Rural Michigan helped elect President Donald Trump, but a growing movement across the state’s countryside communities is bringing new voices to the table.
MICHIGAN—Rob Lyerla lives in East Leroy, Michigan, a 2,500-person town about six miles from Battle Creek and 30 minutes outside Kalamazoo.
It is the people who make up the tiny community that has one post office and a grain mill surrounded by acre upon acre of land. Neighbors are essentially nonexistent.
“I think it was in the rural community that we learned how to take care of each other and make sure everyone got a fair shake, and count on others. … I think there’s been sort of a flip,” Lyerla, a former epidemiologist for the World Health Organization said. “This rugged individualism gives this idea you shouldn’t care about your neighbors, or just have to take care of yourself.”
He grew up in a small Illinois town. His father lives on a family farm that is 100 years old. Lyerla learned his political upbringing in the rural environment where Midwestern manners pull up to the table, too, each time.
Lyerla is a registered Democrat in Calhoun County, which voted twice for Obama and last time for Trump. Lyerla said yard signs are practically imaginary, as area residents don’t want to alienate one another.
“You almost are afraid to crack open that Pandora’s Box because it will categorize you one way or another,” he said.
But the lid is cracking open up a bit and locals are looking in and seeing that there is a difference between the general election campaigns of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden’s in 2020. To know, you just have to ask rural Democrat voters in Michigan.
Data shows that US President Donald Trump defeated Clinton by a margin of about .23% in 2016, garnering the state’s 16 electoral votes.
He won every northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula county outside of Marquette, flipping 12 counties overall that had voted for President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
A Rural Backdrop Outside the Confines of Government
Cathy Morgan, a retired federal employee, moved to Middleville over a year ago. While still getting a feel for the community, she believes it leans blue collar but has conservative-leaning proclivities.
She said she has always voted Democrat in presidential elections, but voted Republican in down-ballot races. She voted for now-Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash years ago.
Her issues pertain to environment rollbacks, a foreign policy that personally benefits Trump, and “the plight” of people of color, LGBTQ, women, children, immigrants and the impoverished.
“I want attention given to how all Americans are doing financially, and not just the stock market,” she said. “I want a federal response to the pandemic and support for governors doing their best to keep citizens safe.
A ‘Sign’ That This Year is Different Than 2016
For 15 years Jill Dunham has lived in the little bedroom community of Plainwell, located about halfway between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
She has chaired the 200-member Allegan Dems for four years. The area is a mixed bag of partisanship that has a religious undertone, often exemplified by anti-abortion signs.
Dunham, formerly a Bernie Sanders supporter, fundamentally has what she described as a “rock the boat” worldview, taking lessons from her mother—such as the stressing of fairness and civil equity—and using them to dissect society through a progressive lens that extends above politics.
There is a different feeling in her community regarding confidence in the candidate, as Biden signs and caucus efforts are more prevalent.
In addition to aiding Biden’s cause, Dunham and other local Democrats are hard at work to help Jon Hoadley defeat longtime Republican Congressman Fred Upton in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District, which includes most of Allegan County.
Elections Are Won on More Than Just Policy Promises
Brian Hoduski is a public sector employee who has lived in Portage Township, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, since 1999. He is in the last of his 14 years of being a local Democratic chairman.
Houghton County, formerly the site of the state’s largest producing copper mines centuries ago, contains Michigan Technical University and is described as “a typical college community” with a fair amount of economic activity.
Hoduski said it’s a predominantly white area that leans heavily Republican, though he is optimistic from seeing more Biden signage in his community when compared with Clinton’s “terrible campaign.”
He has always been a pro-union Democrat, dating back to the days his grandfather had a dairy farm in Menominee County. His grandfather lived through the Great Depression “and always felt Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his life better.”
When asked what his major issues are as a voter, he said it’s “how terrible a president Trump is, and how terrible a person Trump is.”
Hoduski shares an emotional connection with Biden. He, too, lost his own son, Bryce, 22, a hospitality student at Northern Michigan University, on Feb. 25, 2014, from a pulmonary embolism.
Andrew Vos, who lives in Prudenville, describes himself as a political independent who supported Clinton in 2016. He lives about 10 minutes from his nearest neighbor, and within 20 miles of the nearest Wal-Mart in town. It is a very white, very Republican area.
He shares Hoduski’s anguish: his biggest concerns about the country extend beyond policies.
Vos added that the division has hit another level with COVID-19. He mentioned how he and his son entered a gas station while wearing masks, and overheard the clerk and another individual making fun of mask wearers.
Those who wear masks are instantly identified as liberals and “sheeple,” he said.
“(The national discourse) saddens me, it really does,” he said. “Watching that first debate…at the beginning, I was kind of laughing. Then I became embarrassed, I became sad that we cannot have civil debates and civil conversations.”
Looking For a Leader And Not a Bully
Earl Austin, a retired maintenance worker, is a lifelong Democrat from Holly Township.
He notices a lot of Trump signs where he lives, but also more Democratic signs than four years ago. Signs for Gary Peters’ U.S. Senate reelection are sparse, he says.
Austin normally votes based on issues like economics and healthcare. He said it used to be about policies, but now it’s more about the candidate.
Lifetime Democrat Hailey Rial lives in the traditionally Republican Cass County, near the Indiana border.
Her major issues include coronavirus, minimum wage, the cost of college, LGBTQ rights, education reform, healthcare and reproductive rights.
“I was a fan of (Kamala) Harris well before she was announced as vice president, so that helped push me to do more outreach,” Rial said. “I don’t agree with Biden on lots of issues but I know he is the right person for the job considering the circumstances.”
Rial called it “one of the most important elections,” evident by partisan fervor on both sides of the aisle.
“Over the last month, a few of my neighbors have put signs up,” she said. “Mine have been up for months. There were way more Trump signs for a while but now there are more Biden signs alongside other local Democrat candidates’ signs. I notice more people engaging in political discourse on social media in local groups that otherwise might not be involved.”
Searching For Victory and a Light at the End of the Tunnel
Morgan said she was so shocked when Trump won Michigan that she cried.
Her hope was that Trump “would be too inept to do too much damage,” but she admits she “underestimated” those who surround and enable him.
“I worry that the country may never get back to ‘normal,’” she said. “People I have known for years have disappointed me with their cult-like support of him. I worry about what will happen immediately after the election, no matter who wins.”
Lyerla said the Trump experiment, of voting in a political outsider to run the country, has shown itself as faulty.
“The theory that inexperienced people can be politicians, that inexperienced people can be leaders—we wouldn’t let that happen to a plumber, we wouldn’t do that to a doctor,” he said. “We say, ‘This is your area of expertise.’”
He described the Trump presidency as “chronic trauma,” evident by a pandemic response that caused Lyerla to exit the administration and further analyze a litany of assaults on Americans’ way of life.