Michigan Threatens to Slip From Trump as He Goes Quiet on Airwaves

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President Trump’s campaign has quietly receded from the television airwaves in Michigan in recent weeks, shifting money elsewhere as one of the key Midwestern states that powered his surprise victory in 2016 threatens to move more firmly back into the Democratic column in 2020.

Michigan began the year with expectations that it would be one of the most intense battlegrounds in the country, but its share of Trump television advertising dollars dwindled this summer as Joseph R. Biden Jr. built a steady advantage in the polls.

Since the end of June, Mr. Trump has spent more money on ads in 10 other states — with Michigan falling behind even much smaller states like Iowa and Nevada — and in recent days, Mr. Trump’s campaign stopped buying ads in Michigan entirely.

The Biden campaign has more than tripled what Mr. Trump spent on television in Michigan in the last month, by far the most lopsided advantage of any swing state where both are advertising. And in Detroit, the state’s largest media market, the Trump campaign last ran a television ad, outside of national ad buys that include the state, on July 3, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

Mr. Trump faces a trifecta of troubles in Michigan, according to political strategists and state polling: reduced support among less educated white voters in a contest against Mr. Biden compared with Hillary Clinton; motivated Black voters in the state’s urban centers; and suburban voters who continue to flee Mr. Trump’s divisive brand of politics.

“Of all the states he won in 2016, Trump would be most hard-pressed to keep Michigan in his column this time around,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC.

There are uniquely local factors hampering the president, too: Mr. Trump’s unprovoked and unfulfilled threat this spring to “hold up funding” to the state because election officials planned to send absentee ballot applications to voters, as well as his loud sparring with Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, over her response to the coronavirus pandemic. Voters now consistently rate her performance on the issue positively and his unfavorably.

“The clearest reason why the president is reeling in Michigan is because of his failed coronavirus response,” said Garlin Gilchrist, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has downplayed any talk of retreat. Republicans are unlikely to jump ship so early on a state worth 16 Electoral College votes, and they are still organizing in Michigan. The campaign continues to deploy door-knocking volunteers during the pandemic, dispatch top administration officials (including the attorney general and the secretary of energy this month) and advertise digitally on Facebook.

But the reality is that Mr. Trump has far more pathways to 270 electoral votes without Michigan than Mr. Biden does. The Trump campaign has been redirecting money to defend other, more conservative states that he won in 2016, like Ohio and Georgia, and to try to find new Democratic states to flip, such as Nevada and Minnesota.

Michigan Democrats are uneasy about the notion that they are ahead after Mrs. Clinton’s narrow and devastating loss. “If nothing else, 2016 has made it very clear to a lot of Democrats that you don’t want to put too much stock in anything other than what happens on Election Day,” said Brandon Dillon, who was the Michigan Democratic Party’s chairman four years ago.

“The biggest danger for us is to be overconfident,” added Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat whose frequent warnings have earned her the “Debbie Downer” nickname.

Until this week, Mr. Trump’s outside allies had not been filling the Michigan advertising breach. But on Wednesday, a group called Restoration PAC, funded by the Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein, will begin a $2.5 million, two-week Michigan ad buy. The group’s polling showed Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden 54 percent to 37 percent in June, double the gap the president faced in March. Dan Curry, a Restoration PAC spokesman, said more recent private polls indicated that the contest was “tightening.”

America First Action, the leading pro-Trump super PAC, cut Michigan from its ad buy in early July, swapping in Arizona and North Carolina instead. Including super PACs, Democrats spent $5.3 million in television ads in the state from June 30 through Tuesday, compared with less than $1 million for Republicans.

Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC that has made Michigan a major focus, argued that the ad spending disparity was a sign that “Trump is conceding part of the battleground.” If it holds, he said, “this is a big, seismic event.”

In a call last week with reporters, Mr. Trump’s new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, dismissed current polls that show Mr. Trump losing in Michigan and nationally, noting that the president trailed badly throughout much of the summer of 2016 and into the fall before winning the White House anyway.

“These are states the experts did not see coming four years ago,” Mr. Stepien said of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which all flipped to the G.O.P. despite surveys showing Mrs. Clinton ahead. “We intend to protect this 2016 map,” he added.

Mr. Trump’s campaign still has $11.4 million in television ads reserved in Michigan starting in September, and the head of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, is said to be particularly invested in the state as a former state party chair who had argued Mr. Trump had a chance there in 2016.

But ad reservations are not necessarily strong predictors of future priorities; campaigns are not financially penalized for canceling or adjusting reservations closer to their air dates.

“This is a state-by-state fist fight,” said John Sellek, a Lansing-based Republican political consultant. “The Trump campaign may have decided that they need to shore up their base states like Ohio and Georgia. There will be on-and-off skirmishes in the blue wall states, but for now, it looks like some of the fights we’ll see are in the Republican base states.”

After Mr. Trump carried Michigan in 2016 by only 10,704 votes, Democrats struck back decisively in 2018, flipping three statewide offices from Republican to Democrat, as well as two suburban Detroit congressional seats and five seats each in the State House of Representatives and State Senate. At the top of the ticket, Ms. Whitmer won the governorship by more than 400,000 votes.

“Particularly women in the suburbs broke in a big way for us Democrats,” said Mr. Gilchrist, who was elected with Ms. Whitmer, “and I think the Biden campaign is running an effort to continue to build on that momentum.”

Then there are Mr. Trump’s self-inflicted political wounds in the state, none more public than his insults of Ms. Whitmer as she locked down the state after the virus began spreading in March, calling her “half Whitmer” and “the woman in Michigan.”

Ms. Whitmer was one of a series of Michigan women whom the president has belittled: the attorney general, the secretary of state, the chief executive of General Motors and two members of Congress.

“I don’t know any other state where he’s gone after as many women,” Ms. Dingell said. Mr. Trump also mocked her late husband, former Representative John D. Dingell, at a rally last year, suggesting he had gone to hell and was “looking up.”

Three state polls last week showed Mr. Biden winning female voters by wide margins, from 15 to 29 percentage points, and ahead in the state over all by six to 12 points.

Mr. Biden is seen as a stronger candidate in Michigan than Mrs. Clinton was, especially after he swept all 83 counties in the Democratic primary race against Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Four years earlier, Mr. Sanders carried 73 counties against Mrs. Clinton, and some of his strongest areas were rural and white regions that would go on to vote overwhelming for Mr. Trump in the fall.

Mr. Trump carried non-college-educated white voters in Michigan by more than 30 percentage points, according to 2016 general election exit polling. Last week, separate CNN and Fox News polls of the state showed that Mr. Trump’s lead among that group had shrunk to only 10 points.

“Hillary Clinton was toxic to non-college-educated white working-class voters, particularly men,” said Adrian Hemond, a Michigan-based Democratic strategist. “They don’t have the same attitude with Joe Biden.”

In the state’s largely rural Upper Peninsula, Mr. Trump swept all but one of 15 counties. And while the president is expected to carry the region again, many predict it will be by lower margins.

Rod Nelson, a retired chief executive of the Mackinac Straits Health System hospital in St. Ignace, on the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, is one of those who voted for Mr. Trump but has been turned off by the president’s attitude and leadership.

“I was privately hoping he would get in there and do the things he said he was going to do, but I was bothered by what he said about John McCain,” Mr. Nelson said.

“And that cabinet meeting where they all had to go around and praise him really turned it for me,” he added. “I don’t believe in a dictator or a king. I want a president who knows how to lead.”

He plans to cast a ballot for Mr. Biden in November.

“I just don’t see how he can win Michigan,” Mr. Nelson said of the president. “I think there was a real anti-Hillary sentiment in 2016. It was a perfect storm for him to win.”

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