In his memoir, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote about being with Barack Obama when the Clinton campaign requested that the President visit Michigan on the day before the 2016 election.
“Michigan?” President Obama responded, “That’s not good.”
Obama was right to be concerned. After all, Michigan’s been the harbinger of Democratic presidential campaigns for decades, and it appears that reputation may soon become bipartisan.
Democrats and Michigan in 20th Century
In the post-Roosevelt Democratic Party, the Great Lake State was an essential foundation to any winning campaign.
In 1948, Harry Truman began his legendary comeback with a Labor Day kick-off in Cadillac Square, Detroit. After that, it became a tradition for every Democratic presidential nominee to begin their crusade there with a Labor Day stemwinder.
This custom was ended by Jimmy Carter, who chose to start the 1976 fall campaign in Warm Springs, Georgia (a location meaningful to both himself and FDR) over the home state of his opponent Gerald Ford.
The move was symbolic, as it came during a troubled time for the party both in the state and nationwide. They suffered from a lack of leadership after the death of power broker and UAW President Walter Reuther. From 1968 to 1988, the party’s presidential nominee lost five of six contests in Michigan and five of six elections overall.
During this time in the wilderness, Michigan became the face of Democratic struggles thanks to a famous Stan Greenberg study of Reagan Democrats in the Detroit suburb of Macomb County. His conclusion was that the party needed to move to the center on social issues and embrace economic populism to appeal to white, male union workers.
Bill Clinton was a firm believer in Greenberg’s findings and put them into practice in 1992. He gave Michigan a lot of attention, took the lead in the polls and scored an immediate call on Election Night. In 1996 it was much the same story, as Clinton followed up a seven point win with a thirteen point one.
Democrats and Michigan in the New Millennium
The legend is that Al Gore never campaigned with Bill Clinton in 2000, but that’s not entirely true. In August, with the Gore team down in the polls and looking to maximize their convention bounce, Bill and Al (with Hillary and Tipper) made a joint appearance in Monroe, MI.
The location wasn’t an accident. Labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party was cooling and the GOP frequently targeted Gore’s pro-environmental record. Gore battled hard, even visiting Flint on the final day of campaigning. In the end, he took Michigan by five but was famously stopped just short of the White House.
Four years later, Michigan was again a major battleground state. The Kerry camp felt they had the edge there but a late poll showing Bush ahead caused concern. After another long night, Democrats again had a narrow victory in Michigan (just three points this time) and another narrow loss nationwide.
The tables were turned in 2008, as Michigan signaled doom for Republican nominee John McCain. McCain was forced to withdraw and concede the state to Barack Obama as October began. This development epitomized the race on multiple levels as McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin publicly questioned the move. Ultimately, Michigan was called for Obama the moment polls closed and his eventual margin was sixteen points.
President Obama retained that strength four years later, as native son Mitt Romney was unable to gain any traction due to his opposition to the rescue of the auto industry. The final result was a nine point advantage and another early call for the Dem nominee.
Hillary Clinton anticipated an easy three-peat, but instead Michigan provided the first sign of trouble in the Rust Belt. As the polls there tightened, her Electoral College strategy was suddenly in danger. We all know the final result, a razor-thin win for Donald Trump that was fundamental to his Electoral College victory.
This year, however, Michigan is looming as the spectre of doom for Trump rather than Joe Biden. The incumbent is trailing in the polls and it’s now generally considered the most likely Trump state to flip to Biden. We still have three months to go, but if circumstances don’t change Donald Trump will discover that an uphill battle in Michigan is the surest path to defeat.