Former President Bill Clinton drew a huge crowd to a small union hall in Lansing Sunday after visiting churches in Flint as final efforts intensified to bring out the Democratic vote Tuesday to make Hillary Clinton the first woman president in U.S. history.
As the national election spotlight shone brightly on Michigan Sunday as a state that could be pivotal, Lansing-area residents lined up for blocks for Bill Clinton's 1 p.m. rally at the union hall of UAW Local 652, which was full to capacity with more than 600 supporters when the nation's 42nd president took the stage.
Bill Clinton, who spoke for 30 minutes, said given the improvement in the economy since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Tuesday's election in many ways shouldn't be close.
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However, "there's a lot of road rage out there because after the financial crisis, it took a long time before incomes started going up again," and many families have still not caught up to where they were before the last recession, he said. Now, "we are finally seeing incomes start to rise," but whether that continues will hinge on Tuesday's outcome, he said.
"We don't need to go back and reconfigure the social totem pole the way it was 50 years ago."
In a presidential election between two polarizing candidates -- Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump -- Clinton's spouse Bill Clinton is among the most polarizing surrogates.
Revered by many Democrats as a president who led the country during an economic boom during the 1990s and posted federal budget surpluses, Bill Clinton is particularly popular among black voters.
But he was also only the second U.S. president in history to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives -- on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998. Clinton was acquitted, but his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and subsequent lies about it – along with accusations of extramarital misconduct involving other women – has been sometimes problematic for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“He’s still a big draw for Democrats,” said Lansing Clerk Chris Swope, a Democrat who observed that “whenever Bill and Hillary are kind of doing their jobs, they’re popular,” but “when they’re running, they’re suddenly unpopular.”
Bill Clinton's visits to Lansing and Flint came at a time that presidential campaign activity exploded in the state. Hillary Clinton and Obama are headed to Michigan on Monday — she in Grand Rapids, he in Ann Arbor — to get out the vote in the final hours of the presidential campaign. Trump will campaign at 6 tonight at the Freedom Hill concert venue in Sterling Heights and will return to Grand Rapids for an 11 p.m. rally Monday. After spending three days in Michigan last week, vice presidential candidate Mike Pence will rally voters at a 1 p.m. Monday stop in Traverse City and Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump will lead a roundtable with business women and an 11 a.m. community forum in the Grand Rapids suburb of Hudsonville on Monday.
Michigan, which has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, is suddenly being treated as a battleground again. Michigan has been seen in recent elections as part of the Democratic firewall, but Trump is making an aggressive play for the state’s 16 electoral votes as polls show the gap between him and Clinton could be 4 percentage points or less.
“We feel like we’ve got a lead” in Michigan, and “we want to hang on to it,” Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said in a Sunday morning conference call with reporters that “we just have seen our prospects improving in Michigan for quite a while now,” and “if they thought Michigan was in the bag, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would not be returning there today or tomorrow.”
Some of the late efforts by Clinton and her surrogates are focused in areas such as Detroit, where there are signs of less enthusiasm among black voters than in 2012 and 2008.
Michigan has no early voting, but Swope said absentee voting is up from 2012, with just over 11,100 Lansing absentee ballots cast as of Sunday, compared to 10,600 in total in 2012. The absentee voting is spread throughout the city, he said, and it’s hard to read much from the numbers or say whether overall turnout will be up or only that more people will vote absentee.
Joan Fabiano, an Okemos resident, organizer of the tea party group Grassroots in Michigan, and a Trump supporter, said Sunday she’s fairly confident of a Republican victory Tuesday because “there’s a lot more people in the movement than are being accounted for,” and “Trump supporters are energized and passionate,” to a much greater extent than Clinton supporters.
“I think Bill Clinton is more charismatic than Hillary Clinton,” Fabiano said. “I can understand the Clinton campaign sending Bill Clinton.”
Verlecia Kelley, a U.S. history teacher at Sexton High School in Lansing who was waiting in line to see Bill Clinton on Sunday, said sexism is a factor when many say Bill Clinton is more charismatic than his spouse, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.
“She’s bringing to the table what she has to offer,” said Kelley, who expects “history will continue to roll” Tuesday with the election of the first woman president.
Susan and Ernie St. Pierre of Williamston also attended the Bill Clinton rally in Lansing, saying Obama and Hillary Clinton's support for the Michigan auto industry is a major reason the state's economy has significantly improved.
“We take nothing for granted,” said Susan St. Pierre, a semi-retired school social worker.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Ernie St. Pierre, a restaurant owner.
Warming up the crowd for Bill Clinton in Lansing, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said it's time to "truly show every little girl that, just like her brother, she can dream the biggest dreams and make them happen."
Earlier Sunday in Flint, Bill Clinton exhorted a Baptist congregation to get to the polls Tuesday.
It was a familiar spot for Bill Clinton and other Democrats in cities across the state, who traditionally head to African American churches on the Sunday before the election to ensure that a loyal constituency turns out to the polls.
He told several hundred people attending Sunday morning services at Grace Emmanuel Baptist and the Macedonia Missionary Baptist churches in Flint to remember that Hillary Clinton started her campaign push in Michigan with a visit to Flint to address the public health crisis caused by lead leaching into the city's water after the city, which was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department which draws water from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
"On Tuesday, remember the best change maker I’ve ever known, a little girl who never forgot her Methodist mission to do all the good she could," he said. "And who, when Flint was down, she said send me, and all of sudden the whole world was looking at you. I ask you to wake up Tuesday morning and say, now send me."
Hillary Clinton first visited Flint in February and pushed for one of the Democratic debates to be held in the beleaguered city before the state's March 8 presidential primary race. Her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, visited Flint three times this year. Trump traveled to Flint in September, visiting the dormant Flint water treatment plant and speaking briefly at a church in the city before the pastor asked him to stop making political remarks in the church.
"On behalf of the candidate, my wife who I hope will be the next president, I’d like to thank the mayor and the people of Flint for what you did to not accept the unacceptable and refusing to pretend that it was just some sort of accident," Bill Clinton said. "I confess, even when she was running in the primary, I said if you only go back to Flint, you might not win Michigan because people will think you think it’s the only place there. But she said this is about America. It's bigger than just about the people of Flint."
Clinton also appealed to the African American congregations to ensure the country doesn't return to a more difficult time for minorities.
"Maybe you have to be a person of a certain age or have grown up in the South, but I know what 'Make America Great Again' means," he said, referring to Donald Trump's main campaign message. "When people see President Barack Obama and Michelle, I want people to see it as normal for everyone to have a chance to do this regardless of their race or background."
Clinton's lead over Trump in Michigan polls has shrunk from 11 points in early October to 4 points on Friday. She heeded the warning signs and held a "get out the vote" rally that attracted more than 4,000 people to Eastern Market on Friday. And Trump's trip to Macomb county will be his second in less than a week after holding rallies in Grand Rapids and Warren last Monday.