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In northern Michigan, voters admit qualms about Trump, still will vote for him

Man selling Trump 2024 shirts
Former President Donald Trump campaigned last week in Oakland County, where a surge of support for Joe Biden helped him win Michigan in 2020. Trump needs to erode Biden support in the suburbs and keep his base to win the state in 2024, experts say. (Bridge photo by Brett Farmer)
  • Michigan once again is a key state in determining the presidency
  • Trump’s path to victory is keeping support in his base and taking votes from Biden in cities and suburbs
  • In northern Michigan, many voters say there is no choice: Trump is right on the issues

ATLANTA — The Thursday lunch crowd enters through the back door of Chatter’s Bullpen and Grill. Holley the waitress brings drinks without waiting for orders from her usual customers — a Pepsi for one, a root beer for another, a Vernors at the end of the table.

Sitting next to each other are two members of the Montmorency County Board of Commissioners. Like all others on the board, they are Republican, which perhaps isn’t surprising in a county Donald Trump won by 44 points in the 2016 presidential election and by the same lopsided margin in 2020.

One diner remains a die-hard Trump supporter; the other has some reservations. Both say there’s no doubt they will vote for him again this fall.

“He’s the only one in all my years who did what they said they'd do,” said Don Edwards, who listed strict border policies and forceful international relations as two of Trump’s strengths. “So why wouldn’t I vote for him again?”

two men sit at a table in a bar
Don Edwards, left, and Lloyd Peltier talked politics in a bar in Atlanta, in Montmorency County. Peltier has some reservations about Donald Trump, but both said they’ll vote for him in the primary. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

Early voting already has begun for Michigan’s presidential primary on Tuesday, with voters choosing who they support for the Republican and Democratic nominations. On the Democratic side, President Joe Biden faces no serious competition. On the Republican ballot, most of Trump’s rivals have dropped out, leaving former South Carolina Gov. and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley as the only real challenger.

Polls suggest a Biden-Trump rematch is likely in November, with Michigan again being one of a handful of states likely to tip the election. Biden won Michigan by 154,188 votes in 2020 after Trump won the state by 10,704 votes in 2016.

Nowhere in Michigan is as diehard Trump County as Up North. But Trump’s best shot this fall is not only keeping his overwhelming grip on those supporters, but cutting Biden’s base in suburban Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Sign on fence reads: "I have PTSD. Pretty tired of stupid Democrats. Trump 2024"
Pro-Trump and anti-Democrat signs are common along the roadways in Montmorency and Oscoda counties. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

Consider: Trump’s ballot margin in rural Michigan actually increased from his winning campaign in 2016 to his losing bid in 2020, but those margins were offset by a surge in urban and suburban votes for Democrats.

In 2020, for instance, Trump won by 44 points in Montmorency and Oscoda counties and by 30 points in Roscommon County, accounting for a 9,171 net gain in votes for Trump over Biden.  That’s less than half of the 22,174-vote margin that Biden picked up in Kent County alone from 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee.

In the 49 counties where Trump got at least 60% of the vote in 2020, he had a total margin of 344,000, an increase in margin of 42,000 votes from four years earlier. Oakland County alone had a bigger swing the other direction (54,000 votes).


Richard Czuba, owner of Michigan-based survey research firm Glengariff Group, Inc., said polls he’s conducted over the past two years make him believe Trump only needs to hold on to his former voters to have a good shot at winning Michigan

That’s because Biden is having a hard time holding on to some voters who aren’t die-hard Republicans or Democrats who cast their ballots for him in 2020. 

“Biden has an enormous problem with independent voters,” Czuba said. “Voters are clearly telling us they think Biden is too old.”

To give a sense of whether Trump is keeping his base, Bridge traveled to three northern Michigan counties — Montmorency, Oscoda and Roscommon — that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and 2020. 


While some voters expressed unease with some of Trump’s actions and statements, all said they planned to vote for the former president.

“If anything, there’s more support for Trump (than in 2020) because of what Biden’s done,” said Phil Bendily, a 64-year-old veteran and retired Roscommon County employee.

In Roscommon, home to the popular vacation destinations Houghton Lake and Higgins lake, Republicans met Thursday to elect delegates to the state convention. One of those chosen was Bendily.

He said he’s not heard of anyone considering voting in Tuesday’s primary for Haley.  

“We now know exactly how great those policies were (during the Trump presidency) and how terrible Biden’s policies are,” he said. “America felt better about itself. Now, it’s like a pall has fallen over the country.”

Since he left office, Trump has been embroiled in four criminal cases, a civil case that found him financially liable for sexual abuse and defamation and another civil case that found him financially liable for fraud.

His supporters say the cases have only hardened their loyalty.

“All these weird things they’re charging him with, it’s all political,” said Don Edwards, a former sheriff in Montmorency and current chair of the county commissioners. “He gets more popular the more they charge him.”

Nation ‘going down the tubes’

Montmorency bills itself as the elk capital of Michigan. A large, mounted elk head greets visitors at the front door of the county office building, and the county flag includes an elk and a wild turkey. 

There is an elk festival in September and an elk pole to hang kills on opening weekend of hunting season, hosted by the chamber of commerce.

The typical resident in this county of 9,200 people earns less than the state average and qualifies for AARP. County residents have the third-highest median age in the state, at 56, compared to the state median age of 39. The median household income is the fourth-lowest in Michigan, a full $20,000 below the state average ($43,000, compared to $63,000).

Edwards and fellow commissioner Lloyd Peltier repeated what many who spoke to Bridge said: the country is in terrible shape, and they’re fed up with politicians.

“From my father's time, it has just progressively gotten worse,” said Peltier, who served 30 years in the Army and retired as a captain in the military police. “I think (the country is) going to fall from within.”

Edwards nodded in agreement. “It’s going down the tubes and I don’t see any changes in the future, I really don’t,” he said. “I think it’s too late for an election to fix things.”


Peltier isn’t thrilled with his choices between Trump and Haley. “I hear a lot of people say there’s no choice between good and better, it’s a choice between bad and worse ,” he said. “I’ll probably still stick with Trump even though I’ve got my reservations.”

But in the fall, in an election likely to be between Trump and Biden, Peltier said “that’s a clear choice” to vote Republican.

People who spoke to Bridge said their biggest issues are the border and the economy, and recalled both being better when Trump was president. 

Most had trouble understanding the half of the state that traditionally votes for Democrats. One staunch Republican characterized the presidential race as a fight between “good and evil.” That person declined to give their name, fearing the “deep state” would harm him.

“I grew up in the ‘60s, and it didn’t feel like things were this divided,” Edwards said. “Today, it’s either black or white, there’s no gray.”

Sticking with Trump

In Oscoda County, M-33 shoots south from Atlanta past homes with Trump 2024 flags and one homemade sign urging America to “close (the) border.” 

The county of about 8,200 residents is the smallest among counties in the Lower Peninsula. But it soars in the summer as vacationers flock to the Huron-Manistee National Forest that occupies almost half of the county, and the Au Sable River, to hunt and fish.

The county seat is Mio, an unincorporated community of about 1,500. Along the highway that serves as main street is Deer Camp Coffee. 

More than 7 in 10 Oscoda County voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020, and Deer Camp co-owner Don Godowski said the people he talks to coming in for a morning jolt of caffeine continue to support the former president.

Man stands in front of shelf of coffee
Don Godowski, co-owner of Deer Camp Coffee in Mio, said people he talks to in Oscoda County are supporting Trump because of what they view as a bad economy under President Joe Biden (Bridge photo by Ron French)

“People aren’t buying as much as they used to, and everything costs more,” Godowski said.

Godowski said he believes the economy was better in this part of the state when Trump was president.

Woman's headshot
Darlene Sensor, a funeral director and chair of the Roscommon County Board of Commissioners, acknowledges Trump’s faults as a person, but she supports him because of his policies. (Courtesy photo from Darlene Sensor)

The economy has long been a common complaint here in this rural stretch of northeast Michigan. The median Oscoda County household earns about $18,000 less than the state average; neighboring Roscommon County is $17,000 below average.

Darlene Sensor, the Republican chair of the Roscommon County Commissioners, acknowledged that Trump can rub people the wrong way, including herself at times.

“I may not like the man as an individual, I may not like some of the things he says and tweets, but I do believe he is there for the people,” said Sensor, 50, a funeral home director in Prudenville.

Like others who spoke to Bridge, Sensor said her support isn’t swayed by Trump’s legal challenges, and doubts her mind would change if he is convicted.

“I don’t think he’s being treated fairly,” Sensor said. “Most people look at it as a witch hunt toward him. Haven’t they understood, the more they go after him, the more people are going to rally around him?”

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