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Did Candidates Receive the Michigan Message?

Smoke signals and shots across the bow in the primary contests.

The headline numbers for the Democrat and Republican primary contests in Michigan should surprise no one. On Tuesday, February 27, voters backed the respective front-runners, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, with commanding victories. But digging deeper into the data suggests trouble in electoral paradise for at least one candidate.

Michigan and The Donald – It’s Complicated

Trump’s win in Michigan was a done deal. Before yesterday’s primary contest, the RealClearPolitics average gave him a staggering lead over Nikki Haley, which came to fruition in the form of a 40-point advantage – winning a grand total of 68.2% with 94% of the vote counted. Haley acquitted herself well, garnering 26.5%, which was pretty much John Kasich and Ted Cruz territory in 2016.

Even in the crowded field of the 2016 GOP primary, Trump walked away with more than 480,000 votes (37%). In 2020, he racked up 640,000. With Haley in the race, the number of folks willing to cast their primary ballot for Trump shot up to 755,000 – signifying that the 45th president has a firm grasp on Michigan’s GOP base.

In 2020, the “uncommitted” camp – at the height of Never Trump fever – managed to chalk up just under 5% (32,000 votes); that was 3% this time around at roughly 33,000 ballots.

Haley has promised to stay in the race until at least Super Tuesday on March 5; her performance in Michigan gives her a good excuse to do so. However, her messaging is in danger of derailing any goodwill she has built up – not because of the combative approach to the front-runner, but because it is often easily debunked. Speaking to CNN’s Dana Bash, Haley insisted that Trump was “not bringing people into the party; he’s pushing people out of the party.” While that is undoubtedly true for some high-profile Republicans who have joined the Never Trump camp, the clear increase in his primary support each election cycle suggests the opposite. Fresh off record-breaking primary and caucus wins, Haley’s argument just got a lot harder to make.

This Is Bernie Country

The final tally for yesterday’s contest was (with 95% of the vote counted) a blowout for Biden. He notched up 81.1%, with Marianne Williamson – already withdrawn from the race – taking 3% and token opposition candidate Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) earning 2.7%.

However, a spectre is haunting Michigan – the spectre of Bernie Sanders. All the powers of the Democratic Party entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre; although he is not on the ballot, the influence of his progressive politics still weighs heavy. In 2016, Democrats in Michigan went for Senator Sanders (I-VT) over Hillary Clinton, awarding him almost 600,000 votes; his 2020 performance against Joe Biden, while not successful, garnered more than 570,000 primary ballots. To say there is a sizeable progressive contingent in the state is an understatement.

President Biden has pushed his fair share of progressive policy during his time in office, but perhaps not enough.

Michigan Holds Its Primary ElectionDEARBORN, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 27: Mayor of Dearborn, Michigan Abdullah Hammoud delivers remarks at an "Uncommitted for Joe Biden" primary election night watch party at Adonis restaurant on February 27, 2024 in Dearborn, Michigan. The Uncommitted movement called on Democratic voters to not support President Joe Biden in the Michigan Democratic primary because of his Administration's support for Israel in it's war against Hamas. President Joe Biden and Republican Presidential candidate and former President Joe Biden each won their parties primaries in Michigan. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The “uncommitted” vote is the big story for Democrats. Over 100,000 Michiganders opted for none of the above as part of an organized protest against Biden’s refusal to broker an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The possibility that a significant portion of Arab American and Muslim voters might rebel against the incumbent has been sending shock waves through Team Biden, so much so that on the eve of the primary, the president foolhardily suggested that a ceasefire might be in place within a week.

It could certainly have been the Biden strategy to push for a ceasefire on this particular timeline all along, but the optics of dangling such a carrot before a primary election are just plain disastrous. His opponents will likely claim that he is willing to bribe voters with foreign policy favors, and even those who support the president could well see this as weakness in the face of a minor hurdle.

One hundred thousand uncommitted votes are no small potatoes; it represents a shot across the bow for Biden’s re-election hopes. While such a sum will make no difference in true blue states, the battlegrounds – that polling suggests are all leaning Trump – are on a knife edge. “Uncommitted” Democrat voters may be all too likely to stay home come election day, potentially passing more power to Independents.

Smoke Signals

The late Czech novelist Milan Kundera highlighted the inherent folly of sending unclear messages – as appears to be the case for Haley and Biden – in his poignant novel, The Joke, describing life under his country’s communist regime:

“Their message will never be decoded, not only because there is no key to it, but also because people have no patience to listen to it in an age when the accumulation of messages old and new is such that their voices cancel one another out.”

New banner Liberty Nation Analysis 1Ultimately, whatever messages have been sent, either to Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or to Nikki Haley, they will continue to do what they and their respective advisors suggest. A protest vote is, often, simply that, a protest. When it comes to the general election, it is unlikely that sufficient numbers of voters will switch their party allegiance, meaning that the final tally will come down to two factors: Independent voters and party enthusiasm.

Independents have become the fastest-growing core group as a general malaise over party politics sweeps the nation; these ballot casters will opt for whichever candidate looks most certain to address their top priorities. Polling suggests that the economy and immigration will top that list come November.

As for enthusiasm, this is the arena in which night sweats are manifest.

The Numbers Matter

Should Trump and Biden both make it to the ballot in eight months, Michigan could hold the keys to the kingdom. As a quintessential battleground state, its 15 electoral college votes may prove decisive. The Great Lakes State has picked the winner in the last four presidential contests; in fact, George W. Bush was the only candidate not to receive such blessings since 1976.

Digging deeper, Trump carried the state in 2016 by 10,700 votes, with over 2.2 million ballots cast in his favor. Although he went on to lose the state in 2020 by more than 150,000 votes, he still increased on his own prior performance by more than 200,000. Does this signify that Biden benefited from an enthusiasm tsunami? Most likely. But, with his approval ratings deep in the red, the nation’s top issues going unresolved, and those “uncommitted” voters more likely to stay home, this swing state is truly in play like never before.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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