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West Michigan looms as unexpected battleground for Sanders, Biden

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The traditional Republican stronghold of West Michigan became an unexpected battleground for Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden as they flooded Michigan with rallies and surrogates ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Both candidates included Grand Rapids stops Sunday and Monday, scheduling visits to an area whose changing demographics have put an interesting wrinkle in the usually Metro Detroit-dominated voting narrative in Michigan.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigns on Sunday, March 8, 2020, in downtown Grand Rapids.

Sanders defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Kent County, the home of Grand Rapids, in 2016 by 25 percentage points as he won Michigan by about 1.4 percentage points. The county also features Grand Valley State University and its nearly 23,000 students — a key constituency for the Vermont senator four years ago.

In the general election, Clinton lost by about 3 percentage points in Kent County to President Donald Trump. But two years later, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer beat Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette there by about 4 points.

The West Michigan prize goes to those who show up there, said Brandon Dillon, a Grand Rapids resident and former chairman for the Michigan Democratic Party.

“In 2016, Clinton found out unfortunately on election night that there are a lot of Democratic votes outside of Detroit and southeast Michigan,” Dillon said.

“In this media market, there’s just a lot of Democratic voters who can be reached. When you have a primary or general election that looks like it’s going to be close, you can’t afford to leave any votes on the table.”

By scheduling time in Grand Rapids on Monday, Biden might have tried to "take the edge off" what influence Sanders has in West Michigan while running up the score the former vice president is accruing in Metro Detroit, said John Sellek, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

The fact that both candidates visited Grand Rapids is telling of its importance if the race should come to a tight finish. 

"When you’re this close to Election Day, candidate election schedules tell you everything you need to know about how the race is going,” Sellek said.

Doug Suttor of Zeeland had been a registered Republican for years before he crossed party lines and voted for Clinton in 2016. On Tuesday, he plans to cast his ballot for Biden, whom he considers capable of uniting a divided party and fractured nation.

Suttor, 62, considers himself neither a socialist nor a far-right firebrand. But like many folks in West Michigan, he said he's tired of divisive rhetoric.

“We’re a little tired of the politicization of everything,” Suttor said. “It’s not us against them in every single case.”

Among those looking for representation in West Michigan's Democratic Party are new residents, college students and disaffected conservatives, said Jen Eyer, a Lansing Democratic strategist and partner at Vanguard Affairs.

“Grand Rapids in recent years, and Kent County in general, has shown that it's moving a little more to the left,” Eyer said. “Part of that is demographics changing and part of that is the Republican Party changing and really becoming the party of Trump rather than the party of fiscal responsibility.”

Similar to changing loyalties in Oakland County, Kent County’s voting preferences are leaning increasingly left because of “suburban independent women,” Dillon said. The same could be said for Kalamazoo and Grand Traverse counties, he said.

“It’s certainly increased in the last two to three cycles,” Dillon said.

Mary Sanders of Grand Rapids plans to vote for the Vermont senator. Unlike other voters who had other preferred candidates drop out, Mary Sanders said Bernie Sanders has been her choice since 2016.

“He speaks to the majority of Americans,” Mary Sanders said. “The way that a majority of people live instead of just a few.”

When it came to the 2016 general election between Clinton and Trump, she stayed home. This year, the situation might change.

“I would choose (Biden) over the alternative,” Mary Sanders said. “If Joe Biden were to end up getting the nomination, he would get my vote because he’s closest to the path I think we need.”

The situation is turbulent enough that pundits differed on who would win Kent County. 

“I think that Sanders will certainly get some support, quite a bit, but I do think that the more moderate candidate will probably carry the day in West Michigan,” Eyer said.

Changing circumstances in this year's race might mean a narrower win, or even a loss, in Kent County on Tuesday for Sanders, Sellek agreed.

"Back in March of 2016, I don’t know that the world grasped that there would be a President Trump … so voters were more free to exercise a protest vote for Bernie," he said. 

Dillon anticipated some of Sanders’ strongest support would again come from West Michigan. But he said most of the region's Democratic voters are focused on beating Trump. 

“What Democratic voters in West Michigan are looking for is the same thing people are across the country,” Dillon said. “They want to know which candidate is best positioned to win the election in November.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com