Since life these days is nothing if not a series of cursed memories being replayed backwards and forwards in my mind, I can’t stop thinking about Michigan. More specifically: the role the Wolverine State plays in the presidential election.
Time magazine published a story this week about Joe Biden’s utterly non-existent ground game in Michigan, which has long been regarded as an important swing state. The story opens with an anecdote from a voter in the state who regards his decision to leave the presidential space blank on his 2016 ballot as a “devastating” mistake, but who is also wringing his hands about seeing almost no signs of life from the Biden campaign (emphasis mine throughout):
The reason [Don] Sabbe can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online. The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here. Biden’s field operation in this all-important state is being run through the Michigan Democratic Party’s One Campaign, which is also not doing physical canvassing or events at the moment. When I ask Biden campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials how many people they have on the ground in Michigan, one reply stuck out: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’”
The fact that a presidential campaign staffer would offer that quote to a national political reporter is staggering, and if Biden does lose the state come November, party and campaign officials will be kicking themselves for another four years.
According to the story, Team Biden cites public health concerns for not door-knocking, the old-school bastion of mobilizing your supporters to turn out for you. (OK, but worth noting that in much of the state, offices, gyms, and retail businesses have been allowed to reopen with additional safety precautions in place.) Let your stomach sink further:
All this means there are no young volunteers in Biden shirts pounding the pavement for their candidate, no clusters of posters marking the Biden field offices in various precincts, few bumper stickers on the highways. There are more Biden signs than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, locals say, but not enough to give the impression of an enthusiastic presidential campaign in a crucial swing state. When Biden visited Michigan last week, only a handful of supporters came to see him; his campaign didn’t disclose the location of the event in advance, even to the local Democratic county chair, because it didn’t want to attract a crowd that could spread COVID-19 or violate Michigan’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 100 people.
In short, in one of the most important swing states in the country, Biden’s campaign is all but invisible to the naked eye. His lack of a physical footprint is all the more striking because Trump flags festoon everything from pickup trucks to massive airplane parts being transported down the highway. Roughly 30 Trump supporters gathered to protest outside the Biden event last week, waving their flags and cheering as passing cars honked. (Roughly eight Biden supporters showed up.) After driving around some of the state’s swing districts for the past week, talking to than dozens of voters, the only reason you’d think Biden was up in Michigan is because the polls have consistently said so.
Trying to evaluate the strength of the Biden campaign in Michigan is like trying to determine whether the Emperor has no clothes or is actually wearing an elaborate invisible suit. The Biden campaign says it’s swarming the state; you just can’t see it.
“You’ll just have to take our word for it” is an incredible leap of faith for a party that fumbled the ball so spectacularly in 2016. Sorry for bringing up old shit, but everything old is new again, time is a flat circle, etc. for a Democratic Party that refuses to learn anything even from its most devastating defeats.
I can’t help but feel a nagging sense of deja vu reading this Time story, as well as other articles this week reporting similar fears about Biden’s lack of a ground game from people in swing states across the country. It reminds me of this Politico story from December 2016, a postmortem on how Clinton lost Michigan by a little more than 10,000 votes, and a story I genuinely think about at least once a week. The story begins with this damning stunner:
Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.
They started prepping meals and organizing hotel rooms.
SEIU — which had wanted to go to Michigan from the beginning, but been ordered not to — dialed Clinton’s top campaign aides to tell them about the new plan. According to several people familiar with the call, Brooklyn was furious.
Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.
Few stories so saliently capture the hubris of the Clinton campaign, which went on to lose the election by just 100,000 votes. (Don’t be mad at me, be mad at the Electoral College.) Democrats have worked overtime to discredit it as a hack talking point of the dirtbag left, but the fact remains that Clinton did not visit Wisconsin between the convention and Election Day—although she did send Bernie Sanders and other high-profile surrogates—and visited Michigan six times in comparison to Donald Trump’s 13 visits in the 100 final days of the race, according to NBC News. Barack Obama convincingly won both of those states in 2016; both went to Trump by razor-thin margins four years later. These are simple facts, you can make of them what you will. You can certainly guess what I make of it.
And as far as listing to organizers on the ground (or not), here’s one anecdote from the magazine:
[Lori] Goldman of Fems for Dems says she’s ready to dispatch her army of women to knock on doors for Biden, if only the campaign would ask. The Biden campaign calls her for help finding Republican women who might be inclined to vote for Biden (“you might as well ask me to find you a unicorn,” she says), but not for help recruiting volunteers to knock doors. “I want them to ask me, ‘Give us a hundred women’s names and let us send them out like soldiers into the neighborhoods.’” She’s worried that focusing entirely on phone calls and emails means ignoring voters who may not show up in the data. “If you’re not in the system,” she says, “Joe Biden doesn’t even know how to reach you.”
Besides, she adds, Michigan is opening up. “If you’re allowed to go to Michaels, or you’re allowed to go to Target, I don’t see why they can’t go to a campaign office,” Goldman continues. Her voice starts to shake as she adds: “I’m afraid we’re losing. I’m afraid we’re going to lose.”
Meanwhile, Trump is running a far more traditional ground game in Michigan. Still, it’s a fool’s game predicting whether this vast discrepancy will end up mattering. In our most recent example of the Democratic primaries (if an imperfect comparison, but go with me here), Biden still obliterated Sanders in states like South Carolina, where Sanders invested heavily in on-the-ground organizing. I remember, going into Super Tuesday, how optimistic I felt about Bernie’s chances, drawing on the enthusiasm I’d seen at the voting booth in the preceding state primaries and what I perceived as real, promising people power. And then Biden shut those new, squishy metrics for how you can tell who’s winning down. After 2016, when all the pollster Nates and New York Times needle and every other major news outlet covering polling had told you for months that Trump didn’t stand a chance, who ended up looking like an oracle? Trump hack Bill Mitchell, who had for months been tweeting about how strongly Trump was winning the lawn sign primary and casting aspersions on the trustworthiness of polls.
Maybe we’re all a little right, meaning we’re all mostly wrong. 2020 is an unprecedented year for everything, but especially politics—how do you run a campaign when you can’t hold rallies? Or when your candidate is a senile gaffe machine whose idea of Latino voter outreach is playing “Despacito” on his phone? I don’t know, and anyone who tells you they do is full of shit.
We’re left grasping at what it all means. Maybe Biden wins, proving that you don’t need scores of volunteers knocking doors in Michigan to win the White House. What then? Is that the death knell for “traditional” campaigning, meaning that you don’t really need passionate supporters who want to work to elect you in order to win? Or what if Biden loses to Trump by thin margins, proving the Democratic Party establishment wrong again, when so much is at stake? There’s no basis of comparison, and for now, there’s no way to know. But if you want to defeat Trump, we have to hope like hell that Biden’s campaign is making the rational choice, not a suicidally irresponsible one. How’s that for putting your mind at ease?