Michigan Democrats' election mantra: 'Ignore the polls'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Memories of Nov. 8, 2016, loom over Michigan Democrats like the state's Upper Peninsula rests to the north of the Lower Peninsula.

On that day, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee in 28 years to carry Michigan after Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had led in polling for months. Many Clinton supporters assumed she would win despite the Trump campaign's intense focus on the state in the final week and a half before the election.

But the New York businessman won by 10,704 votes, his closest margin of victory nationally and about two votes per the state's nearly 5,000 voting precincts, as former first lady Michelle Obama noted during a Monday convention speech. Trump's narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin propelled him to the presidency.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Michigan Democratic Chairwoman Lavora Barnes, state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democratic Rural Caucus Co-Chairman Mark Ludwig and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed are pictured.

As their national convention nears its end Thursday, Michigan Democrats say the keys to winning the state back this year lie in a focused message on Trump's record as president, uniting moderates and progressives who often disagree and not letting up no matter how confident they become.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the state's Democratic Party, encouraged people to "ignore the polls" that show former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of Trump.

"Run like we're behind," Barnes said. "Work like we're behind."

The polls have been a reason for optimism for Democrats because recent ones have shown Biden, whom the party formally nominated on Tuesday, with a lead over Trump.

Other positive signs abound for Democrats as well. Trump's campaign stopped airing broadcast television ads in Michigan in July as the president changed his campaign manager. Biden's campaign has spent $7.6 million on TV ads in the Great Lakes State, more than double the Trump campaign's $3.5 million since April 1, according to tracking by the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Democrats also are motivated to vote. A Jan. 3-7 poll of 600 likely Michigan voters by the Lansing-based Glengariff Group found the intensity of Democratic, Republican and independent voters who intend to vote remains at historic highs, but there are more registered Democrats than members of other parties. 

The interest carried into the August primary, when Democrats made turnout gains compared with August 2016, according to an analysis of vote totals in U.S. House races. The Democrats either widened their turnout advantages in districts where they already dominate or closed the gap with Republicans in 13 of Michigan's 14 congressional districts.

Only Michigan's 10th District had a better turnout margin for Republicans. That's where GOP businesswoman Lisa McClain won a competitive primary race to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, who decided against running for reelection.

'Too much at stake'

Still, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, is an example of Michigan Democrats' unflinching approach to the coming election.

Representative Dan Kildee calls on the reversal of policies that have worsened the crisis facing the U.S. Postal Service by President Trump during a news conference with fellow at the Main Southfield Post office on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

The fourth-term congressman won his 5th District seat by 24 points in 2018. But Kildee said he plans to run a campaign like he's never run before this fall. He hired veteran Michigan Democratic operative Mike McCollum as his campaign manager and is planning potential strategies against GOP candidate Tim Kelly, a former state lawmaker, that are most often seen in swing districts.

"There's just too much at stake," Kildee said. "There's no reason not to mobilize every asset we have."

Michigan isn't a certainty for Biden or Trump, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, national co-chair of the former vice president's campaign, warned this week during an appearance on "CBS This Morning." 

"After Labor Day, I know things will tighten up," Whitmer said. "They always seem to. That’s why I don’t want anyone to take anything for granted."

Democrats emphasize solutions

The Detroit News surveyed more than a dozen influential Democrats from across Michigan this month about what they believe their party needs to do to beat Trump on Nov. 3.

Many of them focused on how the president now has a record he must defend. It includes his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which once had Michigan among the top three states nationally for deaths linked to the virus.

Michigan confirmed its first cases of the coronavirus on March 10, the day of the presidential primary election. Residents have lived more than five months under varying levels of restrictions on gatherings and public outings.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who notoriously raised alarms within Democratic circles ahead of the 2016 election, has been sharing a message about not believing the polls that show Biden with large leads.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) watches election results with the public at the Democratic party election night event at the MGM Grand casino in Detroit on  November 8, 2016.

"There are clearly still strong Trump voters," Dingell said recently when asked about union members in Southeast Michigan who crossed party lines in 2016.

But she continued, "I think that many, many union voters, men and women, don't like the way COVID has been handled and the uncertainty that's come into their life."

The president's "lack of leadership" on COVID-19 and how it has hurt the economy are the No. 1 issue of the election, Dingell said later.

"People have lost their jobs, their businesses, and are now worried about whether schools will open and what to do with their children," she added. "This is a failure of leadership."

Michigan's unemployment rate in July fell to 10.2%, lower than the national rate of 11.7%. But it was far below the 3.6% rate in February before the pandemic hit. But the stock market has been increasing as investors have bet on better economic and COVID-19 vaccine development news in the months ahead. 

The virus highlighted other issues that need to be focuses this fall, including health care, racial injustice and internet access, Democrats said.

"We need everyone, everywhere to have access to high-speed internet," said Judy Stock of Kingsford, who is chairwoman of the Dickinson County Democratic Party in the Upper Peninsula. "We are seeing how important that is now that many of us our shuttered in our homes, trying to connect with family and friends, trying to teach our children."

The country is in a crisis caused by ineffective leadership, argued Cathy Albro of Middleville, who ran for the U.S. House in 2018 and is co-chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party Rural Caucus.

Cathy Albro is a Democrat from Middleville running in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District against U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township.

"Joe Biden, and other Democratic candidates, must have short, clear messages that everyone understands and speaks to remedying the problems people are encountering in their lives and the lives of their loved ones," Albro said.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, echoed the idea, noting Biden can't just criticize Trump.

"He needs to make his case with an active presence in the state that doesn’t take our votes for granted and speaks directly to the issues that matter to Michigan voters," said Slotkin, who flipped a House seat held by Republicans in 2018.

'We need every last voter'

Democratic officeholders and activists repeatedly voiced the need for reaching out to voters across Michigan — not just party strongholds — and appealing to people who haven't voted before and progressives who aren't sure about Biden's politics.

Abdul El-Sayed, the progressive Democrat from Ann Arbor who ran for Michigan governor in 2018 and is now a commentator on CNN, said he won't forget the "fear and loathing" of watching election results come in 2016 and realizing Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes.

Too many Democratic voters stayed home in 2016, El-Sayed said.

"We cannot allow that to happen again," he added. "...It means activating and inspiring pockets of voters like Yemeni-Americans on Dearborn’s south side, young people in towns like Ann Arbor and East Lansing, and progressives across the state."

The Democratic Party has expanded its "One Campaign" that covers all 83 of the state's counties, said Mark LaChey of Saugatuck, a party vice chairman. 

(From left) Macomb county commissioner Robert Mijac, Michigan Democratic Party chair Lavora Barnes, and Ford body technician Tony Durkacs hold a press conference about the visit by President Donald Trump in front of Dana Incorporated, in Warren January 30, 2020.

It's a well-funded operation that's focused on bringing out the Democratic base, communicating with persuadable voters and ensuring that voters who are able cast their ballots, LaChey said.

In 2018, the party helped Democrats become governor, attorney general and secretary of state — three positions that had been previously held by Republicans. They're hoping to continue the momentum.

But campaigning will include less door knocking because of COVID-19 and different dynamics at play.

Democrats have to go the extra mile this year to engage influential leaders and make them feel like they're part of the team, said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit. The party needs to redefine and fund local outreach efforts, such as canvassing, virtual phone banking and social distance meet and greets, so decentralized teams become true empowered stakeholders, she said.

A united party?

While some Democrats are focused on winning back Trump supporters, Bridget Huff of Fort Gratiot, the former chairwoman of the party's Progressive Caucus, recommended Biden move left on policy. Such a move would inspire the voters he needs to win the election, instead of losing them to the Green Party, she argued.

In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein received 51,463 votes in Michigan, about five times Trump's margin of victory.

Biden won the Democratic nomination after a competitive primary race against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist. The fight has left some Sanders supporters frustrated.

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, talk before a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, S.C. Political task forces Biden formed with Sanders to solidify support among the Democratic Party's progressive wing recommended Wednesday, July 8, that the former vice president embrace proposals to combat climate change and institutional racism while expanding health care coverage and rebuilding a coronavirus-ravaged economy. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

"So if the Democratic Party really wants to win Michigan they need to make sure Joe Biden understands one thing very clearly; he needs progressives and progressives do, indeed, want a revolution," Huff said, referencing comments made by Biden during the primary race that Americans aren't looking for a revolution.

But other Michigan Democrats want to boost Democratic turnout statewide. A large margin of victory "will smother any attempt to question the election's legitimacy," said Mark Ludwig of Fennville, co-chairman of the party's Rural Caucus.

In 2018, at the top of the ticket in Michigan, Whitmer beat Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette 53%-44% or about 406,000 votes. In 2012, former President Barack Obama won Michigan over Republican Mitt Romney 54%-45% or by more than 449,000 votes.

"Michigan Democrats simply need to turn out like we did in 2018 and 2012 and 2008," U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township said this week. "And we will do so, because we will organize without ceasing and because Vice President Biden has put forward a plan that will bring back good-paying union jobs to our state – for real."