What It Might Mean for Michigan to Vote Early in Democratic Primaries

With Michigan muscling its way into the pantheon of early presidential states, is it time to sell your ethanol stocks and invest in auto-parts futures? Stop pretending you like corn dogs and butter cows and start gorging on rectangular deep-dish pizza with pepperoni buried under an avalanche of brick cheese?

I’m only partly kidding. There’s a reason Michigan Republicans jumped aboard Representative Debbie Dingell’s lengthy quest to vault their state ahead of Iowa in the Democratic nominating calendar, even though it presents some potential complications that I’ll get into later.

“It’s good for Michigan,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican consultant and former chair of the state party. “When you only have eight battleground states, presidential races are only in those eight states, while 40-plus states are completely ignored.”

Dingell, a Democrat, said that “the early presidential nominating states are what determine the agenda in Washington.” She rattled off a well-practiced list of reasons that Michigan belonged among the early few. And whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, she added, “You cannot win the White House without the heartland of America.”

It also happens to be very good for Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. — especially as he digests the fact that the two other leaders of his party, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, are both from Brooklyn.

“It’s very comfortable terrain for him,” Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist who cut his teeth in Michigan politics, said of the president.

Indeed. It’s hard not to detect a flavor of revenge in Biden’s decision — which he articulated on Thursday in a letter to members of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee — to embrace adding Michigan to the early-state mix along with Georgia, while moving South Carolina to the front of the pack.

Biden fared poorly in the Iowa caucuses in 2020, finishing in fourth place with just 15.8 percent of the vote. (Iowa, it should be noted, also fared poorly — with a technological meltdown delaying results and preventing the state Democratic Party from being able to determine the winner.)

He then took a drubbing in New Hampshire, slipping to an ignominious fifth place and a mere 8.4 percent of the vote. Not until South Carolina, third in the primary calendar that year, did Biden notch a victory — and he then built momentum on Super Tuesday that would carry him to the nomination.

But Biden’s strange trajectory only amplified an indictment many Democrats had voiced for years about the first two states in the primary calendar: that they were not just grossly unrepresentative in terms of racial diversity — 90 percent of Iowans are white — but also that overeducated voters in those states had developed a taste for the politically exotic, embracing faculty-lounge favorites like Paul Tsongas who could never win in the fall.

“We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window,” Biden wrote. “As I said in February 2020, you cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color — and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters.”

Winning a Democratic primary state as diverse as Michigan requires a candidate who can do well among Black voters in cities like Detroit, but also among union stalwarts and college-educated voters of all races in inner-ring suburbs, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist based in Lansing.

Someone, he added, like Joe Biden.

“It makes so much sense,” said Eric Hyers, who directed Biden’s 2020 campaign in Michigan. “Everyone knows that the path to 270 runs through Michigan.”

For Democratic strategists, Michigan has a lot to offer. In contrast to Iowa, which has become an uncompetitive sideshow in general elections in recent years, investments in the nominating process in Michigan have the potential to pay off in the fall.

And at 10 million people, it’s believed to be sized just right: not so big that winning becomes a pricey arms race waged over television, as would happen in California, yet large enough to have pockets of voters, like Muslims in Dearborn and Hamtramck, that are a microcosm of communities elsewhere.

“It’s not like there’s just one media market and it’s wicked expensive,” Hyers added. “You can also build a robust and effective organizing program.”

If Michigan does make the cut, along with Georgia, it is likely to change how presidential candidates run for office for the near future — and not necessarily in predictable ways.

The most obvious impact on the Democratic side could be exactly what Biden mentioned: that it elevates the party’s diverse coalition of Black and Brown communities to reflect their true weight in the party.

But it could also lead to some surprising outcomes, especially on the Republican side.

“Instead of a minefield, this is like a field full of gopher holes where you can break an ankle,” said Mark Grebner, a Democratic commissioner in Michigan’s Ingham County.

Grebner noted that because Michigan does not require voters to register by party, it’s possible that presidential primaries could involve heavy amounts of crossover voting.

In the past, that has led to some strange outcomes. In 1972, George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, won Michigan’s Democratic primary over George McGovern, the eventual nominee, with the help of Republican voters.

Unlike Democrats, Republicans have already locked in their early-state lineup, with Iowa and New Hampshire first as usual. Under the Republican National Committee’s rules, Michigan could be docked delegates to the party’s national nominating convention if the state holds its primary before the big four.

Anuzis said that Republicans could get around the R.N.C.’s delegate penalty by holding what’s known as a “preference primary” at the same time that Democrats hold a full primary.

The results would essentially be a recommendation from voters to the state party committee, which would then choose the candidate through something like a state nominating convention or caucus.

Depending on what rules the Republican Party adopts, given the lock that staunchly pro-Trump activists hold on the Republican grass roots in Michigan, an insider-driven process could benefit candidates on the political fringe. This year, the Michigan Republican Party nominated Kristina Karamo, a far-right podcaster, as its candidate for secretary of state; she lost by 14 percentage points.

To be clear, Iowa (and New Hampshire, for that matter) isn’t going down without a fight.

Officials in both states have said they plan to hold their presidential nominating contests early, regardless of what the Democratic National Committee agrees on during this weekend’s meetings. New Hampshire’s status as an early state is enshrined in law, as the chairman of the Democratic Party there, Raymond Buckley, noted in a furious statement on Thursday.

We’ll see what happens. On Friday, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee issued a letter demanding that New Hampshire change its laws to accommodate South Carolina’s bid to become the first primary state. There’s plenty of messy negotiating left to be done before any decisions are final.

For now, the Michigan Democrats who have prodded, cajoled and lobbied their colleagues to shake up the calendar aren’t quite ready to spike the blue-and-gold (or green-and-white) football just yet.

After all, Michigan has been waiting for a generation to get the nod. “It’s really important to me that people recognize that Carl Levin started this,” Dingell said, noting that she and Levin, the former senator who died last year, had been pushing to add Michigan for three decades.

“We almost won in 2008,” Dingell added. “We got to the finish line, and we got screwed at the end.”

This time, she said, “I will not believe it’s done until it’s done.”


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