As Race Tightens, Biden Seeks to Bump Michigan Back to Blue

Joe Biden waves as he steps off a plane at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Sept. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

DETROIT (CN) — Michigan elected Donald Trump to the presidency by the narrowest of margins in 2016. Now, polling shows it to be tilted towards Joe Biden, which — if it holds — would mark the seventh time in eight presidential election cycles that the Wolverine State voted for the Democratic candidate.

President Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over Hillary Clinton, the closest race in state history. He has struggled to repeat that magic as Election Day nears and while it is not impossible for the incumbent to make up ground, it will be tough, according to Charles Shipan, professor of social and political science at the University of Michigan. 

“Although Biden’s lead over Trump is similar to Clinton’s lead at this same point, Biden’s lead has been far steadier, whereas Clinton’s lead jumped around much more dramatically, sometimes fairly big and other times pretty narrow,” he told Courthouse News. “Biden’s lead has been consistently large. Second, pollsters learn from their mistakes. In 2016, they underrepresented Trump voters — at least in some state polls.

“My sense from hearing from people involved in polling is that they’re taking this into account this time, and attempting to avoid that same mistake. Another potential issue is that there are fewer prominent 3rd party candidates this time around.” he said via email.

William Gordon, chair of the Republican Party for Washtenaw County dismissed the polling in a phone interview and opined there are a block of loyal Trump voters who will remain in the shadows.

“I don’t think they are very accurate. We’ve never trusted polling very much,” he said.

Gordon said he believes there are many shy Trump voters who will not telegraph their voting intentions for fear of retribution.

“In Washtenaw County, it’s actually quite frightening. I have people who come to me and let me know they can’t speak openly about politics for fear of getting fired. The enthusiasm for Trump and [state Senate candidate John] James are very high. I judge it by sign requests, I get a tremendous amount of requests for signs,” he said.

Poll workers empty a ballot drop box at Considine Little Rock Family Life Center in Midtown Detroit. (Courthouse News photo / Andy Olesko)

During a recent rally in Muskegon, Trump declared the upcoming vote was “the most important election in the history of our country,” as he begged his supporters to “just make sure you vote.”

At the same rally, Trump directed some ire towards Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, over the Covid-19 restrictions she issued.

“You got to get your governor to open up your state, OK,” he said. “And get your schools open. The schools have to be open,” he continued as the adoring crowd chanted “lock her up.”

“Lock ’em all up,” he said with a smile.

“This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans. It needs to stop,” Whitmer responded on Twitter.

Corwin Smidt, associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University, warns that even though polling favors Biden, nothing should be taken for granted.

“Michigan is a tough state for pollsters and tends to have larger errors than other states. It is partly because of how we keep our public data on voter turnout. We also have a lot of counties that have swung back and forth lately. That makes our voters less predictable too,” he said in an email.

If the election is close in Michigan, it could spark a fight between the parties according to Shipan.

“One possibility is that Biden wins big, in line with what polls are currently showing, and if that happens we’ll have a strong sense of it on election day. The other possibility — the more likely one, in my view — is that either Biden has a narrow lead with the votes that are cast on election day, or that Trump does,” he said.  

“If it’s the former, then ballots counted later (e.g., absentee votes that are mailed in) are likely to increase his lead. If, however, Trump has a narrow lead in the state when the votes cast on election day are counted, then that could lead to a more complicated situation, with Republicans potentially wanting to certify the election results before those other votes are counted and can potentially shift the vote tally.”

A voting sign outside the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit. (Courthouse News photo / Andy Olesko)

County Chair Gordon is confident the state will handle its election business without incident and anticipates a quick turnaround. 

“I think the Michigan system is fairly good. I suspect we will have results by the next day,” he said.

Ken Kollman, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan responded via email that he thought the race will be much tighter than the polls suggest. 

“We should expect a close race in Michigan in the presidential vote,” he wrote.

While Smidt thinks the outcome is still difficult to determine, he is optimistic the process will not drag on. 

“It depends on the margin. But not weeks,” he said. “The change in the law to allow earlier absentee counting helps. We have an amazing network of 1,600 local clerks processing ballots. 

“That takes a lot of volunteer work, the number of absentee ballots cast will be the key factor determining time. Studies find people trust their local clerks more than the state, so I think people will be trusting of their local results. The issue is if one large city or county takes a much longer amount of time compared to the others, that will raise concern,” he said.

In a tight state Senate race, incumbent Gary Peters will try to stave off a challenge from GOP candidate John James.

Peters, elected in 2014, was previously a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Michigan’s 9th Congressional District from 2009 to 2013 and Michigan’s 14th Congressional District from 2013 to 2015. When he was elected to the Senate, he replaced the retiring Democrat Carl Levin.

James, a Black Republican and Trump supporter, will try again after losing to Democrat Debbie Stabenow in the 2018 election. If he prevails, he would become Michigan’s first Black senator.

James served eight years in the Army as a Ranger-qualified aviation officer and fought in the Iraq War. When he returned home to Michigan, he grew his father’s trucking business into a multimillion-dollar operation.

Chair of the Cass County Executive Committee for the Republican Party Diane Konneck says she sees a lot of support for James in her area.

“The enthusiasm we are seeing at our campaign office is astounding. Every day that we are open there are many people coming in looking for signs or information. We have been out of John James signs for quite a while now and almost out of Trump signs. Having met James a couple years ago a lot of our members here are very supportive of his campaign and will work hard for him,” she wrote in an email.

Professor Kollman forecasts a Senate race that will go down to the wire.

“We should also expect a close race in the Michigan race for the U.S. Senate seat,“ he said.

But Shipan thinks Peters will prevail. 

“It’s not clear that the race between Peters and James is tightening.  Some polls indicate that it is; others do not,” he said. “More precisely, Peters’s lead, in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, has been remarkably steady at about 5% since late August, with no recent changes. 

“Prior to that it was bigger, in the 8-10% range, throughout the summer. If you’re a James supporter, you’re happy to see that Peters’s lead has dropped by several percentage points compared to where it was over the summer; if you’re a Peters supporter, you’re happy to see that James’s comeback seems to have stalled out at around a 5 point deficit,” he said. 

The disturbing news of a plot by a Michigan militia group to kidnap Governor Whitmer has renewed focus on extremists and the president’s reluctance to denounce them.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recently issued guidelines to election officials that said the open carry of guns within 100 feet of polling places was banned.

“The presence of firearms at the polling place, clerk’s office(s), or absent voter counting board may cause disruption, fear or intimidation for voters, election workers and others present,” the guidance said.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel agreed.  

“Whether it’s disorderly conduct or loitering, whether it’s brandishing for weapons related offenses, the most important thing is this, we don’t want people to harass voters when they are in the process of exercising what is a fundamental right, which is their right to vote,” she said in an episode of “The Circus” that recently aired on Showtime.

County Chair Gordon was skeptical about the ban and said it was merely a “stunt.”

“I don’t think it is a big problem. I think it’s for politics more than anything else,” he said.

But Kollman believes any suspicion to suppress votes or dissuade voters should be taken seriously.

“We should all be concerned about any kind of intimidation or voter suppression, regardless of our party affiliation. Nearly all people have made up their minds and there is little persuading left to do, except for influencing turnout. This will be a battle over turnout among supporters and over the degree to which targeted voter suppression efforts work,” he said.

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