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In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Some Cracks Emerge in the Pro-Trump Wall

ST. IGNACE, Mich. — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for many things: its enviable location, nestled among three of the five Great Lakes — Huron, Superior and Michigan; hundreds of waterfalls and vast expanses of lush forests; and pasties, a concoction of meat, potatoes and vegetables enrobed in dough that served as a portable meal for those heading into the copper and iron ore mines.

Politically, it’s known for something else — it’s the heart of Trump country in a state that helped propel Mr. Trump to the presidency in 2016, and it’s one of the key battlegrounds in 2020. Just how solid his support remains and whether Democrats can make inroads in his rural strongholds could go a long way in determining whether Mr. Trump can win Michigan again.

Mr. Trump swept 14 of the 15 counties in the region, beating Hillary Clinton in 2016 by an 82,009-to-55,116-vote margin in a race he won statewide by a mere 10,704 votes. Four years later, “Keep America Great” flags and signs dot the landscape again and Trump headwear are out in force, whether it’s the familiar red “Make America Great Again” hats or newer flag or camouflage versions.

“It’s the silent majority that you’re going to see come out for Trump,” said Bob Peltier II, 50, of Sault Ste. Marie. “The iceberg used to be that big piece above the water and now it’s a little bit bigger. But the part below the water that you can’t see is really big.”

He added, “If Trump does not get elected in 2020, we’re all doomed, in my opinion.”

But while the Upper Peninsula may have been solid Trump country four years ago and will probably go for him in 2020, some people in the area think the margins won’t be as large.

For starters, the state has trended back toward the Democrats since 2016. Gretchen Whitmer easily won the governor’s race in 2018 by nearly 10 points. She shrunk the margins in the Upper Peninsula considerably, losing the region by 7,073 votes, compared with the 26,893-vote margin of victory for Mr. Trump in 2016.

And people cite a lack of progress on issues affecting the Great Lakes, climate change, the effect of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies on the labor supply for small farmers and, in particular, the failures in combating the pandemic as reasons at least some 2016 Trump voters will not be supporting him this year.

Rod Nelson, 65, a lifelong Republican and the retired C.E.O. of the Mackinac Straits Health System, said he had been “astonished” at the lack of leadership in handling the coronavirus crisis from Mr. Trump, a man he voted for in 2016, but won’t again in 2020.

Mr. Nelson’s son lives in Taiwan and while visiting there in January, his son’s in-laws told him they believed the coronavirus, then reported to be a few thousand cases largely limited to China, was more extensive than that. They were seeing at the time “smoke constantly coming from the crematoriums.” If he and his relatives knew it was going to get bad, he noted, “certainly the U.S. knew.”

“If Trump had just worn that damn mask from the beginning, his supporters would have too,” he said.

Duplicating the same strategy employed in 2018, Democrats sent campaign staff members to the Upper Peninsula in 2019 and still have dozens of organizers making calls and doing virtual trainings and meetings throughout the area.

“In 2016, voters up here didn’t like Hillary and they also didn’t want another Obama in office,” said Melissa Shaffer-O’Connell, a professor of political science at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie. “They thought Trump was speaking his mind, and being blunt in the U.P. is a positive.” She believes the Upper Peninsula is “going to stay solidly red with the exception of a couple of counties” but that it’s “going to be less Republican.”

Mr. Trump is now trying to expand beyond his loyal base of support and appeal to moderate Republicans who might be leaning away from his re-election, as well as independents. During the second night of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, some speakers took on a more placating tone.

First Lady Melania Trump expressed sympathy for those who had lost loved ones to the pandemic, and acknowledged the racial unrest that continued to rock the country. And rather than characterize the protests as disorder and anarchy, as a number of speakers had done during the convention, she took a more temperate approach.

“I urge people to come together in a civil manner, so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals,” she said. “I also ask people to stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice and never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin.”

She went on to call her husband “authentic,” saying “whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking.”

That is also exactly what has attracted many of Mr. Trump’s most devoted supporters. Many Yoopers, as residents of the Upper Peninsula are called, are sticking by him, even if they don’t always like his Twitter feed or some of his proclamations.

As types go, Yoopers are fiercely independent, ruggedly self sufficient, resistant to government intrusion and overwhelmingly white. They live in an area spread across 16,377 square miles — bigger than Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but with a fraction of the population.

Mr. Peltier, the finance manager at an auto dealership in Sault Ste. Marie, said Mr. Trump best reflects his conservative values and his desire to be left alone by government.

“I joke with my wife because I watched ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and I said, ‘Why can’t society just be like that?’” he said, alluding to the idyllic life in the imaginary town of Mayberry.

In the Upper Peninsula, life is already a bit like in Mayberry for many of the nearly 300,000 residents.

North of the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge that connects the two parts of Michigan, the population is predominantly white and older, and violent crime is rare — there were only five murders in the Upper Peninsula in 2019.

Jodee and Tuffy Burton, lifelong residents of the Upper Peninsula and owners of a logging company in McMillan in the middle of the region, said it’s a point of pride that they never lock their doors or vehicles.

“That’s just how it is in the U.P.,” said Ms. Burton, 63.

Mr. Burton, 65, proudly wears a “Keep America Great” hat, hangs a Trump/Pence re-election sign on his pontoon boat and keeps Trump stickers handy to distribute to customers, friends and family.

“The biggest reason that I’m such a Trump supporter is that he doesn’t have to do any of this,” he said. “He can go kick back at any one of his high rises anyplace in the world and just live all the rest of his years comfortably.”

The Upper Peninsula hasn’t always been a Republican stronghold. Fueled by copper, iron ore and nickel mines in the 1800s and 1900s, the region had a strong economy and a large union work force who were loyal Democrats. While the rest of Michigan handed a big presidential victory to George H.W. Bush in 1988, the Upper Peninsula voted for the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, and followed up with a near sweep for Bill Clinton in 1992 and a totally blue map in 1996.

While the Upper Peninsula voted for George W. Bush twice, it gave Barack Obama a narrow victory in 2008. But in 2012, 13 of 15 counties supported the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, and by 2016, all but Marquette County, home of Northern Michigan University, voted for Mr. Trump.

“Lately it’s been more emotion that people vote on,” said former Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Escanaba, Mich., who served in Congress until 2010. “They think about ‘Are you going to take away my guns.’ And Right to Life is still a big issue up here.”

Mr. Burton agrees.

“Most of rural America has guns,” he said. “If they come in and try to take them away, that could lead to some shooting.”

And Ms. Burton said that she’s incensed that a woman can get an abortion — on demand, as she portrayed it — and about having to “mask up” to go to the dentist or grocery store.

For Cindy Dutcher, 63, owner of a 120-acre organic farm in the eastern Upper Peninsula town of Goetzville, she’s forgoing the $5,000 to $6,000 she would have made from her “u-pick” blueberry business rather than having to deal with customers who refuse to wear masks.

“I’m older, my bills are paid and my farm is all paid for,” she said. “There’s no way that I’d open my farm to the public this year, because I’m afraid of anti-masker meltdowns.”

While she voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, in 2016, she’s all in for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, noting, “I’d vote for a tuna sandwich before I’d vote for Trump.”

Shirley Dishaw-Beck, a 60-year-old nurse from Crystal Falls in the western Upper Peninsula, is a Democrat. She said she blames Mr. Trump for the mixed messaging on the coronavirus.

“We had a directive from our Bishop that said masks are mandatory and at church this morning, a few anti-maskers began shouting and being really aggressive about it,” she said. “This mask thing is breaking my heart that people aren’t concerned or caring enough about others.”

Supporters of Mr. Trump said the coronavirus crisis hasn’t had much of an impact on their lives. Stacy Neff, 52, a hair stylist and owner of the Tangled Creations Salon in Newberry, was out of work for more than two months during the shutdowns mandated by Ms. Whitmer, but got by on unemployment as well as her husband’s salary as a soda delivery driver. While she’s not overly concerned about Covid-19 — only four cases have been recorded in her county — she is alarmed at the invasion of tourists into the Upper Peninsula since the Fourth of July. The 377 cases recorded in mid-July have now grown to 897.

“We look around and say thank God we’re hiding out here in the middle of the woods where nobody can find us,” Ms. Neff said. “It’s like Gilligan’s Island up here, just leave us alone.”

Mr. Burton said business has been good. The demand for two-by-fours needed for the home construction industry is coming back and the low price of gas has made up for the loss of business during the Covid-19 slowdown.

“He’s a sarcastic egomaniac, but that’s part of what I like about him,” he said. “Because maybe there’s a little bit of me that says and does the same thing.”

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