Can Trump recapture magic with Michigan workers? Or has COVID erased gains?

President Trump is staking his Michigan campaign in part on job gains that benefitted the state’s manufacturing sector before the coronavirus hit. (Shutterstock)

When then-candidate Donald Trump last visited Saginaw County in 2015, the crowd at the Birch Run Expo Center was raucous and tickets were hard to come by.


“It was insane,” said Steve Gerhardt, chairman of the Saginaw County Republican Party. He couldn’t get in.

Now, more than five years later, Gerhardt expects to get a front-row seat as Trump returns Thursday— not as a brash, upstart candidate, but as an incumbent president seeking to recapture his hold on Michigan workers despite withering criticism for his handling of COVID-19.

His message, though, will be familiar — jobs, jobs, jobs — and Gerhardt hopes the result will be the same in this mid-Michigan manufacturing region. 

“He understands what it takes to win Michigan and that starts in Saginaw,” Gerhardt said.

Trump’s visit, following that of Democratic rival Joe Biden on Wednesday, indicates how important Michigan will be on Nov. 3 — and how both men and their surrogates will make the state’s economy either proof of the success or failure of the Trump administration.

What a difference six months make 

On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a national chair for the Biden campaign, criticized the president’s handling of the economy during a segment on CNN.

“The big question people are gonna ask is, 'Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago?'" she said. "…For the working class in this state... the answer is unequivocally 'no.'"

Trump and his supporters beg to differ, and the numbers, pre-pandemic, appear to be on the president’s side. Unemployment in Michigan fell from 5 percent in 2016 to 3.6 percent earlier this year. Wages grew and household income rose above the rate of inflation.

“This was a period of real gains,” said Gabriel Ehrlich, an economist at the University of Michigan who conducts economic forecasting for the state of Michigan. The rise, however, began in 2009 following the Great Recession, during President Obama’s first term. “It was the longest national expansion on record.”

In the I-75 corridor from Flint to Bay City, those gains pushed wages up, largely fueled by manufacturing jobs. Bay County saw a 16 percent rise in factory jobs between 2016 and early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Genesee County saw a 17-percent increase over the same period. Average weekly wages rose well above inflation for those jobs: 23 percent in Bay County and 10 percent in Genesee.

In Macomb County, which Biden visited in a closed event Wednesday, manufacturing jobs rose 7 percent since 2016, adding over 4,500 jobs. Though average manufacturing wages fell 5 percent to $72,000 –  still well above the state average annual private-industry wage of $57,616, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Similar gains were seen in Shiawassee and Saginaw counties. 

“We are seeing a growth rate back, coming back, in Michigan that’s heading in the right direction,” said State Rep. Rodney Wakeman, R-Saginaw Township.

But those gains are not the only prism through which to view Trump’s first term, said Judi Lincoln, chair of the Saginaw County Democratic Party. 

“I think that we have, as a community, still struggled with underemployment and struggled with access to health care,” Lincoln said. 

The longer lens also reveals that the region’s gains in the past decade still haven’t put it where it, or the state, once was. In 2000, the state had more than 5 million people working, a level not seen since.

“We have seen job growth in Michigan since 2016,” Ehrlich said. “But it hasn’t gotten us back to where we were.”

Trying to recapture workers’ favor   

During his 2015 visit to Birch Run, Trump bashed GOP primary opponents, ripped foreign trade deals and said he wanted Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. to build a multibillion dollar plant in the United States, not Mexico.

It was Trump’s first campaign visit to Michigan and his campaign chose the location well: No area in Michigan had been hit harder than the corridor along I-75 between Bay City and Flint.

From 2001 to 2016, Saginaw, Bay and Genesee counties had the worst economic declines among nearly 50 comparable industrial regions in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

“Our economy was very dependent on manufacturing and on GM,” said Wakeman, the state representative.

Trump’s appeals resonated. Saginaw and neighboring counties of Bay and Shiawassee were among 12 counties that would flip from President Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

That shift, along with lower turnout in majority-Democratic cities like Detroit and Flint, helped Trump to eke out a 10,704-vote victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the president returns to the region, landing at MBS International Airport, located between Saginaw and Midland, where he’ll hold a rally Thursday in an airport hangar.

Wakeman said that having lived through decline and job losses, he is optimistic that the economic gains of the last four years — before masks and temperature checks became a daily staple of COVID-19 — can return.

He acknowledges that some are troubled by the president’s words and Tweets but argues that the economy is also his. Wakeman said he expects jobs to come back from lower-wage-paying countries like Mexico and help Michigan.

“This is a huge benefit of a Donald Trump presidency,” he said. “People can talk about what he says and how he says it, but we were experiencing a Donald Trump economy before the pandemic hit.”

Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard, however, is reluctant to pin too much of the good economic news on the president – be it Trump or Obama. 

“I think we give presidents and governors too much credit for the good things and too much blame for the bad things when it comes to the economy,” Ballard said.

He acknowledged the gains of the last few years, before the coronavirus, were real. But Ballard noted they came after decades of poor economic activity that saw Michigan slip behind most of the country.

Then coronavirus arrived 

The coronavirus pandemic cannot be erased. It cost Michigan more than 1 million jobs and pushed state unemployment to 24 percent last spring after Whitmer issued a stay-home order in an effort to contain COVID-19. 

The pain was especially acute in Genesee County, which hit a 30 percent jobless rate in April with over 55,000 people out of work.

But by July, those jobless numbers had fallen markedly, ranging from 8.6 percent in Shiawassee County to 11.8 percent in Genesee County. 

In Bay County, small businesses were telling the local chamber it was a banner month, said Ryan Tarrant, president and CEO of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce.

That’s helped keep residential real estate moving, he said. “It’s really hard to keep something on the market.”

Trump’s efforts to recapture Michigan will largely depend on how residents view his handling of the economy, and over what period. Will they recall the jobs that were churning out good paychecks in February — or the unemployment checks that began arriving in March?

For Lincoln, the Saginaw County Democratic chair, the answer is obvious: Fallout from the coronavirus “lands squarely at the feet of the president,” including the economic losses that she said put many in the Saginaw area “in dire straits.”

Gerhardt, the GOP chairman, views the pandemic as an interruption of Trump’s economic stewardship, not as a crisis that the president made worse. 

“If COVID hadn’t come around and reared its ugly head and the governor hadn’t lost her head [with restrictions], this economy in Saginaw County would have been on a tear,” Gerhardt said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Wed, 09/09/2020 - 9:48pm

We currently have an active Russian agent and traitor as President. Today we learned that the Intelligence agencies have been working to keep intelligence reports about the Russians interfering again in the upcoming election from congress and the public. The coup already happened in 2016!

Jerry Thompson
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:20am

Trump saved Michigan with the New Mexico Canada trade deal
He dumped NAFTA. Vote Trump
Bring Michigan back!!

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:01pm

Yeah, "what have you got to lose?" Everything

Daniel Vandenberg
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:40am

Change the channel Mike. You might want to pick up a bottle of the No More Tears shampoo because I think come November you and your liberal friends are going to need it.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:00pm

If Putin has his way... Who wants THIS America, a Russian colony? VOTE him OUT while you still can!

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:43am

What does russia have on the republicans??? Remember when the russian hacked into the DNC server they also hacked the GOP server>>> They relised the DNC emails after the doctored them BUT keep the GOP emails to use to blackmail them!!!!

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:03pm

Exactly, because Trump is a Russian asset.

Steve Williams
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 10:09am

Mike's comment provides support for Trump in the same way that rioting and arson do. Over the top crazy statements and actions by Biden supporters are frightening to everyday people. Keep up the good work.
The article itself presents both sides, and I thought it was good reporting.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:04pm

"There are good people on both sides." Trump

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 12:55pm

Yes, you are, sadly, right. I'm torn between mental illness and utter incompetence as to the underlying cause in Donnie's case.
But there is no doubt that the GOP is treasonous and should be held accountable. They were totally willing to trade power for our democracy. They would be perfectly happy to be bought out by any two bit dictator (Putin, Kim, Bolsonaro, Duerte, etc.) who could keep them in power forever. No protests about Donnie's love affair with Putin, Kim et al from the GOP. They didn't notice? Nope - this was a calculated move on their part.
Yes, it's that obvious.

Too much Trump
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:07pm

Trump calls vets "losers" and "suckers", allows Russia to put bounties on them, lies to the American people. Trump lies, Americans die: 196,145

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 4:45pm

You are delusional! The Russian collusion thing has been debunked over and over by multiple agencies. However, the DNC and Clinton campaign did collude with Ukrainian agents to manufacture dirt on the President. So when will those folks be charged for treason?

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:08pm

Why did Jared want a private line to Russia? Why does Trump have secret meetings with Russia? Are you working for Putin, a Russianbot?

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 6:23pm

Yawn.......You people learned nothing from 2016.

I'd like to thank you early for helping us win re-election.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:10pm

You get what you pay for!

Jerry Thompson
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:18am

President Trump is the only real choice. Joe Biden now is shouting Buy American. Trump had delivered on trade deals that help all of Michigan not Biden’s promises Now? Really? Why did Biden sign off on NAFTA ? This desk destroyed Michigan.
Trump fixed it. #payattentionmichigan

Daniel Vandenberg
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:37am

Pandemic will be over. Trump will win Michigan and the presidency by a lot. And if we can get rid of this Democratic governor Michigan will be not only back on track but even better. The Best is yet to come. TRUMP 2020

Blue Wave
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:12pm

You seemed to miss the midterm elections.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 11:08am

Right on Mike. He never really had the favor of MI. He lost in the popular vote by 3 million. In the three state total he won by 77000 votes. 4 more years may God have mercy on us. Peace R,.L.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 12:28pm

Why does this whole article completely brush over Trump's handling of the pandemic only to focus on how great things were before? Newsflash: The pandemic exists. The fact of the matter is that businesses and entrepreneurs and workers would all be better off, if he had acted quickly, rationally and intelligently.

Also, we live in a globalized economy and that is never going to change. The way back to a healthy middle class is via raising the minimum wage, investment in green jobs and technology. Jobs from abroad are not coming back. The reality of a factory job that enables a family to own a home and retire with a pension no longer exists.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:14pm


So depressed
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 12:51pm

I used to think George W Bush was the worst president of the United States, then came Trump: 195,590 dead in America from Covid-19 and he intentionally downplayed the danger.

Today is the absolute most depressing day of his presidency.

Pro Life
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 1:02pm

The Black Death marked an end of an era in Italy, its impact was profound, and it resulted in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and religious changes. These changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history.

The thousands of deaths caused by Covid-45 will usher in great wealth, but at what cost? When people die before their time, they open up jobs. Dead people convey vast amounts of wealth. Sad that all the seniors and vet "suckers" and "losers" who voted for Covid-45 had to die for him, but hey we now have a chance to rid ourselves of Social Security, Medicare, and ANY care for our elderly or fellow human beings. Trump loves the culture of death and greed.

Pro life for th...
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 10:59pm

These people aren't pro life. They are pro themselves. They are pro life, til the life takes the "breath of life" and then it's on the parents. And if you think it's any different with immigrant parents than it is for poor parents?

You aren't related to or have conversations with conservatives.

They will burn everything to the ground if they can't collect all the wealth of the world.

13There is a generation—how haughty are their eyes and pretentious are their glances— 14there is a generation whose teeth are swords and whose jaws are knives, devouring the oppressed from the earth and the needy from among men.

I believe this is that generation.

Delusional GOP
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 1:07pm

"Trump and his supporters beg to differ, and the numbers, pre-pandemic, appear to be on the president’s side." Wouldn't it be great if we could all just pretend there were no pandemic that makes the president look so bad?

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 1:10pm

Trump told Woodward that the virus is very deadly, airborne. Is the liar going to wear a mask and tell his adoring fans to mask up in Saginaw? Community spread affects all of us, not just the stupid.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 1:18pm

"Gerhardt, the GOP chairman, views the pandemic as an interruption of Trump’s economic stewardship, not as a crisis that the president made worse." Sounds like the GOP enthusiastically embraces Stockholm syndrome. There is way too much silence on the part of GOP sycophants with respect to the new COVIDGATE tapes.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 2:08pm

The Governor did not “lose her head”. She acted decisively, based on the data and science. trump acknowledged his understanding of the lethal virus (in February!), yet chose to deny the facts to the American people. The economy pre-Covid was an extension of Obama’s stewardship. The gop dismantling of public health, their attacks on Obamacare, and their dearth of replacement ideas for it, has cost 195,000 American lives just from Covid in 160 days. ( that’s an average of more than 1217 deaths per day). Add to this the civil unrest trump foments and you have a toxic cocktail instead of steady leadership. Trump supporters may hate the Dems. But they are hurting themselves and their families the most. Good people supporting bad leadership will not add up to the communities they want.

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 4:45pm

So much for Bridge's words above. I guess they don't moderate posts that appear to come from those opposing President Trump. "Russian agent and traitor"? Really? I guess Bob Mueller never existed.

Trump Pants Afire
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 8:18pm

Truth hurts? Vindman and others testified under oath, not Trump. Biden showed his tax returns for 40 years, Trump not even one. Trump promised to show his tax returns, but to no surprise, HE LIED.

Bob M
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 10:36pm

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” Mueller said from a podium at the justice department in his first public remarks since the investigation began. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

Because according to the DOJ memo under the Nixon administration: a sitting President can not be charged with a crime...............

Whoo boy!!!! Too bad Clinton didn't use that argument!! OH wait! He wasn't charged with a crime! Just an extra marital dalliance.........ohhh Stormy and Katherine!!!

Also, don't talk to agents of foreign nations.......and your conversations won't be listened to.........or will they be? Patriot Act an all.

You conservatives really have get a hold on what and what not you are willing to sacrifice your freedumbs for. Terror ism? Listen to whatever you want! I have nothing to hide, therefore nothing to fear! I will also succumb to body searches and scans and taking my shoes off at the airport, just to board a plane. Alls good! Wearing a mask during a pandemic to keep my fellow Americans safe? Tyranny of the highest order!

Fri, 09/11/2020 - 1:44am

Such a divisive figure.

Sun, 09/13/2020 - 8:06am

Facts matter!
Sweden and Michigan both have approx 10 million people
Michigan shut down economy and caused significant economic hardship to economy and lower middle class. US GDP shrunk 32%.
Sweden did not shut down, GDP shrunk 8%.
Sweden has less Covid cases and less deaths than Michigan, per Hopkins data.
46% of US deaths from nursing homes per WSJ.
Prior to Covid median survival in US nursing homes 5 months and average survival 13 months . Google search multiple articles.
Currently hospitalizations in Michigan for Covid are dropping dramatically.
4 people on ventilators in all the Mercy Health hospitals statewide and less than 40 people in Mercy health hospitals with Covid statewide as example. End of facts
My opinion now.... Virus has mutated to stay alive and less virulent. Open up the state and lets get back to work and stop the hysteria, which will lessen the economic hardship and social unrest. Our people of this state need good paying jobs. Jobs keep families together, and two parent households are the best predictor for successful children. Read the book Outliers.