Letter From Michigan: Trying to Win a Key Battleground State for Joe Biden, One Door at a Time

Letter From Michigan: Trying to Win a Key Battleground State for Joe Biden, One Door at a Time

It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late October, less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, and Jennifer, a 58-year-old Biden/Harris volunteer, is walking down a residential street in Traverse City, Mich., making her way through piles of fallen leaves, as the rain begins to pour.

“This is when it gets tough,” Jennifer says, opening her umbrella with one hand while she holds her phone in the other, checking again the canvassing app that tells her what voters’ homes to stop at. ”My glasses were already fogging up because of my mask and now I can’t see a thing.”

She knocks on the door of a brightly colored wooden-frame home, and a middle-aged man comes out to the porch and happily announces that he plans to vote for Joe Biden and will go online later this week to request a mail-in ballot.

“Oh, that’s not a good idea,” says Jennifer. “It’s too late. You needed to mail your ballot by October 20th if you wanted it to arrive by Election Day. Now, you should drop it off in person at the clerk’s office. Do you have that address?”

“Yes,” he says. “I know where it is. Maybe I’ll drive over today with my wife.”

“Thanks for your support,” Jennifer says, handing him the instructions for in-person advance voting, and then turns back to say, “And I hope you’ll vote for Gary Peters as well,” referring to the U.S. senator in a tough re-election fight. She marks him off as a confirmed Biden voter and searches on the app for the next house on her list.

Image may contain Tree Plant Outdoors Nature Building Shelter Countryside Rural Human and Person

Canvassing in Northern Michigan, where the weather was not entirely cooperative.

We are in the heart of Trump Country here in Northern Michigan. On the ride up the I-75, passing towns like Bay City and Roscommon, we saw Trump billboard after Trump billboard, some explicitly linking their support of the president to their right to bear arms or their belief in the healing power of Jesus. One huge billboard featured a broadly smiling Trump with the words: “Love This Guy,” while another took a slightly different approach to winning over voters: “TRUMP: No More Bullshit.”

Grand Traverse County is almost as red as red can be. In 2016, it went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 53%-to-40% margin and gave Mitt Romney a 55%-to-44% edge over Barack Obama in 2012. But we will not be stopping at any homes with Trump signs on their lawns, or trying to convert lifelong Republicans over to the Democratic side of the ticket. Instead, we will be stopping at houses and apartments that have been identified as the homes of registered Democrats.

“We’re not here to change minds; that’s not a good use of our time,” says Charlie, a recent college graduate and one of the organizers of today’s canvassing, handing over the Biden/Harris campaign literature as he takes our temperatures and reminding us to keep our masks and gloves on and to follow social distancing rules. “We just want to make sure that Democrats get out to vote for Biden and Harris, and that they vote a straight ticket, if at all possible. Some of the down-ballot races, like the state Supreme Court, are as important to Michigan as the presidential one.” 

We’re not alone up here in Traverse City. Among the dozen or so other canvassers on this day is Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of the former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, returning to his Michigan hometown to campaign for Biden and Harris. (Mayor Pete will join him two days later.) Like Jennifer, he is dealing with the elements, but seems better prepared for the cold and rain, based on a tweet he posted as he walked the streets of Traverse City with two young organizers:

And Grand Traverse County does seem to offer some promise, especially if the Biden/Harris campaign can take advantage of the Democratic votes that lie in the more-progressive pocket of Traverse City. As Jonathan Hanson, the senior media strategist at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, explained to me in an interview this week, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a net margin of 7,000 votes in Grand Traverse County in 2016—but two years later, in that same county, the Republican candidate for governor, Bill Schuette, tallied only about 1,000 more votes than Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, the eventual winner. “If Democrats can come close to that kind of performance in Grand Traverse,” Hanson said, “Biden is likely to have a strong win statewide.”

Jennifer is able to hit about 40 homes before the rain makes going door-to-door almost impossible—and most of the people who answer her knock express their support for Biden (though several are adamant that they will not support Peters and will instead vote for his opponent, the Republican John James). One 20-something, another recent college graduate, comes to the door in a robe and slippers and seems eager to talk, somewhat oblivious to the rain streaming off Jennifer’s umbrella and down the back of her University of Michigan poncho. The meeting ends on a high note: He confirms that he and his mother will vote a straight Democratic ticket and then asks for the name and phone number of Charlie, the local Biden organizer, so he can offer to volunteer as well.

“That was a good day, I think,” Jennifer says to me as we head back to the car. “A few more Biden voters than I expected to find up here. But I wish more people knew about early voting, and I was disappointed by the people who said they were voting for Biden but not Peters. They don’t seem to realize that not getting control of the Senate will just paralyze the Biden administration.”

Image may contain Kamala Harris Flag Symbol Human Person Electrical Device and Microphone

Kamala Harris campaigning in Detroit this week. 

Photo: Getty Images

Michigan, of course, is one of the key battleground states this year, one that Clinton lost by just 11,000 votes in 2016. This year, the Biden campaign is focusing heavily on the state in the closing weeks, knowing its 16 electoral votes are key to getting to 270. The 2018 midterms offered promising signs for 2020: Democratic candidates swept the elections for governor, lieutenant governor, senator, attorney general, and secretary of state, and also flipped two House seats. 

But the Biden campaign isn’t taking any chances: Joe Biden has visited several times and Kamala Harris, who made Michigan her first campaign stop after officially being nominated as Biden’s running mate, barnstormed the state on Sunday, visiting Detroit, Troy, and Pontiac in a single day. Other campaign surrogates in recent days have included Jill Biden; Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff; Pete Buttigieg; and the pop star Lizzo. (Biden is expected to return to Michigan this Saturday, as part of a weekend swing through key Midwestern states.)

In her visit to Detroit on Sunday, where she spoke to a crowd of about 100 electrical workers gathered in a downtown parking lot, Harris emphasized the crucial importance of winning back Michigan in 2020. “You all are very likely going to make the decision about who is the next president of the United States,” she said. “I am back in Detroit to ask you once again to please, please tell everybody you know about what is at stake in this election.”

If the Biden/Harris ticket is to carry Michigan, local Democrats know it all comes down to three things: Turnout, turnout, and turnout. As the University of Michigan’s Hanson explained, two factors hurt Clinton and helped Trump in 2016: “First, Clinton did not generate the level of turnout she needed in key Democratic-leaning areas to carry the state. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, turnout fell by about 38,000 votes compared with 2012, and Clinton received 76,000 fewer votes than Obama did in that county. Second, there was a surge of support for Trump among non-college-educated white voters in more rural parts of the state.”

Image may contain Brick Plant Tree and Window

A pocket of Biden/Harris support in heavily Republican Grand Traverse County.

So, three days after her trip to Northern Michigan, Jennifer is back out canvassing, this time in Ypsilanti, about a half-hour from her home in Ann Arbor, and joined by another canvasser, her husband, Daniel. The two were out the weekend before and plan to canvass again this weekend through Nov. 3.

Jennifer remembers well the trauma of 2016, when, a week before the election, she canvassed this same area and slowly began to realize that Trump could win Michigan and possibly even the presidency itself. On election night, her husband was away on business, and her three adult children at a party in Ann Arbor, awaiting the results that would make Hillary Clinton the country’s first female president. They asked her to come with them, but she declined. The reason? “I knew we were going to lose.”

Jennifer recalls: “When I was out canvassing, I had seen these handmade Trump signs—done by people who hadn’t been able to get official campaign signs—all over the area. And I had knocked on so many Democrats’ doors, where so many women, women like me, came to the door and said, ‘I don’t like Hillary. I’m either sitting it out or I’m going to try Trump.’ It was so shocking to me.”

She adds: “I remember very specifically this one woman, who was 26. She opened the door and she said, ‘I don’t like Hillary.’ And I said, ‘It’s not about personalities; it’s about policies.’ And she said, ‘Well, it is for me. I don’t trust her. I think she’s corrupt.’ I brought up the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade and she said ‘I’m just not that worried about that.’ I must have had that conversation, or something like it, about 20 times.”

But today’s outing, in a mostly African-American neighborhood just outside of downtown Ypsilanti, proves encouraging. Almost everyone who answers the door identifies as a Biden supporter, with many saying they have already voted. As one man standing with two friends on the sidewalk outside his house says, when Daniel hands him a Biden/Harris pamphlet, “If you’re not ridin’ with Biden, you’re slidin’!” 

There is one exception, however. A Black man, appearing to be in his late 30s, comes to the door and, when he sees the Biden literature in Jennifer’s hands, cheerfully shouts out, “Four more years! Four more years!”

“So, I guess you’re a Trump supporter,” Jennifer says, tucking the campaign literature back under her arm. 

“97% of Black people have voted Democratic in the past, and what have we gotten in return?” he asks. “Nothing,” he responds, saying again: “Four more years!”

“We hope to earn back your vote in the future,” Daniel yells from the sidewalk as we make our way to the next home.

Image may contain Human Person Plant Tree Grass Car Vehicle Transportation Automobile Yard Outdoors and Nature

Canvassing while social distancing in Ypsilanti. 

After our canvassing is done, and before we turn back to Ann Arbor, Jennifer asks Daniel to drive through the neighborhood she canvassed four years ago and left so despondently, convinced that Hillary Clinton would lose to Donald Trump.

This time, we see plenty of Biden signs, with just a scattering of those for Trump. “This is fabulous,” she says, as we pass house after house with Biden/Harris signs on their front lawns. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t Trump voters here, but, if there are, they are not putting up their signs … I’m feeling good.”