Michigan tests Biden's electability as experts say black voters need rallying

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Former Vice President Joe Biden built a name for himself in Michigan during his time in the White House, but the loyalty is being tested after he failed to win any of the first three Democratic presidential contests.

But Biden has showed renewed strength after finishing second in the Nevada caucuses and picking up a large majority of South Carolina's delegates in Saturday's primary.

One of Biden’s key firewalls of support have been African American voters. But two Democratic African American political consultants in Michigan warn his support could dissolve quickly, especially among black voters, unless Biden spends more face-to-face time here with voters and shows more confidence on the national campaign stage. 

The former U.S. senator from Delaware has made electability the cornerstone of his campaign. In head-to-head match-ups against President Donald Trump in Michigan, Biden has maintained the largest edges over the Republican incumbent, including a 7 percentage point lead in a Jan. 3-7 poll of 600 likely voters by Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, takes a selfie during a campaign stop in Detroit.

“We’ve had a revolution. It’s called Trump,” said Democratic former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, who has endorsed Biden, has known him for 45 years and has worked with him in Congress and as a U.S. ambassador.

“What we need now is someone to restore the soul of America, and we need a leader for mainstream America and a leader for the world.”

But Biden, the former front-runner for the Democratic nomination,struggled in the first three contests, while the amiable charisma that served him for decades has sometimes failed to counter combative opponents on the debate stage. The 77-year-old former U.S. senator from Delaware also has trailed far behind U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who dropped out of the race Sunday — in raising money from Michigan donors.

Still, after his win in South Carolina, Biden has the second highest number of delegates — trailing only Sanders.

Because of his time serving alongside former President Barack Obama, Biden earned the trust of black voters nationwide, especially in Detroit, said Detroit-based political consultant Mario Morrow. But the White House legacy will only carry him so far.

“My advice to Vice President Joe Biden is to go to your base, and your strongest base would be the black churches,” Morrow said. “Those are your consistent voters. Those are people who understand issues. Those are people who understand how important the election is."

During his eight years as vice president, Biden visited Detroit more than a dozen times and secured transit and housing grants for the city as it struggled with bankruptcy. He also established a unique friendship with Mayor Mike Duggan, who remains a stalwart supporter of Biden, who served 36 years in the U.S. Senate.

“I think he connects to the aspirations of people who want to work hard, raise their skills, raise their standard of living,” Duggan said. “His natural instincts are to give everyone a fair chance and I think it’s what the country needs.”

Biden in Detroit

From dinners with the mayor to appearances at the North American International Auto Show, Biden visited Detroit nearly two dozen times as vice president. 

The former Obama teammate was instrumental in securing a $12.2 million federal grant to help finish the M-1 streetcar project now known as the QLine, a $25.9 million grant to buy 50 hybrid and clean diesel buses, and millions of dollars more for affordable housing and blight removal.

He also strongly supported Obama’s $55 billion in bailout loans for General Motors, Chrysler and their associated lending arms after President George W. Bush lent $25 billion in December 2008. The federal government ended up losing $9.26 billion on the auto loans. 

The Obama administration didn’t contribute to Detroit’s $800 million bankruptcy exit plan called the “grand bargain,” while the state of Michigan contributed $195 million. 

Vice President Joe Biden and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talk to the media after eating dinner at Cafe Roma in Detroit on Jan. 15, 2014

The administration’s stance on bankruptcy support was made clear after Biden joined Duggan for dinner at Roma’s in January 2014. Duggan said he told Biden the city wasn’t looking for a bailout but needed help on neighborhood redevelopment and transit. 

“He said ‘I can do that,’ and he kept his word,” said the mayor, who endorsed Biden last summer. 

Biden said during the Detroit presidential debate on July 31 that he helped get Detroit back on its feet. “I spent the better part of two years out here working to make sure that it did exactly that,” he said. “We made significant investments in this state, this city.”

Biden connects with the “underdog” working hard to make a living, Duggan said. Because of that quality, the former vice president has a chance to succeed in southeast Michigan, including Macomb County, where Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, he said.

“It was a lot more than Detroit that didn’t go for her,” Duggan said. “It was the whole blue-collar vote. It was something the vice president and I talked about regularly during the 2016 election. 

“I don’t think the vice president is going to have that problem at all.”

Detroit Democratic political consultant Steve Hood disagreed, noting Trump’s appearance last month at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. 

“It was a Trump rally and a race happened to show up,” Hood said. “I don’t think anybody has control over the white blue-collar vote. Not after what I saw at the Daytona 500. Macomb County has not swung back, not yet.”

While the novelty of candidates like Sanders or former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg might appeal to some voters, the nation needs a stabilizing force in the White House for interests both domestic and abroad, Blanchard said. Biden is a “known quantity,” he said. 

Biden came to Southfield in September 2018 to stump for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer when she was running for office, but the governor has not endorsed for the Democratic nomination. He returned to Detroit in February 2019 to speak at the funeral mass of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, calling him “an amazing soul.”

Popularity with black voters

Biden’s time in the Obama administration and his dedication to Detroit has earned him the loyalty of many black voters in southeast Michigan. 

But unless he shows his face in the city’s African American community, those black voters aren’t likely to head to the polls in March or November, Hood said. 

Last week, Hood said he attended a Detroit City Council meeting in the city’s 4th District, a prime location to recruit black voters, but the only Democratic candidate to send staff was Bloomberg. 

“I think he (Biden) assumes he does have the vote in much the same way that Hillary Clinton assumed she did during the primary,” Hood said. “And what happened? Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere.

“It’s one thing to assume you have the black vote, but it’s another thing to turn that black vote out for you during a cold and generally wet March primary.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden at the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN  in July in the Fox Theatre in Detroit

Bloomberg has spent more than $8 million in Michigan, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. But Morrow said the billionaire doesn’t have the same rapport with voters that Biden built up over his time in the White House. 

“I think that the voters in Michigan and urban areas see Bloomberg for what he is: He’s putting money in people’s pockets,” Morrow said. “To some degree, that’s normal politics, but you can’t buy your way into the hearts of voters.”

Sanders arguably presents the biggest challenge to Biden in Michigan, but the Vermont senator’s “socialistic values” aren’t resonating with the black community, he said.

“There’s a loyal base who believe that Biden should be given a shot, and I think they’ll come out if Biden shows leadership strength and more important than anything else, energy,” Morrow said.

The Michigan Democratic Party’s black caucus endorsed Biden earlier this month, and the caucus maintains confidence in Biden despite the early primary results, said caucus Chairman Keith Williams. 

“He’s a gentleman,” Williams said. “I like his spirit. I like his sincerity.

“Black folks understand he was with Barack Obama those eight years, and those eight years were successful.” 


Joe Biden

​​​​​​State: Delaware

Age: 77

Claims to fame: President Barack Obama’s sidekick from 2009 to 2017 and a U.S. senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009 has White House experience and appeal among working-class voters that President Donald Trump won over in 2016.

Biggest weaknesses: He is among three candidates who would be the oldest individual ever elected as president, has a history of gaffes and has been accused by some women of uninvited touching that was nonsexual.

Detroit debate moment: Then the front-runner for the nomination, he was attacked by several opponents and accidentally referred to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker as the “future president.” 

Candidate visits to Michigan: July 24 for NAACP forum in Detroit and fundraiser; July 31 debate in Detroit.