Among the battleground states that will decide the 2020 presidential election, few make Democrats wince like Michigan.
The Wolverine State in 2016 handed Republicans the slimmest of victories — just shy of 11,000 votes — joining with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to stamp a Donald Trump-shaped hole in the Democrats’ supposed Midwestern firewall.
Hillary Clinton lost 12 suburban and rural Michigan counties that voted for Barack Obama twice. And in Wayne County, a Democratic bastion that includes Detroit’s predominantly black community, she won about 75,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012.
“That is an ongoing nightmare that we continue to have to relive,” said Jonathan Kinloch, a longtime Democratic activist from Detroit. “It stays in our face.”
While local and national Democrats alike are still smarting from Clinton’s defeat, there’s less consensus on the remedy. Michigan is emblematic of the debate within the party: Should presidential candidates devote most of their time, resources and campaign pitch to working-class white voters who sided with Trump or the diverse, urban-dwelling Democrats who sat out the last contest altogether?
The debate has sharpened with former Vice President Joe Biden entering the fray, as he overtly premises his bid on his appeal to blue-collar union workers.
Sen. Kamala Harris, seeking to differentiate herself from Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, two white, 70-something men leading the Democratic polls, emphatically laid out a competing vision of how to win back Michigan.
Harris, visiting the state this week for the first time as a White House hopeful, challenged the stereotype of a Midwestern voter as a working-class white male who’d prefer a candidate with a similar profile.
“Too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out,” Harris said on Sunday. “It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit. It leaves out working women who are on their feet all day — many of them working without equal pay.
“And the conversation too often suggests certain voters will only vote for certain candidates regardless of whether their ideas will lift up all our families,” she said, adding a warning against being “dragged into simplistic narratives or yesterday’s politics.”
The California senator’s choice of audience for the remarks was telling — a major fundraising gala for the Detroit branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, with a largely black gathering of nearly 10,000 that sees itself as a key bloc in determining the success of the next Democratic presidential nominee.
“We have a blessing and a burden. We have a blessing of so many good people and the burden of who it’s going to be. It can only be one,” said the group’s president, the Rev. Wendell Anthony. He added, pointedly: “It don’t hurt to come to Detroit, by the way, on the way to your campaign trail.”
Many in the state fault Clinton for failing to do that in 2016.
Obama handily won the state by 10 percentage points four years earlier, emphasizing his administration’s auto industry bailout and painting GOP rival Mitt Romney as a foe to factory workers.
“There was a Michigan-specific message in 2012 that was not replicated in 2016,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
Kinloch said Clinton’s Brooklyn-based operation coasted on her predecessor’s success.
“They just assumed the Obama numbers were going to come out,” he said. “They felt they didn’t need to do much more.”
Clinton’s loss galvanized many in Michigan. Mike Galbraith, a 30-year-old pharmacist in Detroit, did not vote — not because he disliked Clinton but because he assumed her victory was certain.
“That night was an absolute shock,” Galbraith said. “I saw the polls, saw all the predictions — I really didn’t think my vote would count.”
Casey Quinlan, 33, voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, largely to show her frustration with two-party politics.
“If I had for a second thought Trump was going to win, I would have never voted for Johnson,” she said. “I would have voted for Hillary.”
Michigan holds its primary March 10 — after the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the Super Tuesday juggernaut that includes California — and doesn’t typically draw candidates this early in the campaign season. But presidential hopefuls have been steadily streaming in, eager to build relationships and send a broader signal to Democrats nationally about the constituencies they can appeal to.
Sen. Sanders of Vermont, whose surprise victory over Clinton here in the 2016 primary was powered by a 25-point margin with white men, visited Ottawa and Macomb counties, both overwhelmingly white areas that backed Trump.
Harris has homed in on Detroit; in addition to the NAACP dinner, she held an education-focused town hall here on Monday to tout her proposal to give teachers a raise averaging $13,500.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have also visited the Detroit metro area, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke split his time between the city and Macomb County.
Trump has also kept a presence in the state, holding a rally in Grand Rapids in late March.
Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democrats, said her party has learned from its late start in 2016 and already has launched an all-of-the-above grassroots effort targeting black voters, union households and rural communities.
“We will have to walk and chew gum at the same time and talk to all of those communities,” Barnes said.
Quinlan, who lives in Monroe County, which flipped red in 2016, agreed.
“If you can’t simultaneously get Obama voters back and turn out your base, then the Democratic party needs to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with themselves,” she said.
Democrats, Quinlan fears, could be veering too far left on issues like abolishing the electoral college. She’s leaning toward tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose economic platform she believes could appeal to Trump fans.
Others want to train their focus on the Democratic base.
Living in Macomb County — one of the 12 that spurned Clinton — has made Joel Rutherford, a Democratic activist, skeptical that the party can win back the president’s supporters.
“Maybe they would rather see Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, a white male up there running. But to convince them — I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” Rutherford said. “[Trump] has played to their anger, their frustrations, and the feeling they’re no longer in control.”
Instead, Rutherford said, Democrats should prioritize turning out their most loyal voters — namely the 95% of black voters and 63% of Latinos in the state who sided with Obama in 2012, according to exit polls.
“I don’t care who it is — if they don’t find a way to really engage and get black women out, they’re going to be in trouble,” he said.
While much of Biden’s candidacy has been staked on his appeal to the archetypal white Rust Belt worker, his eight-year stint as Barack Obama’s loyal wingman built a reserve of goodwill among black voters as well.
Last year’s election results offer yet more clues to what Michiganders are looking for in a candidate.
“Every candidate that won major statewide office here in Michigan was a woman,” said Steven Rzeppa, political director of AFSCME Council 25, a public sector employee union. While pundits outside Michigan might assume a woman may struggle here, he added, “obviously that can’t be further from the truth.”
Galbraith, now an engaged voter, said he preferred Harris or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Biden, whom he described as often being “on the wrong side of history.”