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Aditi Bagchi of Northville, a dentist and mother of two, sits next to a sign endorsing Joe Biden for president in front of her home in Northville on Wednesday, September 16, 2020. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
Aditi Bagchi is a dentist, lives in the Detroit suburbs and is worried about her children’s safety.
No, she’s not afraid of low-income housing in her Northville neighborhood. Or protesters breaking windows and clashing with police down the street.
The Michigan native and daughter of Indian immigrants is scared about the underlying message inherent in these themes — championed by President Donald Trump and his supporters — and their real impact on the safety of her family.
“I feel that in the last four years, the current administration’s rhetoric has begun to normalize racism in a way that hadn’t felt so mainstream in my…life before he became president,” said Bagchi, 41.
“It’s worrisome for me. I have a 13-year-old son. I worry about his safety, and it wasn’t necessarily something that I worried about too much before then. We’re not Black, so obviously I know that we’re not targeted in that way. But still, having a son who is a brown child, I worry for him.”
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Trump peddles in the politics of fear, but perhaps never more so than when he tries to appeal to “suburban housewives,” a phrase he has used frequently in tweets and campaign speeches. During his recent trip to Michigan, the president accused Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and others in his party of wanting to “destroy the suburbs.”
“Look at what I’ve done for your suburbs. You know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve done. Does anybody want to have somebody from Antifa as a member and as a resident of your suburb? I don’t think so too much,” Trump said, referring to the group of left-leaning activists who routinely protest against racism and the president.
Moments later at the same event he said: “The suburbs are the American dream, and I will tell you, I have protected your suburbs. You know, I got rid of a regulation that played with your zoning and played with other things, where they force projects into the suburbs of our great country. And I got rid of it.”
Trump’s reference was to an Obama-era policy cancelled in July that required local governments to study and address racist housing patterns in their community.
For some, the fact that the president’s statements are misleading or racist does not matter. Fear is a powerful motivator. There’s a chance Trump’s message will resonate with suburban women, a voting bloc where he can’t afford to lose any electoral ground. The campaign needs these voters to see him as the “law and order” president and cast a ballot in his favor.
But analysts, experts and Trump’s opponents agree many of his comments aimed at suburban voters are racist and out-of-touch. A new poll conducted for the Free Press shows Michigan women have the same top issues as men this election season: both ranked restoring the economy and jobs lost because of the pandemic and managing COVID-19 as their top concerns.
There’s a far greater chance that Trump’s outdated message imploring so-called soccer moms to support him will actually motivate suburban women — already trending toward Democrats — to vote for Biden.
And while Detroit’s suburbs are demographically less diverse than bedroom communities in other regions of the country, Bagchi and an expert noted many people who identify as Black, Latino, Asian or a different ethnicity already call these areas home.
“When he says ‘suburban housewives’ I think he’s making a call to action…for white women and not for somebody like me, or the many minority women who live in the suburbs. We have concerns too and certainly we don’t like to feel that our children or our spouses are a threat because they live in the suburbs, or that we’re a threat because of the color of our skin,” Bagchi said.
“So that to me was a pretty strong dog whistle. I don’t know if he used the word ‘invade,’ but he seemed to imply that people of color would be invading the suburbs. We already live here. We’ve been living here.”
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The rhetoric will also likely energize voters in Detroit and other Michigan cities expected to turn out heavily for Democrats.
In short, the president’s tactic could backfire.
“But this is who Trump is. He doesn’t seem to calculate necessarily. He goes with his gut instinct more than evidence, clearly,” said Sue Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“He doesn’t necessarily look at the empirical evidence and formulate a strategy based on that. He works more off the cuff. It’s his notion of what the suburbs look like rather than anything that a demographer would tell you about what the suburbs look like.”
Trump’s strategy worked in 2016
The strategy propelled Trump to victory in Michigan in 2016, when his message resonated to at least some degree with suburbanites. Trump won all but eight of Michigan’s 83 counties in 2016, including Macomb County and Kent County, where traditionally strong GOP suburban support cancelled out Democratic votes from Grand Rapids.
While CNN exit polls from 2016 do not break down voters by county, they do show Trump in Michigan managed to win 51% of all white women voters and 57% of white women voters who did not have a college education.
But recent election trends in the suburbs, both in Michigan and around the country, are not in the president’s favor.
A new Free Press poll shows Biden leading Trump among all Michigan women by 20 percentage points. Only 37% of women had a favorable view of Trump, compared with 58% for Biden.
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That comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and other Democratic candidates trounced their Republican counterparts in Michigan’s 2018 election, with many suburban counties moving away from the GOP.
Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox is intimately familiar with the swing; she lost a close race to represent Livonia, Plymouth and Northville in the Michigan Senate two years ago.
Today, she agrees that suburban women will be key in deciding who the state elects this year. The party is proud to run on Trump’s record, she said, specifically pointing to the economy before the pandemic.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, female unemployment hit an all-time low prior to COVID-19, and jobs were being created amongst women at a record pace. Currently the stock market is back near all-time highs and last month unemployment plummeted nationally,” Cox said.
While unemployment rates for women were down in early 2020, they were lower in the early 1950s and have been decreasing since 2011, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which tracks national economic data.
Cox also is not bothered by the president’s use of the term “suburban housewives” or how it might resonate with suburban women in Michigan.
“As a woman, I care far more about President Trump’s common sense polices and record of results than anything he says on Twitter,” Cox said.
The latest Free Press poll shows only 7% of voters are not sure who they will pick for president, echoing other poll findings that show most voters have already made up their minds about the election. But both parties are fighting for the final few undecided voters, especially in a state decided by the slimmest of margins last presidential cycle.
‘Soccer moms’ and the suburbs
For years, campaigns have battled over suburban women. They are seen as politically pliable, Carroll said: While they traditionally lean Republican, Democrats could win them over.
From the campaigns of Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, this pursuit resulted in something of a characterization, creating a largely fictional character perpetuating stereotypes about who lives in the suburbs — namely, so-called soccer moms.
“There was an interest in so-called suburban voters, but at that point they were called soccer moms. And so they were basically white, middle class, fairly well-educated mothers who had kids. The characterizations went beyond the data in the sense that they would talk about these women who drove minivans and took their kids to soccer practice,” Carroll said.
“This is very similar to what George W. Bush did with security moms. It was just a different kind of, a different sense of security. It wasn’t law and order, it was ‘we’re going to protect you from terrorism and terrorists’…The nature of the threat is different, that they’re trying to sell.”
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In theory, one could reasonably expect a presidential candidate who is a woman to fare well with suburban women voters. But that didn’t happen with 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, at least not to the degree she needed to win.
Carroll noted there was “a significant chunk of women voters who just didn’t like Hillary Clinton.” And the last presidential election still demonstrates that just because a woman — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California — is a member of the Democratic ticket, it doesn’t mean suburban women will stampede the polls to vote for her.
However, she could help mobilize volunteers in the city and suburbs, Carroll said. There is clear excitement among Democrats for the choice, and that could translate to people actively working to help the campaign, she said.
Stacey Reynolds, 51, is white and lives in New Boston, a small community in the western corner of Wayne County. A Clinton voter in 2016, she said she’s thrilled Harris is the vice presidential nominee.
“Her nomination breathes a fresh air and welcome change. I am tired of rich white men being in charge,” said Reynolds, a customer service representative.
“The majority of the people I know are excited about the idea of Kamala being vice president. A major change is needed in our government and this would be a step in the right direction.”
Misunderstanding the suburbs
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel embraced being a suburban housewife during her party’s national convention, describing herself as “a real housewife and a mom from Michigan, with two wonderful kids in public school who happens to be only the second woman in 164 years to run the Republican Party.”
In theory, Katie MacKinnon fits the same mold and is a prime target for Republicans in Michigan. She’s 40, white, lives in Royal Oak and stays at home with her four children when she’s not volunteering. She’s concerned about the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, healthcare and her children’s education.
But she eschews the title “suburban housewife” and the connotations she believes Trump associates with the phrase.
“The term itself feels like a relic, and the concept feels implicitly racist. I resent the assumption that I would be likely to be in favor of discriminatory housing practices,” MacKinnon said.
“Suburbs aren’t homogeneous spaces, and the women I know who could be classified as suburban housewives are a diverse group — I don’t think these comments resonate with many people in my community.”
Cox defended the president’s comments, arguing, “the largest investment most American’s make is purchasing a home, and polices which threaten home values are a legitimate issue.”
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But the president’s messaging portrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the suburbs, said Karyn Lacy, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who has extensively studied the dynamics of U.S. suburbs.
Suburban communities were not forced to build housing projects. And the majority of every demographic in the U.S., including Black, Latino and Asian residents, live in a suburb, Lacy said.
Though that isn’t the case in metro Detroit, where the suburbs continue to be predominantly white, Lacy said it still doesn’t bode well for Trump.
She believes his rhetoric is “woefully out-of-date” and risks alienating any woman.
“I don’t think this messaging will appeal to women of color, who for too long were excluded from the suburbs. I don’t think it will appeal to most middle-class white women who are less likely to be worried about property values than more financially strained women might be,” Lacy said.
She specifically examined Macomb County, a must-win for either presidential candidate.
While Barack Obama won the county by about four percentage points in 2012, Trump won it by almost 12 percentage points in 2016. Yet in 2018, Whitmer and Stabenow both won the county. Trump campaigned in the county days before the 2016 election, promising — incorrectly, it would turn out — that if he was elected no automotive manufacturing plants would close. Last week, Biden visited a UAW hall in the county.
“Warren, Macomb County’s largest city, is experiencing white population loss, leaving an opening for an influx of Black residents. The Black population increased significantly in the 2000s, from a mere 3,700 people at the beginning of the decade to over 18,000 by the end. The Asian population is growing there too. With a poverty rate of around 19% (in Warren), Trump’s message may resonate with white residents of this lower-middle class suburb,” Lacy said.
“But GOP gains in places like Warren will be offset by voters in places like Flint, where Republican leadership created a water crisis with long-term damaging effects for the city’s children.”
Lacy also refuted assertions she said the president is trying to make regarding Black entry to the suburbs and lowering property values. The first Black family in a predominantly white neighborhood typically increases local home values, Lacy said, noting longstanding racist impediments to Black home ownership frequently result in those who are able to buy paying an above market rate.
Still, Lacy acknowledged the president’s message may find receptive ears.
“But some people will believe Trump’s misguided logic, and those homeowners will worry about losing their asset, about not having anything to pass down to their kids,” Lacy said
Neighbor vs. neighbor
Shannon Epps is a suburban woman offended by the president’s comments and actions. The 44-year-old middle school teacher said Trump’s divisiveness has led her to no longer speak with some of her Canton neighbors and former friends.
Shannon Epps of Canton poses for a photo outside of her home in Canton, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)
Epps, who identifies as multi-racial, said anyone who supports Trump “is accepting of discrimination and hostility toward minorities.”
“During the last four years my life has gotten worse, I believe, due to that awful person in office and the racist rhetoric he spews,” Epps said.
“In my community, my children have to listen to peers repeat his racist remarks and embrace division and support. This has led to stress, anger and sadness which has caused my family to stop talking to neighbors and friends due to their support of someone that embraces white supremacy.”
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Joyce Peralta said she has lost friends as well over the president. Peralta is in theory another prime target for the GOP — she’s 66, white, retired and lives in Beverly Hills in Oakland County.
But she said she cannot stand his words or his deeds. She said she can no longer write off her property taxes because of the 2017 tax reform bill Trump championed. Peralta wants to see improvements to the Affordable Care Act and stability in funding for Social Security.
And, like many of the women interviewed for this article, she is concerned about the lack of a concerted national strategy to battle the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
“Trump’s denial of the expert’s recommendations has prolonged the pandemic and cost more illness and many more deaths than there needed to be,” said Peralta, a snowbird who typically stays in Florida until April.
“This year we stayed until the end of May, when Michigan COVID (infection rates) improved greatly just as Florida cases were exploding. It was great to return to Michigan where masks and social distancing was practiced by the great majority of residents. Good leadership that follows medical science makes a big difference in fighting COVID.”
Trump supporters among women
Tina Oldford and Jennifer Hay live in Howell, but made the roughly 90-minute trip recently to see Trump speak in Freeland. Neither joined more than 65,000 of their Livingston County neighbors in voting for the president in 2016.
But both plan to cast their ballots this fall, the first either say they’ve cast in a presidential election, for Trump.
“Sure, we had a downfall. Everybody knows that we had a downfall,” said Oldford, 59, referencing the economic collapse that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. “This could have happened to anybody. But the economy was great.
“I just felt more secure than I’ve ever felt in my life with Trump.”
Hay agrees. She said Biden cannot become president, and dismissed the idea that the president’s at-times vulgar and inappropriate conduct should disqualify him as a candidate.
“He puts the people first, not himself,” said Hay, 53.
But many in Michigan’s suburbs and throughout the country blame the president for poorly handling the response to the pandemic.
Multiple polls show Michigan voters favor Whitmer over Trump. Her approval rating is 56% as of the new Free Press poll, 13 percentage points higher than the president’s.
That disparity is even greater when just looking at women polled. Whitmer received positive marks from 61% of Michigan women polled, compared with 37% for Trump.
The poll was conducted between Sept. 10 and Sept. 15 by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for the Free Press and other media partners. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Many of the women interviewed for this story support Whitmer’s actions on the pandemic. Bagchi, the Northville dentist, said she understands some people are frustrated with some of the governor’s decisions.
But she thinks Whitmer’s hands were tied, largely because of a lack of national strategy to fight the pandemic.
“I just wish that there had been more of a clear direction from the top for those of us who are just looking to kind of go back to normalcy,” Bagchi said.
It’s a simple ask. Yes, Bacghi wants a president who can work toward ensuring her children and everyone’s kids have access to a quality education. She also wants to make sure Medicare and Social Security are protected, and that the U.S. Postal Service functions properly.
But right now, she’s trying to be a teacher and mother for two children while running a small business. At the moment, she’d settle for stability and returning to a life that feels normal.
Something she, and many other women in Michigan’s suburbs, said they do not believe Trump is able to deliver.
Contact Dave Boucher at [email protected] or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.
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