Michigan is more important than ever in 2020 — here's how Democrats think they can win the state back from Trump

Key Points
  • Last week's Democratic presidential primary debates in Detroit put a focus on the party's push to win Michigan back from President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. 
  • Democrats in the state say the eventual presidential nominee needs to do more to craft a state-specific message focused on economic issues important to voters. 
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden visits with guests at Detroit One Coney Island Restaurant on August 01, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Three years after President Donald Trump's seismic Michigan win helped to propel him to the White House, Democrats aim to show they will not forget the state as they try to deny him a second term.

Over two days of Democratic primary debates in Detroit last week, 20 presidential candidates made specific appeals to a 2020 swing state. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said "awful trade policy" almost "destroyed" Detroit. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang talked about how his $1,000 per month universal basic income plan would help auto workers displaced by automation.

The Michigan focus continued following the debates. After smiling and shaking hands across a diner in Detroit on Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden promised that he "will win Michigan" if he gets the Democratic nomination. Later that day, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., contended she could carry the state by focusing on the economic issues that keep Americans up at night.

Trump's victory in 2016 — the first for a Republican in Michigan since 1988 — forced Democrats to reckon with their shortcomings in an area many had considered reliably blue. Now, current and former lawmakers, county party chairs and activists are urging the Democratic field not to overlook Michigan — which some in the state believe Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign did in 2016.

The presidential candidates hold an array of views on the best path to winning the general election in 2020. They at times differ over whether sweeping change or smaller steps to build on President Barack Obama's policies would best position the party to beat Trump. Michigan Democrats who spoke to CNBC broadly believe a strategy to win the state has to include a state-specific message on economic issues: job creation, rising health-care costs, trade deals, water infrastructure and climate change.

They also think getting past the party's 2016 woes will not only need to involve arguing Trump broke his promises to Michigan, but also pushing reluctant voters to cast ballots by making a compelling case that they will improve conditions in the state.

"Bringing those folks out means making sure that we're speaking with relevance to the lived experience of those folks. And I think for a long time, we as Democrats have missed that," said Abdul El-Sayed, a former Detroit health official and single-payer insurance advocate who finished second to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan's 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary with about 30% of the vote.

How Trump shocked the world in Michigan

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In 2016, Trump won Michigan's 16 electoral votes by a margin of fewer than 11,000 votes. A margin of roughly 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined was enough to deliver Trump the presidency.

Democrats bounced back in Michigan in last year's midterms. Whitmer won by nearly 10 percentage points. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow held her seat against John James, a veteran and businessman who will run again next year to try to take on Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens flipped districts that sit at least partly in Detroit's suburbs.

But Democrats think it will be more competitive in 2020, when Trump is again at the top of the ticket and every electoral vote will matter. The presidential field took notice by crafting messages specific to Michigan during the debates. It wasn't just the debates that brought Democratic presidential contenders to Michigan about 15 months before the 2020 election: last month, 10 candidates spoke at the NAACP's annual convention in Detroit.

Trump won the state in no small part by feeding into a feeling that the political and economic system abandoned Michigan, sticking voters with less stable jobs and climbing health-care costs. He lambasted U.S. trade policy, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement that promoted Michigan exports to Canada but also contributed to manufacturing jobs drying up in the state.

The 2008 financial crisis thrashed Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry. The unemployment rate in the state peaked at 14.6% in June 2009, higher than the nationwide rate of 9.5% at the time. Unemployment in Michigan has since dropped to 4.2% but is still slightly above than the national rate.

"They voted for Obama because they felt hope, they voted for Trump because they felt scared," said Beth Kelly, chair of the Calhoun County Democratic Party in Michigan. Obama won the southern Michigan county twice before Trump carried it by more than 12 percentage points.

Carl Levin, a Democrat who represented Michigan in the Senate for 36 years, said Trump "appeared to be sensitive to average day concerns of people" — though the former senator believes the president's sentiments were "phony."

At the same time, Clinton struggled to motivate the state's young voters and black voters in 2016 the same way President Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. For instance, in Wayne County — a 38% black area where Detroit sits — Obama got nearly 80,000 more votes in 2012 than Clinton did in 2016.

While it's difficult to attribute Clinton's struggles to any one factor, they stem at least in part from voters' feelings that their lives did not improve substantially enough under Obama, a black Democratic president, said Ronald Brown, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

How Democrats think they can win it back

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To reverse Clinton's fate, Michigan Democrats first and foremost want the 2020 presidential nominee to spend more time in the state. In the final 100 days of the 2016 campaign, Clinton visited Michigan six times. Trump made 13 stops in the state, according to NBC News.

"There was a feeling locally that she had taken too much for granted as far as Michigan being solidly blue," said Karen Tighe, chair of the Bay County Democratic Party. The county that sits on Lake Huron in eastern Michigan backed Trump by a 12.5 percentage point margin after Obama won it twice by more than 5 percentage points.

In her 2017 book "What Happened," Clinton wrote that her team "knew that the industrial Midwest was crucial to our success," adding that "we didn't ignore those states."

State Democrats said a 2020 nominee's Michigan strategy would have to include a laser focus on speaking to working-class issues. It starts with health care, an issue that helped Democrats win the House last year as they decried GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act estimated to leave tens of millions more people uninsured. A nominee needs to make a compelling case that they can cut insurance and drug costs, Michigan Democrats said.

They also see the need for a message around job security and wages. While the national economy has enjoyed solid growth and unemployment sits at its lowest level in decades, real median household income in Michigan — adjusted for inflation — still lagged pre-recession levels as of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve.

Michigan Democrats also see an opening to focus on infrastructure, which Trump has so far failed to address after proposing a massive infrastructure package. Several officials pointed to the appeal of Whitmer's blunt promise to "fix the damn roads" during her gubernatorial campaign last year.

As Michigan touches four of the five Great Lakes — which together account for more than 20% of the world's fresh water — a focus on environmental protection and climate change could also help a Democratic candidate in the state. Earlier this year, Trump proposed a budget that would slash money for a Great Lakes cleanup program by 90% — then reversed course at a campaign rally in Michigan.

As the 20 Democratic candidates descended upon Michigan last week, Peters outlined the issues he thinks the presidential nominee should focus on next year. As one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in 2020, his fate will depend in large part on the success of the Democrat at the top of the ticket.

In a Medium post, he pointed to several priorities: "protecting our Great Lakes and ensuring we have clean drinking water; standing up for middle class families, workers and labor unions; addressing the rising cost of prescription drugs; enhancing workforce development so workers have the training for good-paying jobs; and fighting discrimination by standing up for all Michiganders."

Is incremental or sweeping change best?

Of course, not all Democratic candidates have the same vision for what policies will best address Michigan's problems. The debates highlighted differences among the contenders, particularly on how best to expand health insurance coverage.

In 2016, Sanders shocked the political world by defeating Clinton in the Michigan presidential primary as he promised a populist political revolution. He runs in 2020 on largely the same agenda: a single-payer "Medicare for All" system, tax increases on the wealthy and student debt forgiveness, among other key plans.

Sanders' campaign focused on the American worker played well not just in Michigan. He also beat Clinton in Wisconsin, another key 2020 state.

Still, the general election electorate is different from primary voters. While Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have proposed the most sweeping changes among the Democratic candidates, Biden, the presumed front-runner, has called for smaller policy changes.

Some Democrats in Michigan's swing areas worry about whether a candidate who promises major upheaval can win the state in 2020.

"I think a candidate who appeals to moderation and common sense and comity and going back to maintaining the dignity of the office while not throwing a monkey wrench into every system is someone who will probably appeal. … We've already tried that with a Republican president, someone who's going to throw a fireball into our institutions," said Tighe of the Bay County Democratic Party.

The Trump campaign started to outline its Michigan strategy after the debates. In a statement last week, campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany highlighted the few candidates who said they wanted to scrap the private insurance industry and decriminalize border crossings.

She also targeted candidates' pledges to transition toward renewable energy instead of fossil fuels that currently power most cars.

"Goodbye Pennsylvania. Goodbye auto industry. Goodbye Midwest. Another win for President Trump," she said.

Political experts have questioned how Democrats can balance the constituencies they need to win back the White House. Last year, highly educated, wealthy areas that previously leaned Republican — such as the 11th House District outside of Detroit — helped to deliver the House for Democrats.

Some pundits argue the party will face a challenge in both winning over independent-minded, middle-of-the-road voters and motivating its base to turn out in better numbers than it did in 2016. But El-Sayed thinks accomplishing both of those goals is "one in the same."

"If we think that we're going to win this election running against Donald Trump, I don't think we're going to do very well. We've got to run for solutions to real problems that real people face, and in contrast to what Donald Trump has failed to offer," he said.

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