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'He's a nightmare': Donald Trump's struggle to woo suburban voters

Detroit, Michigan: When Peggy DiMercurio looks at her marriage, she sees America in the age of Donald Trump.

"We are split right down the middle," she says. "The division in the country is mirrored in our home."

US President Donald Trump walks away from the media to board Air Force One for a trip to a campaign rally in Michigan.

US President Donald Trump walks away from the media to board Air Force One for a trip to a campaign rally in Michigan.Credit:AP

The art teacher from Eastpointe, a neighbourhood in the suburbs of Detroit, cannot wait to vote for Joe Biden in November. "I am mortified by our current President," she says. "He is completely unprepared. He bullies others. I can’t believe we elected someone to this position with such a lack of experience in public service."

For her husband of 32 years, it’s a different story. Frank DiMercurio, a project manager, knows Trump can be abrasive. But he appreciates that he does not talk in scripted soundbites like so many other political candidates. "He is not a politician and that’s what I like about him. He speaks the way normal people talk to one another."

Frank says Trump’s handling of the economy - including his cuts to taxes and business regulations - has earned him the right to a second term. "Even with the coronavirus shutdowns, the Dow Jones is up, the NASDAQ is up, unemployment is coming down," he says. "I think Biden would increase taxes and cause a downturn in the economy."

It’s common for the DiMercurios to vote differently: in 2008, Peggy voted for Barack Obama while Frank voted for Republican John McCain. But now their political disagreements feel more profound. It's harder to understand where the other is coming from. When watching the television news, they have to be careful not to let debates turn into heated arguments.

"I’ve learnt to try to avoid talking about politics because it can get intense at times," Frank says.

Peggy adds: "Elections in our country have become a do-or-die team sport."

"Elections in our country have become a do-or-die team sport": Peggy and Frank DeMercurio outside their home in Macomb County, Michigan.

"Elections in our country have become a do-or-die team sport": Peggy and Frank DeMercurio outside their home in Macomb County, Michigan.Credit:Amy Sacka

The DiMercurios’ single-storey brick home sits inside Macomb County, a sprawling suburban area of 840,000 people in Michigan. The county begins at Eight Mile Road, a highway that serves as the physical and symbolic dividing line between majority-black Detroit and its mostly white surrounding suburbs. The rapper Eminem brought the area to international attention with his 2002 autobiographical film, 8 Mile.

Detroit is the home of America's biggest car manufacturers, and largely blue-collar Macomb County is home to many auto workers and tradespeople. Political strategist Stanley Greenberg famously dubbed it the home of the "Reagan Democrats" — the white, working-class voters who were once solid Democrats but shifted towards Republicans from the 1970s.

Today, it is a swing county: Macomb’s residents voted for Obama twice before flipping to Trump. That result helped Trump squeak out an extremely narrow win in Michigan over Hillary Clinton. His 0.2 per cent margin — a difference of just 10,700 votes — was the closest in any state at the 2016 election.

This year, both Democrats and Republicans are going all-out to woo voters in places like Macomb County. Biden visited earlier this month for an event promoting his plan for American manufacturing; Donald Trump jnr, the President's son, held an event with musician Kid Rock, a local hero.

Suburban voters, more than any other group, are expected to determine the election result, not just in Michigan but other battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin.

"The suburbs have been viewed as boring, homogenous places where not much goes on," says Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Centre for Suburban Studies. "But it is now the received wisdom that they provide the decisive vote in presidential elections."

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks with reporters before boarding a plane at an airport in Detroit.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks with reporters before boarding a plane at an airport in Detroit.Credit:AP

Suburban voters make up half the American electorate and are crucial because they are relatively open to swinging between the parties. "People in the suburbs tend to be more progressive than their rural counterparts and more conservative than their neighbours in the inner cities," Levy says. "They tend to shy away from extremism from either side of politics."

Exit polls showed Trump won suburban voters by four percentage points in 2016, but he is struggling to hold on to them four years later — a troubling sign for his re-election hopes.

A poll taken in mid-August by The Washington Post and ABC News showed Biden with an eight-point lead among suburban voters, a finding borne out across many surveys. The Democrats' gains reflect the gender divide on display in the DiMercurio household: suburban women are significantly more hostile to Trump than men. The Post/ABC poll showed Biden winning suburban women by 13 points, while men were evenly divided.

Trump's problem with suburban women is clear at a farmers' market in Warren, the biggest city in Macomb County. Cyndee Rivera, a school teacher, is selling ornamental cactus-filled teapots as a way to make some extra money.

In 2016, Rivera could not stomach voting for Trump or Clinton, so she voted for the Libertarian Party candidate. She was one of the 250,000 Michiganders who voted third-party in 2016 — an unusually high figure that reflected the unpopularity of both the Republican and Democratic candidates.

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This time around, she is voting for Biden, a decision driven by her animosity towards Trump.

"He’s a nightmare," Rivera says. "I don’t believe in abortion, but I can’t vote for a man who humiliates our nation on a daily basis. I’ve never been a Democrat but the older I get, the more I’m going that way."

In a bid to win back voters like Rivera, Trump has deployed increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric to scare them away from Biden. In a recent tweet, Trump directly addressed "the Suburban Housewives of America", warning them that "Biden will destroy your neighbourhood and your American Dream".

In recent speeches he has declared that Biden would "totally destroy the beautiful suburbs" — a reference to an Obama-era regulation designed to encourage greater racial integration and the construction of affordable housing in the suburbs. The Trump administration scrapped the rule this year, and Biden has pledged to restore it if elected.

Peggy DiMercurio knows first-hand about the suburban anxiety Trump is trying to tap into. Her neighbourhood changed its name from East Detroit in the 1990s in a bid to avoid any association with Detroit, which was regarded as a symbol of high crime and urban decay. And her community recently rejected a proposed affordable housing project for military veterans, in part because of fears it would bring down local property values.

But Cyndee Rivera says Trump's warnings haven't swayed her: she sees them as just the latest attempt at scaremongering from a man she regards as fundamentally dishonest.

"There are so many checks and balances in the system," she says. "I don't think a public housing tower is going to appear next to my house if the Democrats win."

"I’ve never been a Democrat but the older I get the more I’m going that way": Cyndee Rivera selling cactus teapots in Macomb County, Michigan.

"I’ve never been a Democrat but the older I get the more I’m going that way": Cyndee Rivera selling cactus teapots in Macomb County, Michigan.Credit:Amy Sacka

A 25-minute drive from the Warren farmers' market, the residents of Birmingham are enjoying a sunny early autumn afternoon. Detroit locals who haven't visited Birmingham recently are often surprised by what they find: a multicultural and lively place that defies its past reputation as a sedate, lily-white neighbourhood. There are shops selling athleisure wear and upscale stationery; there's a raw vegan restaurant and a store selling gourmet dates stuffed with pistachios. Wander around and you encounter a blend of white, black, Middle Eastern and Asian residents.

Birmingham sits inside Oakland County, a suburban area of 1.2 million people that is one of the wealthiest large counties in the US. House prices are higher than in neighbouring Macomb County and residents are twice as likely to have a college degree. Until the 1990s, Oakland County was solidly Republican, but that's changed dramatically in recent elections.

"Oakland County was the home of more moderate, socially progressive but fiscally conservative Republicans," county executive David Coulter says. "As the Republican Party has moved more to the right, you've seen moderate people here become repelled by that and move across to the Democratic Party."

Coulter is Oakland's first Democratic county executive, a role equivalent to being mayor. He says Trump's high-pitched appeals to "suburban housewives" lack the potency they would have carried in the 1960s. "There used to be real fear in the suburbs of people from Detroit moving into their neighbourhoods. As we've slowly become more integrated that fear has gone down."

Sitting in the park as a busker plays a Bob Marley tune, fiancés Juan Mendiola and Martha Trevino epitomise the changing nature of America's suburbs.

The Hispanic-American engineers, both in their early 30s, bought a home together in Birmingham after moving from Texas. The key selling point was the diversity of the local community. Homes in some other suburbs they looked at displayed pro-Trump signs on their front lawns — a signal, they believed, that they wouldn't feel comfortable there.

Martha Trevino and fiancé Juan Mendiola moved to Oakland County in Michigan because of the diversity of the community.

Martha Trevino and fiancé Juan Mendiola moved to Oakland County in Michigan because of the diversity of the community. Credit:Amy Sacka

"We have to be more inclusive and tolerant as a country," Mendiola says. "Our current President doesn’t represent the way we see things."

Asked what they were looking for in a presidential candidate, both said: "Anyone but Trump."

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In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Oakland County by eight percentage points. At the election for governor two years later, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the county by a giant 17 points while carrying Macomb by a slender three points. If Biden can produce a similar result on November 3, he will almost certainly win Michigan.

"The President is right to be worried about the suburbs," Coulter says. "I think voters here are going to deliver him a big rebuke on election day."

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