Michigan's lost Democrats helped Trump win. Now, some plan to vote differently.
RICHFIELD TOWNSHIP, Me. - Barb Proffer was once a trusted voice for Democrats here in Michigan's Genesee County. Wykisha Bullock too.
But when it came time for the final presidential election, none of these women voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Proffer crossed the party lines to support Donald Trump.
"He speaks in ways a lot of people don't like, but I personally like," said Proffer, 63, an accountant who said Trump was the first Republican she ever voted for.
Barb Proffer comes from generations of Democrats, but plans to vote for Republicans from now on. (Erin Einhorn / for NBC News)
Bullock didn't vote at all.
"I just didn't get around to it," said 37-year-old Flint's Bullock, adding that she had lost confidence in politicians and politicians.
Proffer and Bullock were part of a massive drop in democratic votes that paved the way for Clinton's defeat. Clinton won 2.2 million votes in Michigan - nearly 300,000 fewer than Barack Obama four years ago and more than 600,000 fewer than Obama in 2008.
The drop in Democratic votes from 2012 to 2016 was nearly 28 times Trump's profit margin of 10,704 votes in the state.
As early voting grows in this crucial swing state, these are the voters former Vice President Joe Biden must win back.
"He must reach out to those voters who did not emerge in 2016, who may have been decoupled or knocked out by Hillary Clinton, and put them on his Democratic ticket," said Terri Towner, professor of political science at Oakland University near Detroit .
It's too early to know if he will succeed, but in interviews at least some Genesee County voters say they approach this election differently than the last one.
"I've already received my ballot in the mail and will post it," said Bullock. She plans to vote for Biden.
Wykisha (Ali Lapetina / for NBC News)
"This Independent Series"
The 2016 Democratic levy spanned Michigan but was particularly pronounced in Genesee County, about an hour's drive north of Detroit.
The county, the fifth largest in the state with about 400,000 residents, including about 95,000 in Flint, has consistently supported the Democrats in the presidential election. Clinton led the county in 2016, but with 20 percent fewer votes than Obama won in 2012.
The turnout in Flint, a black-majority, Democratic-majority town where voters like Bullock said they were not inspired by Clinton.
And there were voters like Proffer, who live in the more politically independent suburbs and rural parts of the county and saw something in Trump that won them over.
Proffer lives in Richfield Township, a community about 20 minutes from downtown Flint where the town and suburbs give way to small farms, humble homes on large lots, and industrial warehouses along a three-lane state road. Most of the population - 94 percent - are white. The median household income is $ 59,000.
Genesee County has been home to generations of auto workers as well as people who commute to jobs in Flint or the Detroit suburbs. (Ali Lapetina / for NBC News)
The community home to generations of auto workers and others commuting to jobs in Flint or the Detroit suburbs is Genesee County, which saw the largest drop in Democratic votes from 2012 to 2016 - a drop of 420 .
This district, where voters cast ballots at the local fire station, went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, casting 950 votes for him and 701 for Clinton.
"Our district has this independent lead," said Sheryl Kennedy, a Democrat representative for the area. "It has rural and skilled jobs and a college education - we really are the little microcosm of Midwestern political leanings."
Kennedy believes support is swinging back to the Democrats. Two years ago, a majority of Richfield voters supported Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in her successful candidacy for governor. They also elected Kennedy and supported a Democratic member of Congress and a Democratic Senator. But on a trip around the area last week, it was clear that support for Trump remains strong.
Many residents not only have Trump lawn signs. They have Trump billboards - massive signs about 3 meters in diameter that can be seen from a block away. Others have Trump flags or banners.
David Martin, the Republican district commissioner running against Kennedy as a state representative, said many voters he meets want to know if he supports the president as they do.
"That's how long their identities, their grandfathers, their fathers, their selves were workers and they voted for Democrats," said Martin, who supports Trump.
"Now there is a shift in voting for values," he said, citing gun rights, property rights and "traditional marriage" among other things. "I think they left with Trump because they were a little scared of how fast progressives were moving."
President Trump is still popular in the more rural areas of Michigan's Genesee County outside of Flint, although Democrats have regained support. (Ali Lapetina / for NBC News)
Proffer is one of Richfield Township's generations of Democrats. Her father was named after Woodrow Wilson, she said. "We were a democratic family."
But when she and her grown son drove into the parking lot of Richfield Township Hall last week looking for a postal vote, she said she now considers Democrats "corrupt" and plans to only vote for Republicans from now on.
"I like a man who speaks the truth and doesn't stir it up," she said.
Other Trump supporters make a different choice this year.
Gerri Arndt, 56, from nearby Davison, voted for Obama twice before endorsing Trump in 2016.
"I thought he was a very good businessman and would stand up for what was right," she said.
However, she has since been dismayed by the President's behavior. "His tantrums, he's doing things to balance with other people, and he's not willing to listen to anyone."
Although she isn't impressed with Biden, she plans to vote for him in the hopes that he will surround herself with clever advisors. "I think he'll listen," she said. "Trump never listened."
David McKarnen, 79, a retired auto worker and committed Democrat who dropped his Biden ballot in a box outside City Hall last week, said the people he knows who supported Trump in the last election are evenly divided this time around .
McKarnen believes the increase in Trump signs this year doesn't necessarily mean Trump has more support - just that his supporters are more open now.
"The last time they were afraid to put a Trump sign in their garden because they didn't want to be ridiculed," McKarnen said. "This time, they feel encouraged and they think Trump will win."
"It wouldn't matter"
It's a different story on the north side of Flint, where few houses bear political markings, but the vast majority of voters consistently support the Democrats. Most of the residents on the north side are black and many are poor. The median household income in the city is $ 28,000.
Many voters here consider Trump to be racist. They think he mistreated the Covid-19 pandemic and they are determined to see him lose.
Yvonne Gaither, 78, who is attending an exercise class at the Hasselbring Senior Center on Flint's north side, said everyone she knows will elect Trump out of office.
"After we painfully kick our buttocks from the president, they say they are voting for anyone but him," she said.
The senior center is home to the district that saw the largest drop in democratic votes in the city from 2012 to 2016. Clinton won the district where only 15 votes were cast for Trump, but the 835 votes it received were well below the 1,101 votes Obama won in 2012.
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The eight seniors who took a Hasselbring exercise class last week all said they voted for Clinton. Most fought for the right to vote during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, saying they would never miss an election. But they have friends and relatives, mostly from younger generations, who they know stayed home in 2016.
"My grandson and many of his friends wanted Uncle Bernie," said Geraldine Wilburn, 79, referring to Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "I told him to vote because it was his duty as a citizen, but he said he couldn't vote for Hillary and wouldn't vote for Trump."
That year, however, Wilburn's grandson told her he was definitely voting, she said. "He and all of his homies are voting because they don't want Trump for four more years."
Bryant Nolden, a Democratic county commissioner who runs the Berston Field House historic recreation center in Flint, said he heard a lot more enthusiasm for voting from people in the community than it did four years ago.
At that time he heard a lot of cynicism about politicians, especially after the Flint water crisis.
The city became a national symbol of government neglect in 2015 when residents discovered their water supply was contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead.
"There was a lot of voter distrust of the government," said Nolden. "It was the government that actually poisoned the people of Flint."
There were other reasons to distrust the government as well, Bullock said.
She didn't vote in 2016 because she wasn't sure her vote would really be counted - and she doubted any of the candidates would change much.
"Sometimes they cheat the vote," said Bullock, who has two domestic help jobs. "You can say a lot of things, but we don't know what's going to happen."
She plans to vote this year because she wants to see Trump lose.
"I don't think he's really fit to run the country," she said. "Sometimes he doesn't know what he's saying."
"We don't take anything for granted"
Local Democratic officials say Clinton's campaign was doomed in part for taking some voters for granted, assuming the Obama coalition of black voters, young voters, and white suburbs came out in similar numbers for them.
"The campaign was very largely decided from Brooklyn, with very little input from Michigan," said Jim Ananich, leader of the Senate Democratic minority who represents Flint and the surrounding areas. "When we knocked on doors, we passed a lot of doors. They had a metric, a computer formula based on certain demographics, and they were targeted in my opinion."
Ananich said he saw a different approach to the Biden campaign that makes it better to listen to local experts. He hopes the results will be different this time around, especially because voting in Michigan is easier than it was four years ago.
Thanks to a referendum in 2018, people can now vote absent for whatever reason and register to vote the same day they cast their ballots. This, and the enthusiasm of voters who either love or despise the president, led to record turnouts across the state as early as March and August, despite voters fearing Covid-19.
"We don't take anything for granted," said Eric Hyers, director of state for the Biden campaign, as he listed efforts to increase the turnout of traditional Democratic voters and bring back Obama voters who backed Trump in 2016.
"The energy on our side is so different from the people who were here four years ago," said Hyers.
Republicans say their side is cheered too. Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement that Trump's 2016 victory "sparked a realignment" of American voters who would run for president again.
"We know which voters need to be contacted with the right message in order to vote for President Trump this November," she said.
But in a state where the Democrats have long outnumbered Republicans, a victory for Biden in cities like Flint could lead to a turnout, and party leaders here say they hope fewer people stay home.
The people in Flint really don't like Trump, Nolden said, and his narrow win four years ago showed how even a small number of votes can make a big difference.
"People's eyes are wide open now," he said.
Angelette Moore, 57, a retired auto worker from Flint, stayed home in 2016 thinking her voice "wouldn't matter," she said.
"They'll do what they'll do anyway. Who cares?" She said.
But this year, Moore said, she's already sent out her postal vote.
"Trump has to go," she said. "He's the devil."
Angelette Moore, a retired auto worker, did not vote in 2016 but has already submitted her Biden ballot. (Ali Lapetina / for NBC News)
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