Susan J. Demas: What presidential hopefuls’ Michigan stops say about their campaigns

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (left) and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (right) on Michigan campaign stops | Susan J. Demas photos

With U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ two-day swing last week, Michigan has now been graced with the presence of most major 2020 presidential contenders.

No fewer than 11 Democrats — plus both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence — have stopped by. Candidates continue to act as though it could all come down to the Mitten, although, and I stress, there are 540 days to go before the general election.

Of course, there’s a big name that’s missing: former Vice President Joe Biden, whose polling lead remains stubbornly high after his entry was largely mocked by Twitter pundits (something that’s been memory-holed rather quickly).

Biden’s campaign is less than three weeks old, but he can be expected to give Michigan some love sooner than later, as his Rust Belt appeal is core to his campaign. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan already said he’d run Biden’s campaign, if asked, and the former veep seems the most likely of any hopeful to pick up formal support here.

Guests wait for the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden on April 30, 2019 in Dubuque, Iowa. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

It has been awfully quiet on the Michigan Dem endorsement front, probably because there are 22 candidates — and counting. Even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has yet to capture any, even from high-profile Democratic socialists like U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

It’s notable that progressive U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has yet to made her Michigan debut, although she did send a video to a Women Organize Michigan conference. And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Butegieg hasn’t crossed the border yet.

Trump in Grand Rapids
President Donald Trump on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

So what can we divine from all these visits? Let’s talk geography and let’s talk issues. If you want to know campaigns’ strategy, look at what they’re focused on and where they spend the most finite of resources: their time.

Looking at candidates who determined Michigan was worth multiple stops, Harris, Pence, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and self-described “moral and spiritual awakener” Marianne Williamson parked themselves in Wayne County.

Trump’s No. 2 went old-school in April, doing a Romulus fundraiser, touring a Dearborn Ford plant and speaking at a Taylor auto supplier, while stressing the administration’s yet-to-be-ratified trade deal.

Steve Bannon speaks at Cobo, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

While Pence’s visit ostensibly showed the president is making the economic case to the white working class, the real strategy was belied by Trump ally Steve Bannon’s rowdy anti-immigration rally in Detroit in March. It’s not that there are many votes to snag in the heavily African American city — and let’s face it, few attendees called Detroit home. The event was meant to be a show of force for a campaign that’s really about the culture war.

Andrew Yang supporters, May 4,2019 | Derek Robertson

Meanwhile, Yang held a nerdier gathering, replete with “Math” signs and PowerPoint chants, at a trendy Cass Corridor rooftop venue where he pitched his universal basic income plan. He then spoke at the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO) conference, which also featured presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), and Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam.

Harris keynoted the Detroit NAACP fundraiser, where she took aim at the “electability” narrative for leaving out women and people of color. One of the centerpieces of her campaign is a $13,500 raise for teachers, so she toured two schools in Detroit and one in Dearborn and held a town hall with American Federation of Teachers members. In the past, Democrats have flirted with or outrightly embraced school choice, but those days appear to be over.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Detroit | Ken Coleman

African American voters and the state’s largest county would seem to be central to Harris’ plan to triumph in Michigan’s March 10 primary.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose campaign has been criticized as being unfocused, split the difference and traveled to the three major Southeast Michigan counties: Wayne, Oakland and Macomb (his Detroit stop was a last-minute add-on). O’Rourke, who hails from not-very-union-friendly Texas, stressed the importance of organized labor in building the middle class while visiting a Carpenters’ training center.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) campaigned on the Green New Deal in two Oakland County appearances in March, including one with Fems for Dems. Gillibrand is concentrating on suburban women, particularly in the 11th congressional district flipped by now-U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester).

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at MSNBC town hall, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

She’s one of several hopefuls who started out their bids courting the new left by embracing their agenda. But most supporters have stuck with Sanders anyway, because primaries are about personality more than policy, even if no one (including journalists) wants to admit that.

Sanders, not surprisingly, stumped in Macomb County, whose white, blue-collar populace was decisive for Trump in 2016 (few pundits note that Democratic standard-bearer and now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also won the fiefdom last year, but, hey, that narrative isn’t as fun). Sanders took a victory lap on the Democratic Party embracing his economic platform, as well as a shot at the “establishment” — something he’s since ramped up with Biden’s strong showing.

Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan | Michael Gerstein

Sanders notably also held a union event in Coopersville in deep red Ottawa County. U.S. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) did one stop on the west side, keynoting a Kent County Democrats’ fundraiser and talking about growing concerns about PFAS contamination.

Grand Rapids was, of course, where Trump kicked off his ‘20 campaign, and he reminded everyone that also was his last stop before winning the 2016 election, as he’s wont to do. The rally, which had a strong presence of QAnon conspiracy adherents, drew around 10,000.

We’ll see if more hopefuls break out of the metro Detroit box on their next jaunts through Michigan.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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