Trump pins his hopes on Michigan with final campaign stop in Grand Rapids

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Four years after his surprise win in Michigan, President Donald Trump hoped to recapture the karma by tapping into familiar themes of an improved economy, America first policies and religious liberty at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport for his last campaign stop of 2020.

The Grand Rapids rally, which went into the early morning hours of Election Day, recreated the conclusion of his 2016 campaign, when he capped his campaign after midnight on Election Day before winning Michigan by 10,704 votes against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"I kept saying we have to finish off here … we can be a little superstitious, right?” Trump said from west Michigan's Kent County, a one-time Republican stronghold with suburban communities that experts say could tell the tale of this year's election.

The visit capped five rallies in Michigan in a week, including Lansing on Oct. 27, Waterford on Friday, Washington Township on Sunday and Traverse City on Monday evening.

"We're going to win the state of Michigan so easily," he said. “We want to do it just like last time, but let's give me a little bit more margin.”

Thousands of people gathered at an airport hangar near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport for Trump’s final rally. Roads into the venue were clogged with traffic ahead of the event. Some attendees left their cars along the side of the road and walked more than a mile to the rally with temperatures in the 40s.

Trump hit on some familiar themes, warning that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would ban fracking, outsource jobs and lock down the economy. He said Biden was a "cheerleader" for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was replaced by the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally early Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Trump emphasized the 33% increase in the U.S. economy from July through September, though the gain wasn't enough to break even with pandemic losses. The president cited an early October Gallup poll that found 56% of Americans surveyed said they were better off than they were four years ago.

“While foreign nations are in a free fall, we’re creating an economic powerhouse unrivaled anywhere in the world,” Trump said.

Biden was part of President Barack Obama' administration that helped the auto industry rebound from the Great Recession and has said he wants to create 1 million auto jobs by promoting electric vehicle research and development.

Michigan added 33,000 auto manufacturing jobs over the final four years of Obama’s administration, but the state lost about 2,400 auto manufacturing and parts jobs from January 2017 through February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Trump also made a familiar appeal to suburban women, with whom the president has not polled well nationwide. An Oct. 23-25 Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found Biden had a 24.5-point lead among female voters in Michigan.

"This time we’re going to do even better because we are providing safety and security," Trump said. "For the suburban women, we’re saving the suburbs.”

Standing in front of electronic signs that read, "The best is yet to come," the Republican president thanked several in attendance at the rally, including Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, Eric Trump, Lara Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Tiffany Trump.

"Words cannot express how proud you make me every day," he said. 

He later recognized several GOP Michigan politicians in the crowd, including Congressman Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox.

Trump also called rapper Lil Pump up to the stage, but mistakenly called him "Little Pimp." Lil Pump endorsed the president onstage.

Shortly into his speech, Trump criticized Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and called for her to "open up the state." Michigan's stay-home order was lifted in June, but some restrictions on gatherings, restaurants and mask use continue under state orders.

"They think it hurts us in the election," he said of criticisms over the COVID-19 response. "Actually, it helps us.”

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen wave before President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Grand Rapids.

Pence took the stage shortly before Trump, reiterating campaign promises of an economic comeback, protections of religious liberties, conservative appointments to federal judicial seats and support for law enforcement and the military. 

"We’re not going to defund the police, not now, not ever," Pence said. "We’re going to back the blue, and we’re going to back the blue for four more years.”

Pence warned that Biden would lock down the nation again to curb the coronavirus. 

"We're going to defeat the virus, and the best is yet to come," Pence said. 

A challenge in Kent County

John Lowery of Grand Rapids said it took him about 90 minutes to drive one mile because of the heavy traffic.

“I think it says a lot more than the polls do,” Lowery said of the attendance. “I think he’s got a swell of people who are going to vote for him.”

Trump’s anti-abortion stances and appointment of conservative judges are reasons Lowery backs the president, he said.

“I love what he’s been doing with China. We’ve been getting our butts kicked by those guys for a long time. He’s the first guy to stand up to them,” Lowery said.

While Trump outperformed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney in many places across Michigan, he underperformed in Kent County, winning by 3 percentage points. Two years later, Whitmer won it by 4 points on her way to becoming governor, and supporters of Biden are hoping to claim the county again.

A loss for Trump in Kent County would "absolutely" mark a political shift in Michigan, said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University.

"If Trump exceeds expectations there, that significantly increases his chances of winning Michigan," Dulio said.

Supporters cheer as Vice President Mike Pence speaks before President Donald Trump at a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Grand Rapids.

Democrats are hoping that suburban voters who have previously backed Republicans in places like Kentwood and East Grand Rapids switch over to cast their ballots for Biden. They also want to see a surge in turnout among new and younger voters.

There were signs of a potential surge on Monday.

More than 100 voters, many of them young people, stood in a line in a parking garage next to Grand Rapids City Hall before they could enter the building to cast their ballots on Monday afternoon. Voters and election workers said the wait time was about an hour and 45 minutes. Grand Rapids is the largest city in Kent County and the second-largest in the state.

Nearby, in Kentwood, which has a population of about 52,000 people, about 80 voters waited in a line outside City Hall on Monday. The wait time there was about 30 to 40 minutes, according to voters.

Statewide, about 2.9 million Michigan residents had already cast their ballots as of Monday morning, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. In 2016, 4.8 million total votes were cast in the presidential race.

About 80 voters waited in a line outside the Kentwood City Hall on Monday afternoon to cast their absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

In addition to the contest between Trump and Biden, Kent County also is the largest county in the 3rd Congressional District, an open seat that's seeing a competitive fight between Republican Peter Meijer and Democrat Hillary Scholten, both of Grand Rapids.

There are also two suburban state House seats in the county that political observers are keeping their eyes on: the 72nd House District, currently held by Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, and the 73rd House District, which is open. Republicans are expected to win the districts, but if Biden claims the state by a wide margin, those races could be close on Tuesday.

Statewide, Biden had an 8 percentage point lead over Trump in a Detroit News and WDIV-TV poll of 600 likely voters Oct. 23-25. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.

The former vice president was up 18 points, 55% to 37%, among the state's suburban voters, according to the poll.

Dozens of voters wait in a line in Grand Rapids on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, to vote early ahead of Tuesday's presidential election.

The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Kent County was in 2008. Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain by fewer than 2,000 votes. Obama won statewide by 16 percentage points. In 2012, Romney won the county by more than 22,000 votes but lost Michigan by 9 points. In 2016, Trump won the county by about 9,400 votes.

"Kent County is a different place than it was four years ago," said Gary Stark, chairman of the Kent County Democratic Party. "It's become a lot bluer. It's become a lot younger."

Stark said he believes new voters in Kent County will be the ones who make the difference.

"We have lots of new voters coming in. Many of them are young, educated and settling in the suburbs," Stark said.

Political observers will be watching what happens with third-party voters from 2016 on Tuesday. Four years ago, about 7% of the presidential vote in Kent County went to third-party candidates, including Libertarian Gary Johnson, who got more than 14,000 votes in the county. Usually, that percentage is less than 2%, said Dulio, the Oakland University professor.

Gary Stark, chairman of Kent County Democratic Party, stands outside the party headquarters on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.

"It stands to reason that people who voted Libertarian in 2016 can more easily find a home with Trump than they can Biden," Dulio said.

"If Trump can get 10,000 of those, that is a huge shift given that the result in 2016 was about that," he added of the third-party vote.

Jeremy Mullan, 28, of Grand Rapids was among the young voters who waited about 90 minutes to cast an absentee ballot on Monday.

"I think this election is pretty important," Mullan said. "Both candidates might not be the best, but still, you should come out and vote."