Nov 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Michigan poised to dominate presidential politics

Illustration of a magnifying glass examining the state of Michigan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Michigan is inching closer to joining the early 2024 Democratic presidential primary window, a major shakeup after months of intense lobbying and an official vote in the state Senate backing the effort.

Why it matters: The calendar change, if supported at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws committee this weekend, would have seismic implications for President Biden's party.

  • It would also cement Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — once a top choice for Biden's running mate — as a Democratic star with the potential to be a formidable presidential candidate herself someday.
  • The potential shift comes after Whitmer was comfortably elected to a second term and Democrats flipped the state legislature for the first time in 38 years, making Michigan one of the party's top midterm success stories.

Driving the news: Michigan's state Senate voted Tuesday night to move the state's presidential primary date up to the second week of February, jockeying for an elusive position in the window before Super Tuesday.

  • Michigan and Minnesota are the two top contenders to become the first Midwestern state in the calendar, after Iowa fell out of favor with Democrats over the 2020 caucus debacle and broader diversity concerns.
  • Michigan looked like a tougher sell before Democrats won back full control of state government. Now, Democrats can unilaterally make changes to the calendar without GOP support.

The big picture: The size difference between Michigan and Iowa alone would dramatically reshape the incentives for future campaigns.

  • Michigan is the 10th largest state in the nation by population size and awards more primary delegates in 2020 than the other three early states combined: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
  • Starting the primary process in Michigan would favor wealthy candidates and fundraising juggernauts at the expense of grassroots-oriented underdogs.
  • The early voting window on the primary calendar has traditionally prioritized the interests of smaller states in which retail politics predominate.

Zoom in: In addition to being a battleground that Biden won back from Donald Trump in 2020, Michigan has been ground zero for hot-button issues animating Democrats across the country — including abortion and voting rights.

  • It's also a state that has a strong union presence and has been severely affected by economic downturns.
  • Whitmer won her 2018 gubernatorial campaign on a pledge to "Fix the damn roads," focusing on infrastructure in a cycle in which left-wing progressive candidates were often the loudest.

The backdrop: Iowa's lack of racial and ethnic diversity is a major issue Democrats have been grappling with for years.

  • Some Democrats question Michigan's relatively low Latino and AAPI representation compared to a state like Nevada, which is also lobbying to move up in the calendar.
  • Pro-Michigan Democrats say the state would boost the fortunes of union-backed candidates, bolster Black voters' influence and divert new attention to the state's sizable Arab American constituencies.
  • Women occupy the three top statewide offices in Michigan (governor, attorney general, and secretary of state), and up-and-comers like Rep. Elissa Slotkin and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow are reinforcing Michigan's reputation as a factory for Democratic stars.

What they're saying: "Michigan represents America in a way no other state does. Our two peninsulas are home to every type of voter — conservatives, progressives, moderates — in every type of community — urban, rural, suburban," Whitmer told Axios in a statement.

  • Rep. Debbie Dingell echoed the state's diversity argument but stressed that Democrats can't ignore white union workers. "We’re losing them again in some ways," she told Axios. "Joe Biden’s working hard, but they look at our caucus and think, ‘They’re coastal elites who don’t give a shit about us.’”
  • "Elections are won and lost in the Midwest," she added.
  • House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close ally to Biden, all but endorsed Michigan's role in the early window in a Washington Post interview last week: "If it’s Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, that’s almost ideal to me," Clyburn said.

Yes, but: Some Democrats working in other early states worry Michigan would become a "giveaway" to billionaires or billionaire-backed candidates who could buy their way through the contest with TV ads, large staff and expansive travel.

What we're watching: Biden — a big fan of Whitmer's — was in Michigan this week to pitch his vision for domestic manufacturing and semiconductors, just days before his party's critical decision on the primary calendar.

  • Whitmer is also scheduled to be in D.C. this week for a donor event at the Democracy Alliance conference.
  • As party leader, Biden's perspective on the calendar reshuffle will likely be a deciding factor.
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