voter) suppression, it’s depression.”

Nationwide worry

On a national scale, Obama agrees that the black vote “is not as solid as it needs to be” for Clinton.

Both he and Clinton argue the former secretary of state will fight for the black community, while Trump would turn back the clock.

“I need everybody to understand that everything we’ve done is dependent on me being able to pass the baton to somebody who believes in the same things I believe in,” Obama told nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner in an interview broadcast Wednesday.

In his visits to Detroit and other Michigan cities, Trump has countered that Clinton and other Democrats have taken majority-black communities such as Detroit and Flint for granted.

“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed,” Trump said in a direct appeal Aug. 19 before a mostly white audience in Dimondale outside Lansing. “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Republicans see Hillary Clinton’s return to Detroit for the second time in four weeks as evidence that black voters are not as motivated to go to the polls as they were in 2008 and 2012.

“I think that’s happening all across the country — she’s not Barack Obama and she’s not Bill Clinton,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican consultant and former Michigan GOP chairman. “They need to demonize Trump and fire up their base of supporters.”

The Service Employees International Union is trying to motivate Detroit voters by highlighting Clinton’s proposals for increasing the minimum wage and expanding child care programs for working families, said Bob Allison, executive director of the SEIU Michigan State Council.

“We knew that Detroit was going to be a critical battleground, where we need to be out talking to voters about the significant consequences of this election,” Allison said.

Allison said Clinton’s Friday visit is “critically important” for boosting voter participation. But he said a visit by President Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama would help, too.

“These are the kind of visits that bring home elections in Michigan,” Allison said.

Tightening poll numbers

Based on early returns, Baxter said he expects absentee voting still to exceed the 63,436 of absentee ballots cast in 2004. The final result in that election between then-President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry was much closer than Obama’s victories in Michigan.

Kerry beat Bush in Michigan by about 3.4 percentage points in 2004. Obama won Michigan in 2008 by more than 16 percentage points and in 2012 by 9.5 percentage points over Mitt Romney, a native of Oakland County.

A Real Clear Politics average of recent Michigan polls has Clinton leading by 6.4 percentage points, down from a double-digit advantage in some polls in mid-October.

“We think we’re going to win on absentee ballots and win on Election Day,” said Stephen Neuman, senior adviser to Clinton’s Michigan campaign.

Clinton is scheduled to speak at a 5:15 p.m. rally Friday at Eastern Market.

Thompson said she isn’t convinced a standard stump speech by Clinton is going to motivate voters.

“There is a disconnect between the people who have the ability to go hear Hillary speak and the policies she supports,” she said.

State Sen. Coleman Young Jr., D-Detroit, said the FBI’s “sinister” decision to publicly announce a new review into Clinton’s troubled State Department email server is another reason why she needs to fire up the Democratic base in the city.

“That’s something she’s factoring into those numbers,” Young said of absentee votes. “I think she’s just trying to cover the bases, she’s not taking anything for granted.”

FBI Director James Comey’s decision to disclose the discovery of new emails that may have come from Clinton’s private server has caused some Democrats to wake up to the realization that Clinton might lose, Johnson said.

“I think if people realize that the vote is closer, then it’s a done deal that they’ll vote,” Johnson said. “People didn’t take seriously that Trump could win. And now it’s a toss-up.”

Detroit News Staff Writer Oralandar Brand-Williams and the Associated Press contributed.

Absentee ballots

Detroit’s Department of Elections opens up its main office at 2978 W. Grand Blvd. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Monday for in-person absentee voting ahead of Election Day.

Registered voters can obtain an absentee ballot before Tuesday if they are over age 60, physically unable to get to the polls, unable to vote in person due to religious reasons, in jail awaiting trial or arraignment or plan to be out of town on Tuesday.

The main Department of Elections office on West Grand Boulevard and four satellite absentee voting sites will be open Saturday starting at 8 a.m. and remain open based on demand.

Those locations are:

■ Wayne County Community College northwest campus, 8200 W. Outer Drive

■ Wayne County Community College eastern campus, 5901 Conner

■ Patton Recreation Center, 2301 Woodmere St.

■ Rosa Parks Transit Center (downtown), 360 Michigan Ave.

Read or Share this story: