LANSING — Michigan is reprising its role as a key battleground in the final days of the 2020 race, as Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden both return to fight over a state decided by just 10,704 votes in 2016.
Trump is due back in Michigan on Friday for a rally at the Oakland County International Airport, and Biden will return Saturday with a special guest: former President Barack Obama.
Obama has stumped for his former vice president, Biden, in Pennsylvania and Florida.
But the two have not appeared in public yet this election cycle and will reunite in Michigan to discuss bringing “Americans together to address the crises facing the country and win the battle for the soul of the nation,” according to Biden’s campaign, which has not yet announced a time or location for the event.
Biden has consistently led in polls of Michigan voters, but the visits suggest both campaigns believe the state is up for grabs during Tuesday’s election, said Dave Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University.
“At this important time, they would not waste what is the most precious resource a campaign has, which is the candidate’s time, in a place that they didn’t think was going to have some return on that investment,” Dulio told Bridge Michigan.
As Trump barnstorms the state, hoping to repeat his late push in 2016, Republicans are expressing optimism that the race is tightening, even if public polls aren’t showing it yet.
Obama’s visit reinforces “what we’ve been saying all along: that the race for the White House goes through Michigan,” said Tony Zammit, a spokesperson for the state GOP.
“This race is much closer than national polling has indicated, and we think on Election Day, President Trump is going to pull out a stunning victory here.”
Democrats are “paranoid” about Michigan given Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss here in 2016, but Obama’s visit is not necessarily a sign of distress, said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond of the Grassroots Midwest consulting firm in Lansing.
“They’re leaving no stone unturned,” Hemond said. “If Democrats win Michigan, the president’s path [to re-election] is that much narrower, so it’s an important state for them to take off the board.”
While it’s not yet clear where Obama will campaign for Biden, experts who spoke to Bridge predicted the former president will visit Detroit to try to drive up turnout in the state’s largest city, a Democratic stronghold where turnout declined in 2016.
Clinton’s campaign brought Obama to Ann Arbor the day before the election in 2016 after reportedly struggling to secure a location in Detroit.
Regardless of location, Democrats believe that was too little too late, and that Clinton “took Michigan for granted,” said Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow.
“The Biden campaign is not going to make the same mistake,” he said. “So you secure the base, you motivate the party, and you try to grab as many of those undecided and Republican voters that are on the fence.”
Obama has used recent speeches in other states to “lay out, step by step, the mistakes of this current administration,” Morrow noted.
In Michigan, he’ll likely help Biden reinforce one of his key messages here: that their administration helped “save the automobile industry” in 2009 by expanding a federal bailout that helped General Motors and Chrysler avoid collapse.
“A lot of people are still employed because of that,” Morrow said. “The former president’s still very popular in Michigan, especially in the urban areas.”
Trump plans to speak on the runway of Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township at 1 p.m. Friday. That will be his second Michigan stop this week and third in a month, following rallies in Muskegon and Lansing.
He’s also flooding the state with surrogates: Donald Trump Jr. was in Macomb County on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence was set to speak at Bishop International Airport in Flint Wednesday, while Eric and Tiffany Trump were expected in Michigan on Thursday.
Clinton won Oakland County by more than 8 percentage points in 2016, but polling suggests Trump’s popularity has plummeted among female, affluent and well-educated voters in the key metro Detroit county, the second most populous in the state.
“The president can’t afford to lose Oakland County by as much as he’s been losing it, so the campaign has to crank out every Republican they can find so they can lose less there,” said Hemond, a Democratic strategist. “That’s what the president is up to: trying to rein in some of those margins in Oakland County.”
Trump’s return to the suburbs will be “really important not only for him, but for all the down ticket Republicans in Michigan,” said John Sellek, a GOP strategist with Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.
Even if Trump doesn’t win Michigan, a competitive showing could provide a “huge boost” to GOP candidates including John James, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, Sellek said. And any work to “stop the bleeding in the suburbs” could help Republicans in the battle for the state House.
Oakland County also makes sense for Trump logistically, said Dulio, the political science professor: It has an airport large enough to land Air Force One, which will help the president keep up his breakneck campaign schedule that will continue with rallies later Friday in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“It might be simply that it's got an airport,” Dulio said of the site selection. “I think it’s assumed Trump is going to lose suburbs similar to Oakland County across the country, but he’s coming to try and make a pitch.”