Trump takes pandemic fight to Michigan
President Trump on Thursday will visit the 2020 battleground of Michigan as he seeks to contrast his handling of the pandemic with that of the state’s Democratic leaders.
Trump’s visit to a Ford plant manufacturing ventilators in Ypsilanti will mark his third trip to a critical swing state in as many weeks. Each time, he has sought to highlight the private sector’s work with the federal government on the coronavirus.
Trump is sparing no expense in battling for Michigan, and has sought to turn Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) into a foil, urging on protests against her stay-at-home restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
On the eve of his trip, the president escalated the fight by threatening to withhold federal funding to the state over its plan to send applications to registered voters to vote by mail, a move Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said was needed to ensure safe voting in the August and November elections during the pandemic. Trump charged that the step was illegal.
The president’s focus on Michigan highlights his need for a repeat victory if he’s to win a second term. Trump’s path to the White House would be difficult without capturing Michigan and its 16 electoral votes.
He narrowly won the state in 2016 but currently trails presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the state, according to recent polling.
But in addition to Biden, Trump is also competing with the coronavirus and its devastating effects on the U.S. economy.
After arriving in Michigan, Trump is scheduled to tour Ford’s Rawsonville manufacturing plant, which has been repurposed to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment. The company partnered with General Electric in April with the goal of producing 50,000 ventilators in 100 days.
Trump, like during his prior trips to Arizona and Pennsylvania, will deliver remarks at the facility. His other speeches, while focused on the COVID-19 response, have had a campaign feel, complemented by songs that would typically be played at his rallies.
Republican strategists say the trips are beneficial because they allow Trump to make the case for his coronavirus response — now the overarching issue of the election — outside the White House, as well as giving him a boost with positive local news coverage.
“Every president prioritizes domestic travel in swing states. Obama did it. Bush did it. Of course Trump is going to do it,” said Alex Conant, a former communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “These trips generate a lot of local media coverage, which is overwhelmingly favorable.”
Still, Trump’s decision not to wear a face mask on previous trips has somewhat distracted from his appearances on the road.
The Ford facility has a policy requiring everyone to wear personal protective equipment to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Trump told reporters Tuesday he hadn’t given much thought to whether he would wear a mask but didn’t rule it out.
“I will certainly look at it,” Trump said. “Where it’s appropriate, I would do it, certainly.”
Michigan was among the earliest states to implement a stay-at-home order. Whitmer on Monday issued an executive order that allows nonessential businesses to reopen in some regions of the state that haven’t been as severely impacted by the virus.
The president has sided with demonstrators in Michigan protesting Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the virus and suggested earlier this month she “give a little” to those opposing the restrictions. Whitmer has also faced a Republican lawsuit challenging her use of her emergency powers during the pandemic.
Whitmer isn’t the only Democratic governor to draw Trump’s ire.
Trump in late March accused her of unfairly blaming the federal government for the crisis and asked that she and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) be “appreciative” of the government’s efforts. He also suggested Vice President Pence not call either governor, referring to Whitmer as “the woman in Michigan.”
Meanwhile, polls have shown that more Michigan voters approve of Whitmer’s handling of COVID-19 than Trump’s response to the crisis.
A FiveThirtyEight analysis released in April found that Whitmer, along with several other governors, saw a job approval rating bump during the pandemic, suggesting her handling of the coronavirus was well received by Michigan voters.
Trump did not extend an invitation to meet with Whitmer on Thursday, and the governor plans to volunteer at a school and deliver meals to local families during Trump’s factory tour, according to a spokesman for the governor.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday that there wasn’t a “particular reason” why Trump didn’t plan to meet with Whitmer. McEnany went on to detail the federal funding and protective supplies given to Michigan by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“She should be thanking the president for all the supplies that he has delivered to her state,” McEnany said.
Trump later told reporters that he spoke to Whitmer over the phone on Wednesday about the coronavirus response and flooding in the state as a result of dam failures.
The president’s targeting of Michigan as part of an escalating attack on mail-in voting on Wednesday stirred up more tensions with the state government ahead of his visit.
“Mail-in ballots are very dangerous. There is tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality,” Trump said Wednesday.
The president’s allegation that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud has been disputed by elections experts.
Some argue Trump’s criticism of Michigan’s government could backfire on him heading into the general election.
“I’ve said during this COVID[-19] crisis that Donald Trump and the Michigan Republican Party have their fingers firmly on the pulse of 30 percent of Michigan voters,” said Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP director who split from the party over Trump. “A very vocal minority is what Trump represents.”
Meanwhile, Saul Anuzis, former Michigan GOP chairman, doubted the risk of criticizing Whitmer, noting that she’s under consideration by Biden as a potential vice presidential pick.
“I’m not sure it’s necessarily risky. She’s obviously a very partisan governor. She is auditioning for the part of vice president,” Anuzis said.
“I believe this is more of a base election than it is a swing election,” he added. “I think drawing on your core values and core support in the state is smart politics for the president and I think Gov. Whitmer is doing the same.”
Thursday’s trip will mark Trump’s first appearance in Michigan since he delivered a January speech at Dana Inc., an auto parts supplier in Warren, to mark the signing of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The president also rallied supporters in Battle Creek in December on the eve of his impeachment.
The frequent visits — and particularly his effort to highlight work supporting autoworkers and reviving manufacturing — underscore the state’s importance to Trump’s reelection.
“I think we are going to do very well in Michigan,” Trump told reporters Wednesday, citing new internal polling suggesting his prospects were strong in the swing state.
Meanwhile, an average of recent polls by RealClearPolitics shows Biden ahead of Trump there by roughly 5 percentage points.
Michigan GOP strategist Greg McNeilly said it was unlikely that Trump would win the election without winning the state of Michigan, though he argued polling is particularly unhelpful at foretelling November’s outcome given the evolving situation due to the coronavirus.
“It’s like we’re living in dog years,” McNeilly said. “It just feels like it’s going to be a completely different world in October.”