Iowa's Democratic caucus debacle is an opportunity — for Michigan.

Unlike the cornfield capital of America, the home of the Motor City ticks all the boxes today’s Democrats theoretically want, even need, in a go-first state. Michigan features a more racially and politically diverse population spread among several large cities, starting with Detroit and its large minority-majority population.

It's got sizable suburban swaths and rural, agricultural areas. Prominent college towns in Ann Arbor and East Lansing anchored by major research universities buttress a burgeoning technology sector and traditional manufacturing powered in part by union members. The state is headquarters to global automakers, the largest mortgage lender in the country and a labor stronghold co-existing in a right-to-work state.

Most important for an overdue campaign to demote Iowa — and New Hampshire — from the head of the nominating pack: Michigan is a central battleground state with a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor, and the next president of the United States will almost certainly need to win it to make it to the Oval Office.

African-Americans account for 14.1% of Michigan's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, slightly higher than the national average of 13.4%. By comparison, African-Americans total 4% of Iowans and just 1.7% in New Hampshire. And even if Michigan doesn't rank particularly high (15th) in National Public Radio's "Perfect State Index" to identify which state most closely mirrors the country (Illinois), there's no denying Michigan's importance as a national political bellwether.

Don't believe me? Look again at the results of 2016. Or ask President Donald Trump, whose appearances here are beginning to feel routine as he dispenses federal favors (Soo Locks? F-35s to Selfridge Air National Guard Base?). Winning a more or less 50-50 Michigan is likely to decide whether he remains president of a 50-50 nation, whatever his would-be opponents say amid record low unemployment, respectable economic growth and equity markets flirting with record highs.

"The Democrat caucus is an unmitigated disaster," Trump tweeted early Tuesday. "Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare Website, that should have cost 2% of that. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is 'Trump.'"

The mess that is Iowa's Democratic caucuses is a gift — to Trump, almost certain to use Tuesday night's State of the Union address to wield it as a rhetorical club against the party that impeached him; to a Democratic Party infrastructure that should understand it can't continuously tout its diversity and still allow Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in the nomination process ... because they are somehow entitled.

And it's a gift to gutsy pols like Rep. Debbie Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat. She took to Facebook and NewsTalk 760-WJR to call Monday's delayed results from Iowa's caucuses a "total screw-up." That's one way to describe yet another failing of folks who're supposed to be smarter than the unwashed masses caucusing in gyms, churches and community centers across Iowa.

Turns out they're not smarter — which is one of several reasons outsider populists like Trump and Vermont's self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders fire passions in their growing ranks of supporters. The smart set too often proves the populists right: Given the chance to demonstrate their superiority, they whiff. 

"The current nominating system is broken, does not reflect the diversity of this country, doesn’t give many states the opportunity for candidates to understand their issues," Dingell wrote on Facebook. "And I am beginning the campaign, today, February 4, 2020, to change the Presidential nominating system. Today is the first day of putting together a coalition that will support a fair nominating process that reflects the diversity of our country."

Whether Michigan becomes a serious part of the discussion remains to be seen, but the race for 2020 is already shaping up to look like one where old rules and conventional wisdom among candidates, the consulting class and the political media no longer apply.

"Yesterday, I hear something happened in Iowa — or didn't happen," former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in Detroit Tuesday, according to Politico's Playbook PM. "But while all the other Democratic candidates have flown to New Hampshire, I'm here in Michigan because this is a state we absolutely must win in November if we're going to beat Donald Trump." 

Exactly right.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.

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