The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion GOP mayor in pro-Trump county explains his surprise vote for Biden

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Detroit on Monday. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

If President Trump is going to lose reelection, one place it might happen is in counties that switched from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 — but are now home to untold numbers of voters who are deeply alienated by Trump’s chaotic, incompetent leadership and his daily spew of malice.

With voting now underway in Michigan — one of the “blue wall” states Trump cracked — what happens there could illuminate what’s going on with that species of voter and what it might mean for Trump’s chances.

Election 2020 live updates

In a potentially meaningful sign, Michael Taylor, the Republican mayor of Sterling Heights, Mich. — which is in Macomb County, a key Trump stronghold — just garnered national attention for announcing that he’s voting for Joe Biden in the Michigan Democratic primary, where voters don’t have to register for parties.

Taylor is not an Obama-Trump voter — he voted for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — but his switch to Biden opens a window on whether many moderate Republican leaning voters will do the same.

One big argument between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been over how heavily the Democratic nominee should prioritize winning over such moderate whites — and who is best poised to do so, Biden with his more suburban-friendly message of restoring normalcy, or Sanders with his promise of far-reaching reforms to galvanize disaffected working-class whites.

Taylor thinks Biden is better positioned to pull this off in Macomb County, which voted for Obama over Romney in 2012 52 percent to 48 percent, but switched to picking Trump by 54 percent to 42 percent.

I caught up with Taylor after he cast his vote for Biden. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent:

You voted for Trump in 2016 and now you’re switching.

Michael Taylor:

I’m not proud of my vote for him. I’m not satisfied with his leadership. I don’t think the country’s heading in the right direction. I think he’s incompetent. I think he’s divisive. I think he lacks moral character.


Why are you voting for Biden?


Biden more closely aligns with my values. Fundamentally the American economy is strong and our system of capitalism is the best to help the most people. I don’t want to see the types of wholesale changes that Bernie Sanders is proposing. I generally try to find the candidate who would be best for Sterling Heights. I think Biden is that candidate.


Macomb County is the place where Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg first identified the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon. Can you tell me about Sterling Heights?


We would call ourselves blue collar. We have a lot of white-collar jobs, too. For a city our size we have more engineering jobs per capita than any other comparable city. We have a lot of advanced manufacturing.

We are in the middle of Macomb County. The northern part of Macomb is more affluent. The southern part is less affluent. We straddle those. I’d call us a hard-working, middle-class, blue-collar city.


The less affluent areas, we’re talking about blue-collar whites, correct? What sorts of occupations?


Mostly service industry and manufacturing. Those blue-collar workers have good manufacturing jobs. There are four automotive plants.


Aren’t those people heavily pro-Trump?


They still are. If they hear you criticize Trump, they say, “Don’t you like the economy? Don’t you like your 401K? Don’t you support that he’s pro-American? Somebody is finally putting America first.” It’s a compelling message. That’s the reason he carried Macomb County.

The economy is very strong here. Most Trump supporters who I talk to say, “The economy is great. It’s getting better. We’d better not mess up a good thing.”


Which residents of your city and Macomb County are likely to switch from Trump to Biden?


The most likely are the suburban, middle-class families like mine with children. Those are the sorts of people who maybe grew up in a Republican household. They might have always been Republican. But now that they’ve seen Trump, they’re going to switch to Biden.

Somebody like a financial planner, an engineer — families with household incomes of around $100,000 are going to be looking at this election differently.

It’s that big middle of professionals — people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Enough of them could switch.


This type of largely white suburbanite — pretty educated, somewhat affluent — probably make up a large component of Obama-Trump counties. Why would they vote for Biden?


Sanity and adult leadership in the White House. We have a president who, in the middle of what could be a global pandemic, is really more concerned about his reelection than coming up with a plan.

People want to get back to some sense of normalcy. They’ll look to Biden and say, “Things are going to go back to the way they were before.” Whereas with Bernie you don’t know where they’ll end up.


Given that Bernie campaigned heavily against bad trade deals, is a major defender of Medicare and Social Security, and has a strong message about inequality, isn’t there an argument that he could be better for blue-collar whites in Macomb County than Biden or Trump would be?


He’s making that argument pretty well. Sanders’s message is that you’re getting screwed by the billionaire class and the elites, and we’re going to have a government that fixes that.

I don’t think the voters here by and large want that. I don’t think they want free health care, free college education, free child care. I don’t think they want the Green New Deal.

I think people say, “I want the health care I’ve got, I want to go to work, I want to make more money, and I want to be able to afford these things on my own, not with help from the government.”


All right. Back to the middle we’re talking about. What could affirmatively attract those voters to Biden — not just as a rebellion against Trump, but for reasons inherent to Biden himself?


Leadership.The man is a high-character individual. He’s dedicated his life to public service.

Trump will try to paint him as corrupt and mentally deficient. What attracts people to Biden is that he comes from a working-class background, too. He’s somebody who a lot of people can relate to. He’s had tragedy in his life. He’s able to connect with people very deeply.

Watch the latest Opinion video:

Republican Tommy Blackwood of North Charleston, S.C. wants President Trump to stay in office, so he's trying to disrupt the Democratic primary race. (Video: The Washington Post)
Use the Post Opinions Simulator to pick a state and see what might happen in upcoming primaries and caucuses.

Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: Election forecaster Bitecofer explains ‘the reason Joe Biden is the nominee’

Rob Stutzman: Why Trump fears Biden most

Jennifer Rubin: Biden is now the real front-runner

Fred Hiatt: Biden will pick a woman as his running mate. But who?

Jennifer Rubin: There’s fierce competition in the Democratic race — for VP