Voter turnout may surge in Detroit, spelling trouble for Trump in Michigan

Peggy Williams, 73, of Detroit casts an absentee ballot at the Northwest Activities Center. Declining turnout in Detroit in 2016 helped Trump carry Michigan, but experts say enthusiasm is far higher this year in the predominantly Democratic city. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

DETROIT—Asandi Conner doesn’t “do regrets,” but she said she has learned her lesson about Republican President Donald Trump.

Four years after sitting out the presidential election, the 49-year-old communications consultant says she’s dismayed by racial division that has gripped the country and will “absolutely” vote this fall. 


“It is far worse than I could have imagined it would be,” the Detroit resident told Bridge Michigan, explaining that she plans to back Democrat Joe Biden, although she’s not enthused about him, either.

“The option to not vote feels very much like casting a vote in support of Trump,” she said, criticizing the president’s anger over protests against police brutality and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “I know what that can look like. I’d rather take the risk and hope that Biden will offer something different and more aligned with my ideals.”

Conner is among more than 1,400 Detroit voters who cast ballots in 2016, but left the choice of president blank. Another 1,548 voted third-party, more than twice as many as four years prior. 

Many more stayed home.

At least 15,069 Detroiters who cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election and 2018 gubernatorial election did not vote at all in 2016, according to a Bridge review of state records. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton still dominated Detroit, winning 95 percent of the vote, but she got 46,872 fewer votes in the city than President Barack Obama had four years prior. 

Experts say reduced turnout in cities like Detroit – Democratic strongholds with large African-American populations – helped tip the presidential election to Trump, who won Michigan by 10,704 votes, the narrowest margin in state history. 


Records show 6,488 otherwise regular voters in the largely African-American cities of Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Southfield, Muskegon, Flint and Saginaw did not cast a ballot at all in 2016. Among those who did, 838 did not vote in the presidential race.    

“It was 100 percent decided by people who did not vote,” said pollster Richard Czuba of Glengariff Group Inc. 

But his public opinion polling suggests that interest in the presidential election is increasing — and that could be a problem for Trump. On a scale of 1 to 10, Black voter motivation in Michigan is at a 9.5 and white voter motivation is at 9.8, according to Glengariff’s Sept. 30-Oct. 3 survey that showed Biden leading Trump by nearly 9 percentage points statewide. 

“This will actually be my first year ever voting,” said Krista McClure, 32, who told Bridge her frustration with Trump prompted her to register in April after sitting out the last three presidential elections. 

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“I see how much the current president has driven hate,” said McClure, who runs the Detroit Parent Collective co-working space. “It’s really my life’s mission to work to remove that, even with the business that I have.”

Biden helped the city some as vice president with small business grants, but he is not perfect, she said, citing his Senate vote for a 1994 crime bill that precipitated a surge in mass incarceration of African Americans. 

“Kamala Harris I think is actually his [key] to the Black vote and the Black community,” McClure said, pointing to Biden’s running mate.  

“At the end of the day though, regardless of how anyone feels about the Democratic Party, I think everyone wants to replace the face of the red party,” referring to Republicans.

"One reason why I love our president is that he gives us the opportunity for school choice," said Celeste Mentag, who lives in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood but sends her son to a charter school in Plymouth. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Prayers for Trump 

Thank you’s and hallelujahs rang out from a small office space in a strip mall on Livernois Avenue in Detroit on Oct. 5 as a group of roughly 15 loyal Trump supporters first learned the president had walked out of the hospital following treatment for COVID-19.

"We just thank you Lord, for this president who is protecting our religious freedom, who is protecting our Constitution, who is defending our right to protect ourselves and our families and our nation," Celeste Mentag of Detroit said in prayer.

Four years ago, Trump appealed to African Americans by pointing to poor school performance and high poverty rates in urban communities and asking, “What the hell do you have to lose?” The pitch did not go over especially well in Michigan, where only 6 percent of Black voters supported Trump in 2016, according to exit polls. 

But the president continues to woo Black voters, most recently with what he called a “platinum plan” for community investment. 

And Republicans contend he could make inroads in Detroit, one of 15 cities where his campaign opened a “Black Voices for Trump Community Center.”

The Detroit office doesn’t look like the shiny, high-tech space the Trump campaign teased in February. It’s barely visible from Livernois, a main thoroughfare, tucked between a CVS and Boston Market restaurant. 

But inside, Mentag and a handful of other dedicated volunteers were offering prayers for the president as they prepared to continue the relatively thankless task of knocking doors for Trump in Detroit, where he won 7,682 votes in 2016, topping the 6,019 Mitt Romney won four years prior.

“A lot of people have been very resistant, but I haven’t met anyone who was vehemently angry that I’m a Trump supporter,” said Menteg, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood who’s starting a small house-cleaning business. 

“The doors have been hardened,” said Bernard Porter, a Trump campaign volunteer who lives in Detroit’s University District. “We hit every house, unless it says no soliciting. Or if it says Black Lives Matter or Biden by it, they’re going to want to fight you, so we don’t hit them.”

There’s no possibility Trump can win Detroit, but he could squeeze out more votes here than he did in 2016, and that could help him carry the state again in 2016, said Wayne Bradley, a political consultant, radio host and former director of minority engagement for the Michigan GOP.

“There are some, particularly Black men, who seem to be OK with Trump as long as the jobs are coming back, as long as they can provide for their families,” he said. “They’re not necessarily thrilled by what he says and does, but it’s been effective.”

Trump “missed an opportunity” to denounce white supremacy in the first presidential debate, and that could cost him Black votes in Detroit, Bradley acknowledged. “That’s a big challenge. The message just has to be clear.”

“This will actually be my first year ever voting,” said Krista McClure, a 32-year-old small business owner in Detroit.  (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Economic uptick

Republicans point to the pre-pandemic economy as proof that Trump’s tax cuts and pro-business policies were working for Detroit. The city added 10,187 jobs between 2016 and 2019, a 5 percent increase that outpaced the state's 3 percent rate, according to Michigan data

But that upward trend began in 2014 after the city emerged from a historic municipal bankruptcy, a recovery Biden played a role in as vice president, according to Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democratic ally. The city still remains one of the poorest in America.

Detroit's 8.8 percent unemployment rate for 2019 was more than double the statewide rate of 4.1 percent, a disparity magnified by the pandemic. As of August, the city’s unemployment rate stood at 21 percent, while the state’s had dropped to 9 percent. 

Median income for Detroit households between 2014 and 2018 was just $29,481, well below the statewide median of $54,938. The median home value over that same span was $45,700, about a third of the statewide median of $146,200. Detroit’s 36.3 percent poverty rate for 2019 was nearly triple the statewide rate of 13 percent.

Service, transportation and construction sectors have driven Detroit’s recent job growth, according to University of Michigan economists. Manufacturing remains an economic bedrock in Detroit, but U-M does not project huge job growth in the sector despite ongoing construction of a new Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant on Mack Avenue.

Democrats contend Detroit would be much worse off without federal action under Biden and former President Barack Obama, including the 2009 auto industry bailout that helped Chrysler and General Motors avoid collapse, paving the way for recent investments. 

Biden has touted his auto industry credentials in multiple campaign stops in Detroit, including a Friday voter mobilization event where he called himself a “car guy” while speaking from a stage between a Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette.

As vice president, Biden visited “over and over again” during Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and helped deliver a $26 million federal grant for new buses, Duggan said last month in a warm-up speech for Kamala Harris. 

“He didn’t say, ‘It’s not my job.’ He came forth with a plan that got us those buses and he came out himself to see them delivered,” Duggan said, contrasting Biden’s crisis response to Trump’s handling of COVID-19. 

“Detroit, I believe, is going to decide the election in Michigan. We’re going to turn out big.”

asandi conner

Asandi Conner, seen here in 2017, did not vote for president in 2016 but said she’s voting for Democrat Joe Biden this year. “The option to not vote feels very much like casting a vote in support of Trump,” she said. (Bridge file photo)

‘Apathy is still real’

Despite rosy turnout projections, “apathy is still real” in Detroit, said Al Williams, a local Democratic strategist. 

“The Democratic Party has done a great job reaching their most likely voters and inspiring new voters, but I think that there are some people who have just been turned off by the party’s positions on certain things over the years, including this pandemic and how its affected business owners,” Williams said. 

That’s the case for Moustapha Gueye, owner of African Fabrics & Fashion on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, who said his business has been hit by “back to back” obstacles – first a streetscaping project that restricted foot traffic last year, and now the pandemic. 

Sitting at his sewing machine, beneath an Obama tapestry, Gueye said he is not sure who he will vote for next month, or if he’ll vote at all.

“I don’t get anything from it,” he said.  

Democrats don’t just have to persuade Detroiters to vote, they have to convince Detroiters their votes will be counted, Williams said, telling Bridge that speculation over postal service delays and recurring problems at the city clerk’s office have jeopardized local faith in the process.

“People are going to turn out, but I think we are pessimistically concerned, sitting on the edge of our seats, to see whether or not everyone’s votes will be counted, and will be able to be recounted” if there is another close election like 2016, Williams said.

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey’s team struggled to process a deluge of absentee ballots in the August primary, leaving more than half of the city’s precincts ineligible for a recount because of recordkeeping irregularities.  

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is working to recruit and train more than 6,000 election workers for Detroit and provide other support to the city in the general election. 

More than a Vote, a group headlined by NBA superstar LeBron James, has provided an assist. It's recruited more than 20,000 national volunteers to work elections in Detroit, Flint and cities in other states with significant Black populations, said Benson, who is an adviser to the group. 

Michigan has recruited 26,000 volunteers of its own, and "part of the work is now to see who in that group wants to be placed in Detroit, Flint or other areas, because other jurisdictions have needs as well,” Benson told Bridge. 

Democrats are encouraging residents to vote early in Detroit, where the city this week opened 23 satellite offices and 30 absentee ballot drop boxes. 

A steady stream of voters were dropping off ballots Monday at the Northwest Activities Center — and most said they were voting for Biden. 

“I just didn't feel safe mailing it,” said Peggy Williams, a 73-year-old retired Detroit public school principal. 

Trump’s claim that he’s done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln rings hollow, she said. “I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. It’s like a lot of the things he says — they’re not true.”

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Jeremy P
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 8:11am

I pray it is true, people will vote like their lives depend on it because their lives depend on it. The consequences of this election will affect our lives substantially for generations. So many strikes against us politically like conducting the census during a pandemic.

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 3:04pm

Census began pre-pandemic in U.S. on January 21, 2020. Census can be done online and/or mailed back. Only households who don’t return census get contacted in person. Even when a government rep knocks on your door, you can keep your masked distance and tell them you’ll do your duty and submit online or mail back. No problem to complete census during a pandemic.

Vote Straight Dems
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 5:20pm

You got that right! The GOP packed not only the Supreme Court, but most of the federal courts with young ideologues who do not represent the ideologies of the majority of Americans. Detroit Today had on a constitutional scholar today that talked about the right to vote not being expressly stated in the Constitution. Imagine if that issue comes before this new Supreme Court! We need a Democrat controlled legislature to codify the things Americans take for granted as our rights and make any amendments that would clarify our understanding.

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 10:29am

Vote Straight Dems: The GOP did not court pack. They filled rightful places. It is a right to fill vacated seats. Court packing by definition is "an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court which had invalidated a number of his New Deal laws."

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 11:04am

"Packing the court" is Moscow Mitch refusing to hold hearings for Obama's judicial appointments during his last two years in office and then fast-tracking those appointments under Trump. Trump inherited over 100 vacancies because of Mitch McConnell's obstructionist position.

Erwin Haas
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 9:30am

Jonathan (he's a friend of one of my nephews and not a vegetable) has marshaled a series of anecdotes to fit the story that Detroiters will turn out to support Democrats. Let me tell the opposite story and marshal anecdotes to support my narrative.
Bridge itself has a recent article about African Americans buying guns that falsely characterized this new phenomenon as defense against white racism. It cited two websites but when I looked at these it was obvious that the sites contained only standard NRA defenses of the second amendment. The facts are that guns are selling so fast to the point that they are unobtainable as I write. Twenty million were sold in the first 6 months of 2020.
Now I’ll speculate. I find estimates that gun sales will be 30 million by election day; 40% are said to be new buyers and that African American women are at the vanguard of this self arming . I speculate that this has nothing to do with racism but rather is a declaration that these women (and some men) are responding to violence in their private lives and in their neighborhoods. Can any Bridge writer deny his own concerns when Antifa and BLM rioters (mostly white and often ex-cons on their arrest photos) are not imprisoned but rather allowed to go back onto the streets to throw stones, loot, burn..? And that cops are restrained from stopping this anarchy?
Let me postulate an older, maybe 50 year old African American couple who like their neighborhood who see the stores where they shop, trashed and bankrupted will not be grateful to Bridge and friends for pointing out White Supremacy, but rather will identify politicians who represent law and order, and maybe risk going to the polls.
The big number here (arguably) is 40% of 30 million-people, including Detroiters, who have probably violated their lifelong aversion to guns and who have invested maybe a thousand dollars arming themselves are unlikely to pull a lever for a cabal that will take these instruments away.
So, how's my story?

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 11:40am

Of the more than 7,750 protests that took place this summer in thousands of locations across the country, a report found that 93% of these were peaceful:

The AP found that most of the people arrested during protests weren't "leftist radicals."

"an older, maybe 50 year old African American couple who like their neighborhood who see the stores where they shop, trashed and bankrupted will not be grateful to Bridge and friends for pointing out White Supremacy, but rather will identify politicians who represent law and order, and maybe risk going to the polls."

...Yeah... except Trump's approval rating with black voters is currently 12% with 90% of black respondents saying they would vote for Joe Biden if the election were held today; according to a NYT/Sienna College poll:

Those surveyed were also asked who they trust more to do a better job maintaining law and order, Biden or Trump and 88% of black respondents said they trusted Biden over Trump.

Trump might claim he's the least racist person and that no other president has done more for the black community than him but the actual black community knows those lines are absolute B.S.

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 11:33am

Yea until Trump has them all thrown out. Likeit happened in 2016, majority of the Black voters had no way to vote when all the machines "failed". Its upsetting how Republicans resort to voter suppression when they crow and complain about voter fraud. I mean seriously, they are commuting the fraud themselves!

Had enough
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 11:37am

The President has faced a combative disrespectful press since his first day in office. The impeachment consumed congress (Nancy and Chuck) have done nothing to help him out. Do you really think a 49 year veteran of the swamp who has accomplished nothing other than enriching himself and son through intimidation of a foreign country and sucking up to China is going to do any better? Joe has lied time after time about many things, all on tape for everybody to see. Donald Trump may be a rude, crude New Yorker that is abrasive to a lot of people but he has a good heart and done more for this country than any President since Ronald Reagan. All the hate people talk about is generated by the media and the far left. If socialism is your goal, vote for Joe.

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 2:17pm

Detroit's major challenge continues to be declining population. The Census Bureau estimates that Detroit in 2019 had lost 43,867 residents since the 2010 head count. COVID-19 did not reverse this population decline, even relatively. Look at Census QuickFacts and you can see that the 2019 recognized loss is concentrated in older age groups which vote more often than the younger age groups highlighted in this story. This story is just showing the natural progression of younger Detroiters to the voting habits of their elders - as they themselves become elders.

Trump has much more to fear from a voter turnout surge in Oakland County. Detroit just does not have that many apathetic voters from 2016 to turn out. Those 2016 apathetics will hardly offset the losses of elderly in the city.

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 4:33pm

Bridge: You lean left. Are your offices located in the Tower of Pisa? Not even subtle. Your paragraph about Black Voices for Trump’s Detroit field office takes a jab at the location and the store front aesthetics as “doesn’t look like the shiny, high tech space the Trump campaign teased in February” with a link to a picture of a “Community Centers Exterior Samples.” It was a SAMPLE. What are you trying to insinuate? That the Trump Campaign doesn’t care enough about the people of Detroit that they would only have an office “barely visible from Livernois, a main thoroughfare, tucked between a CVS and a Boston Marketplace restaurant.” Or were you trying to stand straight and give directions? A little more homework and you would have known other news outlets ( for one) reported that “the campaign is leasing locations in areas with high potential for foot traffic in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee.” Even something as minor as this, you try and cut down Trump.

rod munch
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 6:23pm

Big Gretch made it too easy to vote this time. I dropped mine off last week.

Wed, 11/04/2020 - 6:28pm

These women are a good argument for charter schools. Democrats love this kind of voter.