GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — President Trump ended his election campaign in the place that set him on a course to victory in 2016, appealing to the people of Michigan to power him to another come-from-behind victory.
“We want to do it just like last time,” he told supporters who waited for hours in the bitter Michigan cold at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, “but give me a little more margin than last time.”
Once again Trump finds himself down in the polls and written off by many pundits. But as the clock ticked past midnight into Election Day, he reminded voters of how his 1 a.m. appearance in the same city triggered a surprise win four years ago.
“We came home late and we watched a beautiful victory and we’re going to have another victory tomorrow,” he said.
He arrived in Grand Rapids after touring battleground states and painting a dark picture of the choice facing the country. He launched attacks on mail-in ballots, condemned court decisions that went against him and raised the specter of street violence, as he traded jabs with Joe Biden’s campaign as they prepare for post-election legal fights.
Trump laid the groundwork at a rally in Pennsylvania. He suggested it was “dangerous” to allow officials to count ballots as much as three days after Election Day.
“You have to have a date. You can’t extend dates,” he said, as he reminded a boisterous crowd in Scranton, Biden’s early childhood home, how he won the state in 2016 despite being behind in the polls.
Yet it was in Grand Rapids that the spirit of 2016 was most keenly felt. It was here that he finished his first presidential campaign with a rally in the early hours of Election Day. It proved to be a final flourish en route to an unlikely, unpredicted victory.
But analysts say barnstorming rallies may work for an outsider candidate but are proving less effective for an incumbent during a pandemic.
Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, said he may be searching in vain for a repeat of 2016.
“I’m amazed at his energy and so soon after having COVID-19. But my sense is that he hasn’t been as disciplined in terms of his message,” Zaino said. “Attacking doctors, Hunter Biden’s laptop, riles up the base but may not help him win this time.”
Short on campaign cash, Trump has found himself coming off second best to Biden in TV advertising.
Instead he has turned to the same playbook he used in 2016, racing around the country with high-octane rallies.
On Monday he appeared at five rallies in four states: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and two events in Michigan.
In his final appearance he made only passing reference to what aides say are his greatest achievements this year — a rebounding economy, Middle East accords, and the recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — and instead unleashed a bewildering array of grievances and attack lines focused on “fake news,” China, the “deep state,” “phony witch hunts,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer all came under fire within the first 20 minutes.
Trump reserved special scorn for impeachment investigations that overshadowed much of his presidency.
“They found no collusion after all, which make me perhaps the most innocent man anywhere in the history of the United States,” he said,
A boisterous crowd, the biggest of the day despite the late hour, lapped it all up. “Lock her up,” they chanted at mention of Whitmer and, “We love you,” as Trump claimed his innocence.
“This is not a crowd of someone who is going to lose the state of Michigan,” he said.
That energy and excitement were as much the message as the words for many attendees.
Sue Skidmore, 48, a mail carrier from Grand Rapids, was wrapped up warm against the biting Michigan cold. She had been at the site since 11:30 a.m. for a chance to see the man she described as the “greatest president” in history.
“You see the enthusiasm. He’s done 14 rallies in three days and each seems bigger than the last,” she said, her rainbow “MAGA” hat marking her out as a gay conservative. “And you look at the Biden campaign and don’t see that enthusiasm.”
Last time around, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. It remains crucial for his path back to the White House but polls suggest he is trailing Biden by about 5 percentage points.
Grand Rapids and the conservative counties around it are where Trump needs to turn out votes if he is to have a hope of winning again.
Rusty Richter, realtor and Republican activist, was at the closing rally in 2016 and sees the same result coming this time.
“Just like four years ago there’s been a real change across the country in the last week. It has been moving toward Trump,” he said.
“That’s why he’s back tonight. It’s what he did four years ago and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”