Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures while speaking at a rally at Macomb Community College, Friday, March 4, 2016, in Warren, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Donald Trump addressing supporters in Macomb County, Michigan, in March © AP
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Nelson Westrick says he won the middle class lottery when he clinched a job at one of the US’s big three automakers two decades ago, armed with a high school diploma.

Now the union member fears poor trade deals and manufacturing decline have pushed his lifestyle — a home in suburbia with two cars in the garage — beyond the reach of the next generation of blue-collar workers. The one-time Barack Obama supporter is turning to Donald Trump for answers.

“That American dream is leaving. It is leaving fast,” said Mr Westrick, 40, relaxing after his shift at Ford Motor Co near the small swimming pool in his backyard in a leafy street in Macomb County, Michigan. “We are doing all right but I have had the same job for 20 years. Younger guys coming up are not in the same boat. They are hurting.”

Macomb County, where Mr Westrick lives and works, is the spiritual home of the unionised manufacturing workers who ditched the Democrats and helped propel Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. Mr Trump, who chose Detroit for a speech on Monday in which he was due to unveil his economic policies, is now attempting to achieve a repeat performance.

The region is pivotal to Mr Trump’s hopes of winning over Midwestern blue states in the presidential election in November by appealing to white, working-class men to turn out for him in large numbers.

The latest polling in Michigan suggests he faces an uphill battle — even if he is making headway in Macomb County itself. Hillary Clinton leads Mr Trump 41 per cent to 32 per cent in the state, according to a survey of 600 likely voters for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV.

Senior Democrats and union leaders say they are confident Mr Trump will fail. The last time Michigan went Republican was 1988, and unions in the state claim factors such as the government rescue of the auto sector under President Obama will help sway members towards the Democrats.

Ron Bieber, head of the AFL-CIO in the state and a third-generation member of the Union of Auto Workers, says unions are planning an aggressive “education campaign” about Mr Trump’s record among members and that he doesn’t see any of them voting for the property mogul.

“I’m sure our members will come to the realisation that Hillary Clinton has working people’s interests in her heart more than Donald Trump,” he says. “It is going to be an easy sell to our members when we tell the real story.”


Yet some rank-and-file members dispute the idea that they will obediently vote as union bosses suggest. Mr Westrick says many of his colleagues were Bernie Sanders supporters who are now contemplating crossing the divide in favour of Mr Trump, who like Mr Sanders has championed an aggressive posture on trade.

Mr Trump swept to victory in Michigan in the Republican primary in March and clinched a commanding lead in Macomb.

“I look at Mr Trump, I see that he is an east-coast Republican, but honestly he seems to have more in common with the Midwestern blue-collar people,” says Chris Vitale, a Chrysler worker who voted for Mr Obama in 2008 but is supporting Mr Trump.

“He seems to realise that manufacturing creates wealth, it is an important thing for this country. We can’t just all go around performing service jobs, cutting each other’s hair and mowing each other’s lawns.”

Other autoworkers agree that the Democrats ignored manufacturing and have presided over trade deals that have left industry vulnerable to competitors in China and Mexico. “Trump is the first dude in 20 years who has identified the problem,” says Donald Marshall Jr, an autoworker sitting in a hot dog café across the road from a Ford plant.

Mr Trump has hammered the latter message home relentlessly, threatening to rewrite trade deals including Nafta, which was introduced by Mrs Clinton’s husband in the 1990s. Earlier this month the Republican candidate predicted that he was going to “do great” in Michigan, in part because he had long been warning about the loss of auto jobs to Mexico.

Automotive industry employment in the Detroit area has rebounded since the auto rescues during the financial crisis but it remains below 100,000, half the levels of the early 1980s, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “We open up areas of the country that other people don’t,” said Mr Trump, who has been battling to get his campaign back on track following a spate of self-inflicted wounds.

Locator map: Detroit, Michigan

Richard Czuba, a pollster from the Glengariff Group, says Macomb County is proving “very competitive” this year, while Mr Trump was having more trouble in neighbouring Oakland County despite its strong Republican base. The recent Michigan poll, which Mr Czuba conducted, puts Mr Trump ahead of Mrs Clinton in Macomb County and highlights it as the only part of the state where the electorate sees him as qualified to be president.

Mr Trump’s tough message on trade and national security is “resonating very well with people here,” says Jamie Roe, a Michigan political consultant.

The Republican challenger’s strategy for the Midwest relies on his boosting turnout among the white men who have formed the core of his support. His problem is that Macomb County, like Michigan as a whole, has become more diverse since Mr Reagan swung it around.

For example, the African-American share of the population has risen to more than 11 per cent, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 8.6 per cent just half a decade before, and voters from that community are overwhelmingly anti-Trump.

In 1980, almost 87 per cent of Michigan’s eligible voters were white, but that is on track to fall to about 78 per cent this year, according to States of Change, a project by the American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress and William Frey of Brookings.

James Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College and a longtime observer of the region’s politics, says that demographic changes are among the reasons why it is misguided to draw a “cookie cutter” parallel with the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s.

In addition, the face of auto manufacturing has been changing. While the opportunities on assembly lines have shrunk in recent decades, higher-skilled individuals undertaking technical work in factories and design centres are hugely in demand as the sector recovers. For them, the prospects remain buoyant.


Sandy Levin, a Democratic congressman whose district encompasses a chunk of Macomb County, predicts that the more Mr Trump’s own business practices are discussed, “the worse will be the Trump appeal to working families.” Mrs Clinton has responded effectively to the antitrade mood by coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he argues.

Mr Levin also rejects the analogy between Mr Trump and Mr Reagan, saying that Mr Trump’s divisive rhetoric means there is “little if any resemblance” between the two politicians.

Nevertheless, many of Mr Trump’s blue-collar supporters are hugely excited about their candidate. Mr Westrick displays a Trump banner in his garden and says it has been vandalised by anti-Trump voters who also tore the wipers off his car. He is undaunted. “I’m pumped. I was born in 1975. Since I have been alive I have never had this much passion for a candidate.”

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