In The Battleground State of Michigan, Long Memories, New Dynamics

September 19, 2020 by Dan McCue
President Donald Trump waves as he arrives for a campaign rally at MBS International Airport, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Freeland, Mich. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – The hallmark of a true battleground state is that any one of a variety of factors can come into play and make a sure bet in the weeks leading up to the vote an “also ran” on election night.

In that respect Michigan in 2020 may well represent the purest example of the form.

The recent history of presidential politics in the state is replete with examples of how smooth running campaigns suddenly ran off the rails.

Although Democratic candidates had won every election in Michigan since 1992, sometimes by decisive margins, in the early fall of 2012, Republican Mitt Romney was tied with President Barack Obama.

Then, about mid-September 2012, the Romney campaign abruptly decided their candidate couldn’t win Michigan, and even if he did, he couldn’t win the Electoral College, so it essentially pulled most of its resources out of the state, helping Obama sail to a 9.5% margin of victory.

At that point it seemed George H.W. Bush, who won Michigan in 1988, would be the last Republican to do so. Then came 2016.

Throughout the race, Hillary Clinton felt comfortable about her standing in the state, and in Brooklyn, N.Y., where her team was headquartered, the campaign’s models showed her as a virtual shoo-in, holding a 5% margin of victory on Election Day.

But that wasn’t what people in and around Michigan were hearing. Worried that its preferred candidate might lose the state, the Service Employees International Union decided to reroute its volunteers and do some ground work on Clinton’s behalf, going as far as chartering buses and renting hotel rooms.

The Clinton campaign rebuffed the effort and told the union stay put. The volunteers needed to stay in Iowa in order to convince Donald Trump he needed to continue to make a push there despite internal polls on both sides that showed Clinton being trounced there.

In fact, Trump would go on to win Iowa, garnering 51.2% of the vote to Clinton’s 41.7%. Her performance in the state was the worst for a Democrat since 1980.

Which brings us back to Michigan.

The Clinton campaign didn’t completely ignore the state, but Trump finally seized on its failure to recognize what was happening on the ground. In the final few days of the campaign, he poured time and money into the state, deliberately courting the White, working-class voters who’d become disaffected with Clinton.

On election night, Trump won Michigan by a narrow margin of 0.23%, with 47.50% of the vote compared to Clinton’s 47.27%. 

It was the narrowest margin of any state in the 2016 election.

Making it all the more inexplicable, with the exception of two polls, in August and in September 2016, Clinton won every pre-election poll in the state by margins of between 4% and 12% until November 2016, when Trump won the very last poll conducted, 49% to 47%.

Pandemic Colors Everything

This year, of course, the presidential contest is overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which upended the Democratic primaries, and has shaped the campaigns of candidates in both parties up and down the ticket.

“COVID-19, of course, is the unavoidable factor in this election, but there are a couple of other important differences,” said David Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and a political science professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

“One thing is the nature of the Senate and House races this year, and beyond that, there are actually some closely watched county executive races this year that could bring additional voters to the polls,” he said.

“The other thing that’s different from 2016 is that Trump is no longer the outsider,” Dulio said. “Last time, he was running as a business person, a reality TV star, what have you. Now, he’s running as an incumbent president and that’s a huge difference. He’s got a record to run on, and he’s going to be judged on it.”

While polls in Michigan are in line with those in other parts of the country, putting Trump’s overall approval rating somewhere in the lower 40s, Dulio said such data should be taken with a grain of salt.

“What we’ve seen, in some instances, is that there appears to be some level of hidden Trump support out there,” he said.

“Now, it’s hard to assess, but it could very well be that Trump’s approval rating in Michigan is higher than everyone thinks, perhaps rising as high as 45% or 49%,” he added.

As for the Democrats, Dulio said the emphasis in this strange election cycle continues to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of 2016.

“I think the Clinton people assumed the blue wall was real and it turned out to be a house of cards,” he said.

“And that was rooted in the fact she was deeply unpopular with a large segment of the public, including here in Michigan, and critically, she did not enthuse the African-American community as much as some other Democrats have. Voter turnout in Detroit was way down. Those were votes to be had, and she didn’t get them.”

Rallying the Vote No Easy Matter

Vaughn Derderian, chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Committee, has a unique perspective on the 2020 Elections.

As it happens, portions of his county are in the 8th and 11th Congressional Districts, Michigan’s swing districts, where perhaps the competition for votes in the state is the fiercest.

Campaign volunteers there were primed and ready to go as 2020 began, only to see the pandemic upend all their plans.

“Everybody wants to get out and knock on doors,” Derderian said. “I think the general feeling is that people took it for granted in 2016 that we were going to win, and we kind of took our foot off the gas and let the machine idle … and we lost.

“I think people came into the year with the mindset that we’ve just got to keep working, keep pushing until the election is over,” he said.

But they’ve had to do so without door-to-door canvassing.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued more than 100 executive orders intended to curtail the spread of the virus, and while most have expired or been replaced by subsequent orders, she faces stiff opposition from Republicans in the legislature and their supporters, who are trying to rescind the 75-year-old law that enabled her to impose coronavirus restrictions unilaterally.

Derderian said the controversy, and the natural desire among Democrats to support their Democratic governor, is further complicating the campaign.

“I think as Democrats we have a responsibility to be a model of responsible behavior every step of the way, and that means having to admit to ourselves that campaign offices are dangerous, that door-to-door campaigning entails a risk.”

Derderian said while for some a campaign might seem illegitimate without a “big office somewhere, giant rallies going on, and knocking on doors all the time,” that’s just not the reality of this year in Michigan.

“As we make decisions about how we campaign and do our voter outreach, we have to keep in mind that we have a responsibility not to do anything to weaken the ability of our governor to keep doing the work that needs to be done to save lives,” he said.

Dulio suggested the public understands.

“The campaigns are doing what they can,” he said. “Biden visited here last week, Dr. Jill Biden was here yesterday, and in both cases they concentrated on small gatherings.”

“And frankly, it’s less about who attends those things and more about the earned media that comes after them. Biden got a great deal of attention on local news across the state from his visit, and I suspect he’s getting more bang for his buck with that than he would doing a traditional campaign stop.”

John A. Clark, the chair of the political science department at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., said he expects even without traditional campaigning, at least one segment of voters to actively move into the Trump or Biden column — supporters of third-party candidates in 2016 who feel remorse about the outcome.

“My expectation is that most people that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are planning to vote for Joe Biden, and that most of the people who voted for Trump are likely to vote for him again,” Clark said.

“But remember, in that race there were an awful lot of Democrats and Republicans who felt as though their respective party nominees were just not speaking to them,” he said.

“Where I think the real difference is going to be is in those voters who opted instead to vote for a third-party candidate the last time around,” Clark continued. “I mean look at the margin of victory in 2016. If only a small number of these voters had voted for one of the major party candidates, the outcome could have been much different.

“My guess is that some folks are now saying to themselves, ‘I voted for the Green Party candidate in 2016, and what I got was the worst possible outcome.’ Likewise, I think there are people who voted for the U.S. Constitution Party candidate or the Taxpayers Party candidate or the Libertarian Party candidate, who are now saying, ‘My vote didn’t make a difference last time, I’m going to vote for one of the major party candidates this time, so my vote can make an impact.’”

Shifting Messages

Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said the issues that candidates run on tend to be fluid from election cycle to election cycle and even within them.

In 2008, he recalled, Republicans trumpeted their candidate’s experience when the race pitted Sen. John McCain against the relative newcomer Sen. Barack Obama, but they pushed against experience eight years later, when Donald Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, who was not only a former first lady, but also a former senator and secretary of state.

“This time around, of course, Trump is the incumbent. How much does that help him?” Grossmann asked rhetorically. “Typically, incumbency is seen as an advantage. It gives the candidate access to a lot of resources for spreading their message — and allows them to take advantage of even middling news.

“For instance, we all know the economy collapsed in April due to the cornavirus, but there are still people who are willing to give Trump credit because the economy is recovering … and that’s something to watch in this race because historically, the economy doesn’t have to be humming for a president to be re-elected, it only has to not be in recession.

“The disadvantage Trump has as the incumbent, at least the biggest one so far, is the pandemic, and he’s going to be blamed for the things that didn’t go so well. That’s still a top concern among voters, and you see it being used extensively in the advertising here,” Grossmann said.

He then went on to describe two interesting shifts in how issues are being handled. One is health care. In 2018, many Republicans ran on an anti-Affordable Care Act platform, and that gave Democrats an advantage that led to the so-called “Blue Wave” of electoral victories.

This year, many Republicans on the local level are tempering their messaging, saying they still don’t like Obamacare, but they support coverage of pre-existing conditions — in essence trying to walk a tightrope on the issue of health care. But Grosseman said because the Republicans continued to try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act after the onset of the pandemic, the advantage remains with Democrats on the issue.

He also finds it interesting that Trump is already moving away from the law-and-order messaging of the Republican National Convention and trying to make more of what economic recovery has occurred.

“[Trump] did succeed in displacing the national agenda for a time and getting it to focus on law-and-order, but then the polls came back, showing people trust Biden more to deal with the issue and that of race relations.

“Over the summer here in Michigan I would say 80% of the advertising for Trump mentioned ‘crime’ in some fashion, now they are moving more and more to putting the economy front and center,” Grossmann said.

He attributed part of that to the local context. While Michigan saw its share of large protests during the summer, Detroit saw nowhere near the property damage other cities saw.

“So it’s possible the issue just doesn’t play as well in Michigan,” Grossmann said.

New Wrinkle in Absentee Voting

Besides the onset of a global pandemic, the other major difference between this presidential election and the last one is that Michigan dramatically loosened its absentee voting rules in the interim.

In 2018 the state, which once had some of the strictest absentee ballots rules in the country, imposed a new set of rules that allow for “no excuse” absentee voting and same day voter registration.

“Michigan is not used to having millions of people voting by absentee ballot and that’s what we’re going to have this time,” Dulio said.

“So there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty associated with all this, particularly in regard to whether local elections clerks will be able to handle the crush of absentee ballots. This is uncharted territory.”

Some in the state believe the vote in Michigan could still be in the process of being counted days, and even weeks, after Election Day.

“When it comes to these absentee ballots, we’re in an all bets are off situation,” Dulio said. “And then the concern becomes, what do we do if we’re still counting when some of the election-related statutory deadlines begin to come up, especially those related to the actual vote in the Electoral College.”

Professor Clark agreed there is considerable uncertainty about the expected surged in absentee ballots and the counting of them. At the same time, he said he doesn’t necessarily believe absentee balloting gives any one party or candidate an advantage in the state.

“President Trump has tried to call mail-in balloting into question, but the reality is both parties are trying to motivate their supporters to take advantage of voting by mail. Here in Michigan, for instance, despite what the president has said, Republicans on the state and local level are certainly trying to encourage their supporters to vote by mail.”

Senate Race Driving Interest in Undercard

Democrats who cheered when Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin flipped the 8th and 11th Congressional Districts to their party in 2018 are closely following their reelection bids.

The consensus among many, but not all political observers is that neither their races, nor those of other congressional candidates in the state will have much influence on the presidential race.

In part, that’s due to those contests being overshadowed by a spirited Senate race in which incumbent Democrat Sen. Gary Peters is being challenged by Republican John James, a West Point graduate who spent eight years as an Army ranger and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After his military service, James, who is African-American, grew his family business from $35 million in revenue to $137 million, creating 100 jobs in the process, according to his campaign biography.

By early summer, both candidates had raised well over $20 million and were spending it on television, radio and digital ads.

In July, Peters enjoyed a substantial 10% lead in the polls, besting James 50%-40%, according to the Detroit News.

However, the race has tightened significantly in recent weeks, with Peters’ lead now down to about 3 percentage points.

A Sept. 8 poll of likely voters conducted by the Gelngariff Group for the Detroit News and WDIV-TV showed Peters leading 44% to 41% over James, with just over 14% remaining undecided.

A poll released Friday by the Detroit Free Press shows Peters leading James 45%-41%, with 5% now saying they support one of the three third-party candidates in the race and 9% undecided.

The three independent candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot are Valerie Willis, of the US Taxpayers Party, Marcia Squier, of the Green Party, and Doug Dern, of the Natural Law Party.

The poll, which was conducted by EPIC-MRA of Lansing, Mich., has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning the race could be a virtual dead heat.

Most political observers agree that the question in the race is whether Black voters inclined to support a Black candidate will vote for James and then remain in the Republican column and vote for Trump, make a diagonal move across the ballot and vote for Biden, or, as happened many times in 2016, simply leave the choice of president blank.

“There are really two decisions that voters make,” Professor Clark said. “One is who they are going to vote for … but the other is whether they are going to vote at all.

“A lot has been said here about Democrats reclaiming support among African-American voters, particularly in the Detroit area. Those folks were not going to vote for Trump, but they didn’t vote for Clinton. So the voter turnout among that population certainly could make a substantial difference this year.”

While Derderian agreed the Senate race could play a role in what happens up and down the ticket in Michigan, he said Reps. Stevens and Slotkin already have played an outsized role in the 2020 contest.

“I think the most important thing they’ve been able to do as Democrats is carry our messaging into areas that would not have been ready to hear it five or 10 years ago,” Derderian said.

“One of the burdens we have, as Democrats, is that we have a responsibility to put our policies in place over strong opposition. We’re always fighting uphill against the conservative media infrastructure that says, ‘Everything Democratic is horrible.’

“Haley and Elissa are incredible communicators and I think because of their records of bipartisanship, they are able to go into communities that aren’t traditionally hospitable to Democrats and really make a passionate case for why the policies they support are important and do it in a way that speaks to people in those communities,” Derderian said, adding “I think that’s priceless.”

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