Michigan Democrats talk strategy, goals heading into 2024 presidential election

As Democrats plot a strategy to retain the White House, the upcoming Michigan primary will serve as a harbinger for what political and social issues are swaying voters’ decisions in the 2024 election.

President Joe Biden addresses UAW members during a campaign stop at a phone bank in the UAW Region 1 Union Hall, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Warren, Mich.

President Joe Biden addresses UAW members during a campaign stop at a phone bank in the UAW Region 1 Union Hall, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Warren, Mich.

Democrats in Michigan finally succeeded this year in the party’s long-sought goal to move its presidential primary ahead in the election cycle. 

Yet it comes at a time when the Democratic primary does not appear very competitive. 

The presumed nominee, President Joe Biden, is far in front of his two closest challengers.

So as Democrats plot a strategy to retain the White House, the Michigan primary may serve more as a kind of political petri dish — growing answers to issues driving voters away from Biden.

Age and Accomplishments

When Joe Biden stepped to the podium to address the nation only hours after the release of a report that called the president a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory,” he was not just responding to the assessment of a special counsel. 

He was trying to blunt an attack that’s hounded him in his bid for a second term. 

 One reporter asked Biden, “How bad is your memory? And can you continue as president?”

“My memory is so bad I let you speak,” Biden shot back. “My memory is fine. Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president. None of you thought I could pass any of the things that I got passed. How’d that happen? You know, I guess I just forgot what was going on.”

Biden allies let loose with a barrage of criticism after the report became public. 

The special counsel’s conclusion that the president should not be charged with unlawfully possessing classified documents was being lost amid the controversy. 

And Democrats blamed the Justice Department for being politicized.  

That’s the same argument repeatedly used by the likely Republican nominee, former President Donald Trump, regarding the many cases filed against him. 

Yet survey after survey finds the 81-year-old Biden’s age concerns voters in Michigan and across the country. 

Well before the special counsel’s report, Michigan Democrats like Congresswoman Debbie Dingell said Biden and the party needed to address the age issue head-on in both the primaries and the general election. 

“He’s gonna have to demonstrate, we’re gonna have to talk about, how he does have the energy, how he does have, quite frankly, the seasoning for leadership,” Dingell said. “But what I always find ironic is that people talk about age and Donald Trump is almost the same age as Joe Biden. We have two senior men (running.)”

Dingell says Democrats should instead focus on the benefits stemming from Biden’s economic agenda, a message he has struggled to get through to voters. 

That includes lowering prescription drug costs for some seniors, strengtheningdomestic supply chains and — administration officials claim — creating more than 300,000 jobs in Michigan alone while helping repair crumbling roadways in the state.    

“We’ve been saying for years we need to fix our roads and bridges. We all see the orange cones, we’ve been in these traffic jams. That money came in because the president had the leadership to pass the bipartisan infrastructure law. And we need to remind people,” Dingell said.

Picket lines and protest signs

But Biden’s push for electric vehicles, in particular, has produced speed bumps on the campaign trail. 

The United Auto Workers union, long a bastion of Democratic support, hesitated to endorse Biden even after he became the first sitting president to join striking workers on a picket line. 

That’s due in part to concerns that the move to electric vehicles could cost union jobs. 

Biden eventually gained the UAW’s endorsement and the extra help with stumping for votes that comes with it.  

In an exclusive interview with WDET’s Russ McNamara, UAW President Shawn Fain said comparing Biden with Trump was no contest.  

“It’s just the body of work and looking at both candidates. President Biden has a history of standing with workers. The other, his two favorite words are ‘You’re Fired.’ And that’s not something that working-class people ever want to hear,” Fain said.  

But the president’s reelection campaign ran into something no candidate wants to hear, calls to “Abandon Biden” because of his support for Israel during the ongoing war in Gaza.  

Protestors picketed outside a recent meeting in Dearborn between Metro Detroit leaders and Biden administration officials. 

Activists initially refused to meet with the Biden campaign, then criticized Michigan officials who did, like State Rep. Abraham Aiyash. 

He says electoral politics were not on the agenda. 

But Aiyash adds that Democrats’ assertion that Palestinians would fare much more poorly if there’s a renewed Trump administration then under Biden, is not a winning game plan for the president. 

“When I run for office my message is not that the other guy’s gonna be worse than me,” Aiyash said. “If something’s not right you don’t blame your constituents. You try to change course and fix your strategy. And I think that’s what the president has an opportunity to do.”

Seeking other candidates?

Some experts say Biden’s election quandary extends far beyond whether he can help broker a cease-fire in Gaza. 

Michigan State University Professor Matt Grossmann directs the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.  

He acknowledges that some Arab-American voters threaten to sit-out the presidential election if U.S. policy towards Israel does not change. 

“But the much bigger threat is that there are plenty of Muslim and Arab voters in Michigan who aren’t that attached to the Democratic party. And we actually had a move among the Muslim and Arab populations, especially in the Dearborn area, towards the Republicans in the last election. But it was all about schools, LGBTQ issues, social conservatism,” Grossman said.

Yet another wild card for Democrats in this election is the emergence of a third presidential candidate beyond the major parties.  

Robert Kennedy Jr. recently stumped in Grand Rapids as he attempts to get enough signatures to be placed on the Michigan ballot. 

Democrats have countered with billboards that claim Kennedy Jr.’s election bid is funded by a donor who is also backing Trump. 

Michigan State’s Grossmann, for one, says Kennedy Jr. and even activists unhappy with U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine may have more traction in the primary season than when voting begins in the November general election. 

“At this point in the campaign there are always more people saying that they either will support a third-party candidate or won’t vote for either candidate,” Grossman said. “They end up deciding that even though they dislike both candidates, one is better than the other. And one of the big correlatives of turnout is if the election is expected to be close. If it is then they’re more likely to turn out than they might think today.” 

That means Democrats’ best strategy for this election may be to promote how Biden’s legislative victories are impacting voters’ daily lives, try to invigorate the party’s traditional base and hope the president, at the very least, does not fall too far behind Donald Trump.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.