Trump leads early in Michigan as voters focus on COVID-19 response

President Donald Trump led former Vice President Joe Biden in Tuesday’s initial results out of Michigan, but a survey of state voters showed frustration with the direction of the country that could tighen the battleground race.

Trump was ahead of Biden 58% to 41% with 10% of precincts reporting in the state as the president’s response to COVID-19 loomed over Election Day. Michigan saw a record 3.24 million absentee ballots cast during a pandemic by 6:30 p.m. The prior high was 1.27 million in the November 2016 presidential election. 

A plurality of Michigan voters, 44%, in Tuesday’s election said the most important issue facing the country was the coronavirus pandemic, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,400 voters in Michigan conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago. The margin of error was plus-minus 2 percentage points.

The second most important issue was the economy and jobs at 24%. Health care was at 10% and racism at 6%. Sixty-one percent of Michigan voters said the country is generally headed in the wrong direction, as opposed to 38% who said it’s on the right track.

Andrika Lyons, 37, of Grand Rapids cast her ballot in person Tuesday at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, a block away from a drive-through COVID-19 testing site, where a worker in protective gear could be seen walking back and forth from cars.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and President Donald Trump.

The response to the virus had become politicized under Trump, Lyons said.

“His lack of transparency and honesty with the American people, that’s a problem,” she said. “Because anyone could have bungled it, but as long as you’re telling people the truth, people have the option to be stupid.

“He’s not giving sheepish people the option. He’s telling them, ‘Don’t believe in this stuff.'”

Tuesday’s vote came as Michigan, which reported its first infections on March 10, and other states have experienced surges in new cases of the virus. Michigan reported a record of 20,154 confirmed cases last week. As of Election Day, the state had linked 7,400 deaths to the virus.

The upticks have occurred while the president has maintained that the nation is “rounding the corner” and getting closer to developing a vaccine in its fight against COVID-19.

In regards to the pandemic, 54% of Michigan voters told pollsters that it’s not at all under control, while 46% said it’s at least somewhat under control, according to the AP VoteCast,survey . Sixty percent of respondents said the federal government’s higher priority should be limiting the spread of the virus even if it damages the economy.

Trump narrowly won the Great Lakes State four years ago by 10,704 votes, his closest margin of victory nationally. Michigan is one of a slew of battleground states that are expected to decide who leads the country for the next your years.

Among the key states are Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Iowa. Trump won them all in 2016, but Biden has been leading or nearly tied with Trump in the polls in most of them.

Tuesday marked the end of a bitter campaign that’s played out across a divided Michigan. Voters — some of whom waited longer than an hour to cast their ballots — expressed happiness that the contentious fight was ending and emphasized the stakes of the election.

“Everything is important. Everything is on the line right now,” said Lynn Tyler, 60, of Battle Creek, who spent 90 minutes in line on Tuesday before casting his ballot at the Christ United Methodist Church.

A sign in front of the church read, “In prayer for our community.”  Tyler voted for Biden and said it was time for the nation to make change.

“My point about a president is he should have experience,” Tyler said. “The experience that we got from Donald Trump in the last four years has been really bad. In all my 60 years of living, I’ve never seen a president so not concerned about the people.”

About an hour away from Battle Creek, Sean McClinchey, 35, of Grand Rapids, cast his ballot for Trump’s re-election. The president has lowered taxes, fought to bring businesses to the state and opposed outsourcing, he argued.

Standing outside his polling place, McClinchey said he planned to vote a straight GOP ticket.

“Usually, I don’t do that,” he said. “I don’t want any packing of the courts. I don’t want any of that stuff. The more help, the better right now.”

Frenetic race reaches Election Day

McClinchey was among the thousands who attended Trump’s rallies in the state. He said he went to an event in Muskegon on Oct. 17. In the final seven days before Tuesday, the Republican president held five rallies in the state, including one in Traverse City and one in Grand Rapids on Monday evening.

“We’re going to win the state of Michigan so easily,” Trump said at the Grand Rapids event, which lasted into the early morning hours of Tuesday. “We want to do it just like last time, but let’s give me a little bit more margin.”

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters after landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport while visiting Michigan on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence also was a frequent visitor as he was four years ago. Trump’s two oldest sons — Eric and Don Jr. — made multiple trips to Michigan, including more rural parts of the state.

But the Biden campaign focused on trying to recapture Michigan after Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. The former vice president made four stops in the state over the final two months, including appearing with former President Barack Obama in Flint and Detroit on Saturday.

Biden’s running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, spent a portion of Election Day urging voter participation in Metro Detroit. She attended a rally at Sheet Metal Workers Union Local #80 on 12 Mile east of Southfield Road in Southfield and spoke at the Greater Grace Temple on West Seven Mile Road near Telegraph Road in Detroit.

The senator said she wanted to thank Detroiters for their support and made another plea for everyone to vote.

“Let’s make sure everybody votes and let’s not let anybody take our power from us,” Harris said. “Because at election time, the power of our voice is through our vote.”

‘I’m tired of the debates’

The victor in Michigan wins 16 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 or more electoral votes to win the presidency for the next four years. Michigan was a key to Trump’s surprise election in 2016.

Some state voters said Tuesday they were happy to see the contentious races end. Ann Roubal of East Grand Rapids cast her ballot at the local high school and called the presidential contest a “disruptor.”

“I’m tired of the debates in my house and my neighborhood,” said Roubal, who wouldn’t disclose which candidate got her vote.

Absentee ballots are counted at the TCF Center in Detroit on Nov. 3, 2020.

In Livingston County’s Osceola Township, Brett Stoll cast his ballot Tuesday for Trump. The 62-year-old man said he was released from prison last year and contended the president was “the best thing that ever happened to me” when he left prison.

“He’s done what he said what he’s going to do,” Stoll said. “The Democrats they always say they’re going to do something, and they don’t do nothing.”

“He would have done a lot more if they wouldn’t have blocked him on every issue.”

Likewise, Ethan Fryover, 21, voted for the first time at the Novi Civic Center. He’s been satisfied with the direction of the country under Trump and said the president has earned another four years. He said some of Trump’s comments are “vulgar and unnecessary.”

“But I like how he’s out there,” said Fryover, who works in the skilled trades field. “He doesn’t hold anything back.”

Biden, he said Tuesday, is “super-focused on COVID and the science,” and he’s worried that if the Democratic candidate is elected, it will get worse. Fryover said he believes the strict rules being imposed across the country to stem spread of the virus have been crippling to the economy.

“All the locking down and stuff like that, I feel like it’s hurting,” he said. “Kids aren’t getting out. Businesses aren’t functioning properly. They are not getting the amount of income they are used to, to be stable.”

Trump’s supporters have focused on his economic efforts, including the signing of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, also known as the USMCA, in January to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. Michigan’s unemployment rate also reached its lowest point in more than a decade in February at 3.6% before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

But Biden has been leading Trump in head-to-head polling match-ups by the Glengariff Group since the Lansing-based polling outfit began surveying them in June 2019. The Delaware Democrat has been ahead of the Florida Republican by as many as 12 percentage points in June 2019 and as few as 5 points in early September in polls with margins of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

In the last Oct. 23-25 Detroit News-WDIV poll, Biden led Trump 49.3% to 41.6% — about an 8-point gap.

Voters have voiced frustration with the president’s divisive rhetoric and his handling of the pandemic. 

Lyons said she has experienced an increase in people using racial slurs against her over the president’s term in office.

“We can’t have four more years of a hot mess of racial injustice, hatred against women and people of color,” she said.

Rochelle Wells, a lifelong resident of Inkster sent in her absentee ballot well before Election Day, like about 3 million other Michigan residents. She voted for Biden in hopes of putting an end the division she believes has infiltrated the country.

“In my heart, I feel that we need a change because of all of the things that have gone on in the last four years and all of the things that have been incited throughout,” said Wells, who has spent decades volunteering for community and civic groups. “We’ve already prayed this thing changes because the people need a better representative than what we have in the White House today.”

Staff Writers Christine Ferretti, Charles Ramirez and Beth LeBlanc contributed. 

cmauger@detroitnews.com