Nolan Finley is the Editorial Page Editor of The Detroit News. He directs the expression of the newspaper’s editorial position on various national and local issues, and also writes a column in the Thursday and Sunday newspapers. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Detroit (CNN)There’s no way Hillary Clinton should have lost Michigan in 2016. And there’s no way Donald Trump should win it again in 2020.
But Clinton did lose, and Trump could win once more. Nolan FinleyThat’s why Joe Biden is continuing to pour resources into the state, despite recent polls that indicate he has a comfortable eight-point lead over the President in Michigan heading into the final month of campaigning.Michigan, a once reliably Democratic presidential state, is suddenly unpredictable. The lesson learned from the last election is don’t quit running here until you’ve crossed the finish line.”Democrats are taking Michigan seriously this time,” Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn told me. Dingell screamed into the wind in the final days of the 2016 contest that her state was slipping away. Trump ultimately won by less than a quarter of a percentage point. Read MoreI was among those who missed the building Trump wave in 2016. It made no sense. Although Michigan has run anti-establishment in past primaries — it picked Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016, in general elections it prefers moderate presidential candidates. Trump seemed an impossible fit. And he seems so again this year, following a 2018 midterm Democratic election sweep that booted a Republican Party whose tax and regulatory reforms helped end a 10-year recession. That was taken as a resounding anti-Trump statement, and a bad omen for Republicans heading into the next presidential contest.Why many Pennsylvania voters still like TrumpBut caution is the guidance for prognosticators assessing where Michigan will go on Election Day. In Biden’s favor should be the increased activism by African American voters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Nearly 42,000 fewer voters in Detroit, a city that is more than 75% Black, cast ballots for president in 2016 compared to 2012. Clinton lost the state by less than 11,000 votes.But even with an African American running mate, Karen Dumas, a communications strategist and veteran of Detroit politics, tells me that Black voters still aren’t as excited as they were when Biden was on the ticket with Barack Obama.”While a lot of people don’t like what they have seen come out of the Trump administration, I don’t think Biden and Harris have ignited them as well as they should have,” Dumas said. “People are doing their research and remember Biden’s role in the crime deal in ’94 and Harris’ prosecutorial record and are again looking at this as the lesser of two evils. “I see increased voter apathy. People are asking what difference does it really make? Black people have been asking for the same thing for 50 years and are still waiting.”Trump's one hope to win WisconsinDemocrats in Michigan are also hurt by the disarray in the once politically potent United Auto Workers union, which has served as the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote engine. With much of the UAW’s recent leadership either indicted or in jail amid a federal corruption probe, the union is less politically active this year. And, with trust broken with the membership, it’s less influential. (The UAW is cooperating with investigators, and several of the indicted officials have pleaded guilty.) Industrial workers in general are expected to break for Trump in Michigan; the Democratic environmental and economic agenda is seen as just too extreme for workers whose livelihoods depend on a strong manufacturing base.”I remember well when Hillary Clinton pounded her fist and said we are going to put a lot of coal mines out of business,” says Terry Bowman, a union Ford worker and Republican Party volunteer, told me. “West Virginia completely flipped and started supporting Republicans.”We asked, ‘How long is it going to be until they come after us?’ Now we know it’s the Green New Deal that treats autoworkers and automakers as the enemy. Very few people I work with trust Joe Biden on this; but they do trust Donald Trump.”The three biggest myths about battleground statesRepublicans insist those increasingly conservative blue-collar voters are moving the state in Trump’s favor. They complain polls, which give Biden a clear lead, are missing the trend just as they did in 2016 because they’re again oversampling Democrats.”Internal Republican polling has the race dead even,” explained GOP strategist Saul Anuzis to me. “The general environment is as good or better as it’s ever been for Republicans at this point in the cycle.”Democrats must be seeing some truth in that claim. Biden has made Michigan a regular stop on his small, in-person campaign schedule. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris has also swung through, heeding those like Dingell who are certain the state is still play.”It will be competitive until Election Day,” the congresswoman told me.My political instincts are influenced by what I see on front lawns. Drive around metro Detroit and yards are sprouting Trump signs. Giant Trump flags cover the sides of houses and wave from the beds of pick-ups and the decks of boats. There are more Biden signs than there were for Clinton in 2016, but still far fewer, it seems, than for Trump.A key fix for an unthinkable election disasterMaybe that suggests a stronger enthusiasm among Trump voters for their candidate. Or maybe it reflects the reality that this election, in Michigan at least, has almost nothing to do with Biden. Trump is the only issue, and he’s motivating voters of both parties. Michigan voters I have interviewed either want Trump — or want him gone. Those who want the President, says Anuzis, are convinced he can keep the economy growing by supporting American manufacturers and the blue-collar jobs they produce.But there’s something more important to them that Trump represents. They see him as the last line of defense against what they view as a radical minority intent on remaking the country in a way that leaves out the vast American middle. Despite his erraticism, they still consider Trump a stabilizing force. Every image of an American city on fire or protesters harassing senior citizens creates another Trump voter or solidifies an old one.”The riots have produced a lot of movement that has been helpful for Trump,” says Anuzis, who is also a former state GOP party chair.For those who don’t want Trump, Biden could be anybody whose name is on the ballot opposite from his. They hate the President with every fiber of their being.So, Michigan comes down to whether love or hate is a more powerful motivator for voters. Anuzis, who believes Trump will perform better in Michigan than he did in 2016, rightly describes this as a turnout election. Get our free weekly newsletter
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“Whoever does the better job of motivating their voters will win,” he says. Heavy turnouts in Michigan tend to favor Democrats, since there are more of them — had Democrats voted in their typical number in 2016, Michigan would have been safely in the Clinton column.Pollster Richard Czuba of Glengariff Group, a nonpartisan research firm, tells me that while enthusiasm to vote is at historic levels for both parties, it is particularly so for moderate voters in Michigan who lean Democratic. And yet, there’s something in the air that smells familiar, something most of us didn’t recognize four years ago. We’d be smart not to ignore it as this campaign closes in Michigan.
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