Susan J. Demas: What the national media keep missing about Michigan in 2020

Democratic National Committee debate set in Detroit | Andrew Roth

“So I should go to Macomb County, right?”

Purple State bug - MI

That’s the blue-collar metro Detroit area many analysts credit for Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 Michigan win. Ever since then, it’s been the subject of endless diner safari stories from folks whose only previous time in Michigan was a 90-minute layover at Detroit Metro airport.

As the 2020 election is in full swing, the Michigan Advance and our sister publications in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania bring you “Purple States,” an ongoing series on issues that matter to our states.

So naturally, that’s what I was asked repeatedly before the Democratic presidential debate last July in Detroit, when 20 candidates and hundreds of journalists swarmed our fair state.

Before every major Michigan campaign event or election, I field a fair amount of calls from national pundits and reporters who want me to play oracle about results and guide them to the best stories.

It’s an interesting, albeit bizarre role to play (and as I’ve written, I’m a happily mostly retired pundit these days).

And I’m fairly sure I disappointed most journos who had visions of doing standups at smoke-filled dive bars and bowling alleys crammed with (white) Carhartt-clad autoworkers. 

The reality of Macomb — where my husband and most of his family is from — is quite different (for one thing, Michigan passed a smoking ban a decade ago). It’s also an increasingly diverse area and auto jobs have been on a long decline.

Susan J. Demas: If you think women can’t win after 2016, try coming to Michigan

I told reporters to steer clear, lest they inadvertently end up trying to interview the throngs of other journalists there (something that comically happens a lot in New Hampshire at this time of year). 

My advice: Oakland County is where it’s at.

That’s another suburban Southeast Michigan enclave, which many former Detroiters now call home and boasts almost a half-million more residents than Macomb. It was the key to the 2018 election in which female Democrats swept every statewide office, flipped two congressional seats and picked up dozens of down-ballot posts.

A disclaimer: Michigan has 10 million residents and encompasses 96,716 beautiful square miles. If you have the time, explore as much of it as possible and talk to voters all over. But if you’re flying into DTW, it’s an almost nine-hour drive to get to Ontonagon in the western U.P. (Fun fact: That’s actually less time than it takes to get back to D.C.).  

Susan J. Demas: Pundits keep telling Dems 2020 is the ‘No You Can’t’ election

So there are practical reasons to focus on Oakland County, the epicenter of female rage after Trump’s victory — having been so close to finally seeing the first woman president in the White House with Hillary Clinton and watching a boorish, far less qualified man who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women get the job instead. 

So in 2017, Democratic, independent and former GOP women became the driving force behind the formation of Indivisible groups and protests against GOP attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The following year, they showed up in droves at the polls. While the national media was prewriting the Democratic primary victory of Abdul El-Sayed, a physician who boasted the endorsements of progressive luminaries like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and soon-to-be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), voters had other ideas. 

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) — who Republicans had confidently snarked was far too liberal to win statewide — ran the table, winning 83 of Michigan’s 83 counties. She went on to trounce GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette in the general election by almost 10 points.

Whitmer is now known across the country, as 24 million tuned in to hear her give the official Democratic response (in a quintessential Michigan accent) to Trump’s State of the Union address last week. 

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So while national punditry has been fixated on the idea that Democrats need to nominate someone in 2020 who can win the proverbial white, blue-collar male voter in the Upper Midwest (i.e. someone who looks like them), that pronouncement conveniently skips right over the 2018 pink wave in Michigan and other states.

I can report that plenty of female voters remain royally pissed off and will certainly be a pivotal block in the Mitten State this year. (There’s a reason why the Trump campaign believes suburban women are its biggest weakness).

It’s still a crowded Dem field, with most media attention fixated on the men — Sanders, Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — and some female candidates have ended their bids, like U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

It’s not clear if U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will win over Michigan women in the March 10 primary (or who will be left), but they’ve certainly been making the appeal in campaign stops. 

The most ignored voting bloc is always African American women, who are the bedrock of the Democratic Party. There was a slight, but significant drop in the Detroit vote in 2016, which helped Trump and experts believe primarily came from Black men.

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As the Advance has reported, there’s definitely been some disenchantment since several candidates of color — Harris, Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro — dropped out. Trump is targeting African American voters who often feel taken for granted and may feel Democrats just provide lip service to issues. 

If you want to know who will win the Dem primary and if the eventual nominee can top Trump in November, watch what Black women do. 

There’s more than a few more myths about Michigan that will undoubtedly arise during the general election battle — but I’ll look forward to busting those at another time.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-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.