Biden visits Michigan county emerging as the swing state's top bellwether

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Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

President Joe Biden, left, talks with supporters during a campaign event in Saginaw, Mich., Thursday, March 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

SAGINAW, Mich. – Hurley Coleman Jr.'s parents were drawn to Michigan from the South by the promise of middle-class jobs in the booming automotive industry, an origin story shared by many African American families in Saginaw.

Mass layoffs beginning in the late 20th century precipitated a dramatic decline in Saginaw’s population and economy, accompanied by a sharp rise in political turmoil within the city and throughout the region around it. This unrest peaked in 2016, mirroring the trend set off by economic stress in many Rust Belt cities, when the area voted Republican for the first time in decades and helped Donald Trump win the state.

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“There was unrest in so many corners, in so many ways and it just happened that you had a candidate who was irascible enough to be able to tap into that unrest,” said Coleman. “There are a lot of people who still have that unrest, but they’re paying attention now.”

Turning Saginaw County blue again in 2020 — by a margin of 303 votes — contributed to Joe Biden’s success in securing the critical “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all pivotal in Trump’s previous victory as well. Leaders in both parties have said that it will be next to impossible for either presidential candidate to win the White House this year without winning Michigan.

Biden, who traveled to Saginaw on Thursday to meet with supporters and volunteers, understands its importance.

“Our democracy’s at stake” Biden told the group that packed the front porch of a Saginaw city council member's home to meet with him. “I really mean it."

Later, Biden sat down with a Michigan family at a local public golf course. The original plan had been for him to go golfing with a father and son duo who had themselves bonded over the game, but heavy rain washed out that idea.

With the campaign season heating up, the president has made intimate conversations with families and small groups to discuss policy matters most impacting their lives a set part of his travels around the country.

The visit was part of a two-day swing through Wisconsin and Michigan that started Wednesday as the president looks to create momentum for his reelection campaign after clinching the Democratic nomination on Tuesday night.

“President Joe Biden knows that if there is a place in America that he can tell his story to a people that need to hear it, Saginaw is that typical place,” said Coleman, a pastor who is planning to help Biden in his reelection bid.

Saginaw, a Democratic stronghold, is encircled by predominantly Republican areas within the larger county. Described as a microcosm of the entire state, Saginaw County is the only Michigan county to have voted for the winning presidential candidate in the last four elections. In that respect it has largely replaced Macomb County north of Detroit as the go-to destination for political consultants and media looking to take the temperature of what might well be the ultimate swing state, with Macomb sliding steadily further into the Republican camp.

The Saginaw area boasts a large number of union-affiliated voters, a demographic that Biden has targeted in his reelection campaign. He has received multiple key union endorsements even as Trump lays claim to being the candidate of choice for working people despite many union leaders saying his first term showed otherwise.

The 44,000-person city at the heart of the county is also home to a significant Black community, comprising 46% of Saginaw’s residents. Energizing this demographic could be pivotal in November as Biden's campaign navigates challenges in other regions of the state.

“I think that the president recognizes the importance of getting into a community as diverse as Saginaw and having the conversation and having the face-to-face time with folks,” said Michigan Democratic Party chair Lavora Barnes.

Over 100,000 Democratic voters in Michigan opted to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Feb. 27 primary in what had been pushed by activists as a protest vote against Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza. Top Biden advisors, both from the campaign and the White House, have traveled frequently over the past several months to places like Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with the nation’s highest concentration of Arab Americans, in their efforts to win back what had been a reliably Democratic constituency.

But some Michigan Democrats in recent weeks have cautioned the party about overlooking restlessness within a significantly larger and politically influential demographic: Black voters.

Biden’s support among Black voters has waned considerably since he assembled his winning coalition four years ago, when he was backed by 91% of Black voters nationwide, according to AP VoteCast.

His approval rating among Black adults is 42% in the latest Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, a substantial drop from the first year of his presidency. Biden also is working to energize Black voters in the key swing states of Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans was among the 13% of Democratic voters who voted “uncommitted” in Michigan's primary, but for a different reason than the one pushed by activists. He said he withheld his support to make a point to the Michigan Democratic Party that they are “not doing the things that they need to do to engage significant portions of the African American community.”

“We don’t see these programs and things that are talked about trickling down to us,” said Evans. “We don’t feel invested in. The philosophical stuff that you might hear in a speech, we’re not feeling that.”

Saginaw resident Jeffery Bulls shares Evans' sentiment, opting not to vote at all in the state's primary rather than vote “uncommitted.” Once a Democratic voter, Bulls said that both Biden and Trump have proven to be “more of the same.” He said he “probably will be skipping that top spot on the ballot" in November.

“We look around our community and 10, 20, 30 years go by and the same blight is here, the same joblessness is here, the same issues are here,” said Bulls. “Nothing has changed. That starts to click after a while and then you get cynical.”

The city of Saginaw’s poverty rate of nearly 35% is more than double Michigan’s average of 13%, as per the latest U.S. Census data. Average income in the city is also half that of the state's average, though unemployment in the county has declined steadily since Biden first took office.

While Black voters are unlikely to support Trump in significant numbers in November, a lack of turnout could prove just as fatal for Biden's reelection campaign. In 2016, Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes, a thin margin attributed in part to reduced turnout in predominantly Black areas like Detroit’s Wayne County, where Hillary Clinton received far fewer votes than Barack Obama did in previous elections.

Biden reclaimed much of that support four years ago, when he defeated Trump in Michigan by a 154,000-vote margin, but he has work to do. Detroit, which holds a population that is nearly 78% Black, saw a 12% turnout in the Feb. 27 primary, almost half that of the 23% total turnout in the state.

Biden’s team is keenly aware of the pushback his reelection has encountered in certain minority communities in Michigan. Thursday’s visit is Biden’s second in six weeks, and his team is establishing over 15 field offices across Michigan, including Saginaw.

The campaign has been “working to ensure that Black Michiganders are aware of all the promises made and kept by” Biden, said Eddie McDonald, senior adviser for Biden-Harris in Michigan, in a statement. He added that the campaign is “not taking a single voter for granted — especially when the stakes are this high.”

“The fundamental choice in this election is between Joe Biden, who is fighting to make life better for Black voters, and Donald Trump, who drove up Black unemployment, tried to rip away health care access, and attempted to slash funding for HBCUs," said McDonald. "That difference is stark and we’re going to make sure Michiganders know it.”

AP writer Will Weissert contributed reporting.

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