- Sept. 10 update: Trump touts jobs in Michigan, falsely claims he saved auto industry
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.