WARREN, Mich. — For Greg and Mary-Alice Schulte, finding Joe Biden meant some real detective work. They had heard that the Democratic nominee was coming to Michigan, then to the Macomb County city of Warren, then to some sort of event with United Auto Workers. So they drove in a loop, looking for the right UAW site, until they found the one with a long line of police motorcycles and a few dozen supporters of President Trump waving flags and blasting “God Bless the U.S.A.” on a portable speaker.
“We’re just that devoted,” said Mary-Alice, 55.
“You don’t see the numbers, usually, for Joe,” said Greg, 55. “We just wanted to come out so he didn’t just see the people against him.”
Biden’s visit to Michigan on Wednesday was his first since winning the Democratic primary six months earlier. It came after a loud Democratic panic — even louder and even more panicky than the norm — that Biden was being outplayed in swing states where he’d led in polls all summer. He was urged to campaign in the state’s biggest swing county, and so he did.
But the view from the ground was of a transformed campaign, one that put the candidate in front of just a handful of voters. Biden’s locations were guarded like state secrets, shared in advance with only the press pool that covers him. The familiar campaign circus, with hawkers selling T-shirts and buttons and protesters screaming at one another across “free speech zones,” had been left in the pre-coronavirus past. The Basement Campaign, which lasted longer and worked better for Biden than Republicans had expected, was replaced by a Bubble Campaign. At every stop, the number of people with direct sight lines to Biden was less than the number of vehicles in the motorcade.
It looks nothing like the campaigns Democrats usually launch after Labor Day. That was a given. For decades, Democrats launched their final general election push at Detroit’s Labor Day parade, an event Biden repeatedly came to and marched in, using the 2014 parade to deliver a populist speech about tax fairness. The parade was canceled this year, because of the pandemic; Biden spent the holiday in southeast Pennsylvania, and running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) spent it in Milwaukee.
“I can’t remember a year without a Labor Day parade in Detroit,” said Rep. Andy Levin (Mich.), one of the Democrats who had urged Biden to stump in Macomb County. “I woke up on Monday and I didn’t know what to do with myself!”
Biden, more than many politicians, thrived on the old bring-everybody style of campaign. During low moments in his primary bid, Biden would connect with voters who had personal stories or needed encouragement, like Brayden Harrington, a boy with a stutter who would end up speaking at the Democratic National Convention. That method of campaigning has been halted, replaced by speeches set on teleprompters and low-key, socially distanced meetings with community members whose names the campaign knows from the outset.
Biden’s campaign made it known that he would travel to Michigan on Wednesday but kept the details close, revealing the content — “buy American” tax advantages — but not the exact UAW location. Local reporters learned the address Tuesday night and made their plans to park across the street for live TV updates. Trump supporters figured it out when a group of UAW members who back the president shared it on Facebook, and local Republicans credited their sources in the labor movement. Republicans decisively outnumbered Biden supporters, chanting “Say no to creepy Joe!” and “Four more years!” when the former vice president arrived. Their numbers said as much as their chants.
“There’s no enthusiasm for his campaign to drum up,” said Alex Roncelli, 25, a local Republican activist who helped spread the word about the Biden event and protest. “We have flash mobs every Thursday. We have a massive email list. We can organize a group like this with almost no notice.”
The rest of Biden’s trip evaded the spotlight, and the hecklers. He spent four hours at the UAW facility, giving interviews to national and local media after the short speech. He then headed to Three Thirteen, a Black-owned T-shirt business where he told reporters he was shopping for a grandson. (He took three questions from CBS News about whether he was “sowing long-term distrust in a vaccine.”) When that was over, the motorcade took Biden to Ecorse, the sort of White, blue-collar community Democrats lost four years ago, where he sat and talked with steelworkers.
“It just drives me crazy that the country is going to hell in a hand basket economically and politically and in terms of our health, and we’re doing nothing about it,” Biden told them. “What’s the president do? To keep from being able to have us focusing on that, he tries to scare the hell out of you. ‘Watch out, man. Black Lives Matter, they’re going to come and get you and burn down your city.’”
It was the kind of message a pre-coronavirus candidate might deliver at a rally, to dozens of reporters from around the state, the country and the wider world. On Wednesday, it was delivered to a pool reporter from the New York Times, to four steelworkers, and to an ABC News camera streaming the conversation on Facebook for a few thousand people.
And it with the risk of spontaneity limited to whatever questions reporters shouted at Biden, and whether he answered them. The Trump campaign, which rapidly cuts and publishes any moment where Biden gaffes or stumbles, found little to work with from the Michigan trip. It linked to a report of Biden mixing up the number of covid-19 deaths in the military (seven) with the number of deaths in Michigan (more than 6,000), but otherwise recycled old clips from messier political moments.
The front pages of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News featured photos of Biden in front of the flags and trucks at his UAW event, with the sort of headlines any campaign would like: “Biden in Mich., Trump failed you” and “In Mich., Biden trumpets plan to stop offshoring jobs.” Being in the state, in any form, was enough to dominate free media, with little downside or chance of veering off message.
The upsides were limited, too. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sen. Debbie Stabenow appeared with Biden in Warren, the Michigan Democratic Party made no promotions around the event and attempted no voter outreach connected to it. Trump’s Michigan campaign, which will host the president for a rally near Saginaw today, uses its rallies to reach more voters; Biden’s campaign, sticking to the event attendance limits of whatever state it’s in, might as well exist independently of the ground game.
In interviews, local Democrats said they were not fretting over the difference, not as long as Biden was showing up in some form. Chris Savage, the Democratic chairman in the blue stronghold of Washtenaw County, said that demand for in-person political events was down, unrelated to anything Biden did, noted that his own backyard fundraiser drew half as many people as it had one summer earlier, but that it raised the same amount of money.
“People in Michigan acutely feel that they’d gotten neglected by the Clinton campaign in 2016,” Savage said. “They didn’t even start knocking on doors until, like, October. They took us for granted. People want to know that Biden at least is going to show up and pay attention and be present in Michigan, even if he can’t do giant events, and even if we’re making calls instead of knocking doors.”
The shrunken-down optics of the campaign still cheered Republicans. They see the same polls as Democrats, showing Biden and the ticket ahead in Michigan. They see the mismatch on TV, where Biden and allied PACs have outspent Trump and his allies for the past few weeks.
At the same time, they see Trump signs all over the state, and when they gathered in Warren they remarked on how their protest outnumbered the Biden rally by 5 to 1, or better.
“If they’d said where Biden was going to be, there’d be 500 people here protesting,” said Terry McLellan, 63, a Republican who’d found the site by himself, driving from UAW local to local, asking where Biden was going to be. “Biden comes here and they’ve got to pay hourly wages for UAW members to show up.”
The Trump style of rally has been rebooted, and on Thursday, the president campaigned near Saginaw in an airline hangar surrounded by the trappings of normal politics. More than a dozen merchandise stands were set up between a parking lot and the hangar entrance. Two carnival food trucks parked by line, for hundreds of Trump voters to decide whether they needed hot dogs or funnel cake.
There was nothing like that Wednesday, and Democrats, whose numbers topped out at nine, largely outlasted the Trump supporters. They waited patiently, catching a quick glimpse of Biden from their side of the street, as some Trump supporters jumped in their cars and circled the venue.
“He’s doing the right thing with these kind of events, trying to protect people,” Schulte said. “If boats and signs decided this election, he’d be in trouble. But they don’t.”
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Q & A
Biden’s scaled-down campaign demonstrates just how much has changed since the candidates were last on the trail, and how the era of record-breaking rallies might be halted by the pandemic. Biden, however, never had huge crowds to start with and was late to organize in a lot of states that he won over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) once the primary race narrowed. The Trailer talked to Sanders on Wednesday about how he thinks Democrats should navigate Republican attacks on protests and unrest and whether it matters if a candidate has more people showing up at rallies or knocking on doors.
THE TRAILER: A lot of campaigns this year, like your campaign, are working arm in arm with grass-roots movements. Republicans are exploiting that, more than they have in the past. How should Biden or other Democrats navigate that? The risk here, as we’ve seen, is that the Democrats march with protesters, and it’s linked quickly to burning and looting.
BERNIE SANDERS: Burning and looting, yeah. Look, I think an increasing number of Americans, Democrats, independents, many Republicans, understand that we have a president who is a pathological liar. And one of the problems that you have with the Republican Party right now is that people are increasingly skeptical about anything that Donald Trump says. If he says the sun is coming out tomorrow, people wonder if it’ll really happen. He lies all of the time. There is what I call a Trump fatigue in this country. … So, I’m not going to say that there aren’t some people who will fall for that. But I think that they are fewer and fewer in number.
TT: What do Democrats say to the people who think that?
BS: Look, we have to make it clear that ending systemic racism is a major goal, that fighting for racial justice is a major priority, and that violence is counterproductive to that effort. And by the way, when we talk about violence, take a look at what some of these right-wing goons are doing. I think what we do is continue the struggle nonviolently for racial justice. We condemn violence and we make the point that there is more than enough violence from the right wing.
TT: On just the campaign tactics: What should people take away the Democratic primary about the power of canvassing, field, and door-knocking. I’ve heard some worry from Democrats that they aren’t knocking on doors, but Republicans are. But I’ve heard, as a response to that, that Biden didn’t have great field, and he won the primary.
BS: You’re talking to somebody who absolutely believe in grass roots activity. There’s nobody out there who loves rallies more, loves town hall meetings more. Face-to-face contact is enormously important in our campaign. We had hundreds of thousands of people at one point or another knocking on doors and talking to people. So, I think there is a real loss when that is not occurring. On the other hand, we have a moral responsibility to make certain that we are not endangering the health and well-being of the American people. And we’ve got to be super cautious. And that is why I and I think everybody else is turning to live-streaming and virtual rallies and town meetings to the degree that we are.
TT: But without reliving the primary in too much detail: What do you think the impact was of door knocking and canvassing in the primary? Is one lesson from the primary not, hey, you can dominate in grass-roots organizing but it may not get you the win?
BS: You’re suggesting we did a good job with grass-roots organizing, but I didn’t win. Is that your point?
TT: I suppose that’s a good way to put it.
BS: Look, there are a lot of reasons why people win and why they don’t win. We took on the entire political and economic establishment. We won in Iowa, got the most votes in Iowa, most votes in New Hampshire, most votes in Nevada. I would say that at the end of the day, if you’re serious about winning elections and you’re serious about real change in the country, you have got to put a lot of energy into grass-roots organizing and voter education. This is especially true if you’re trying to bring what we would call nontraditional voters into the political process. So I’ve always believed in that. I believe it right now. TV ads are important, online ads are important. I don’t deny that for a second. I just think one-to-one contact, on the phone or in person, is also enormously important.
TT: Every recent Democratic president has taken office and appointed an administration or followed an agenda that disappointed the left. We’re starting to hear some worries about that based on who’s part of the transition. What’s your theory of how to, I guess, “win” the transition?
BS: I think there are people in the Democratic establishment who understand that the world has changed. There are millions of working-class people who demand a government that works for them and not for Wall Street or for the insurance companies. And what we are going to be working on, sooner rather than later, is what I already call a 100-day program, which speaks to the devastation that the working class of this country is experiencing, which says that in the first hundred days of a Democratic Senate or a Democratic president, we’re going to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, we’re going to make it easier for workers to join unions, we’re going to create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and combating climate change.
Cory Gardner, “Only One.” A sort of nihilism about scandals has crept into coverage of the presidential election, with the smart take on a Trump controversy (and less frequently, a Biden controversy) becoming that nothing is really breaking through. It’s another story in down-ballot races, where the sort of mistakes that don’t damage Trump are used heavily when other candidates make them. Here, Gardner returns to former governor John Hickenlooper’s campaign travel scandal, which ended with a $2,750 fine for gifts he did not report. “Let’s clean up the mess,” says Gardner, literally washing an Italian sports car of the brand that Hickenlooper rode in on one trip.
Martha McSally, “Lemon.” None of the stories about Democratic Senate nominee Mark Kelly’s business career have landed with the impact of the Hickenlooper travel scandal. But McSally has hammered them home, with several ads attacking Kelly for his work as a spokesman for companies with Chinese ties or Chinese sales events, and they’re recalled here by a man dressed as an incredibly sleazy used-car salesman. “Mark Kelly will do anything for a buck, and he’ll say anything for a vote,” he says.
John James, “Missed Hearings.” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) hasn’t given Republicans many targets to hit in terms of votes, donations or personal associations. His Republican opponent has responded with an argument that has worked for plenty of challengers in the past, hyper-focusing on subcommittee meetings that Peters didn’t attend and asking if his attendance would have fixed some problems. The biggest hit is that Peters missed “80 percent of Homeland Security hearings in 2016,” a point emphasized here and in other ads to say that Peters could have been quicker to respond to the coronavirus. The ads are insistent enough that Peters has released a response, using some of the same b-roll used by James, to emphasize his 99 percent voting record.
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Joe Biden: 47% (-2)
Donald Trump: 43% (-1)
Jo Jorgensen: 4% (+4)
The biggest subject of wild speculation over the past two weeks was Kenosha: specifically, whether voters would rally behind the president after unrest in that city after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. This completes a set of polls that found no movement toward Trump, and as the only Wisconsin poll to ask regularly about voters’ opinions of Black Lives Matter, it finds no real change in Kenosha’s aftermath. Approval of protests stayed flat, from 48 percent positive and 48 percent negative to 47 percent positive and 48 percent negative. Opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement itself didn’t budge since last month, with voters viewing it more favorably than negatively by 12 percentage points.
Great deal/some: 55%
Not much/at all: 45%
Great deal/some: 71%
Not much/at all: 25%
Monmouth’s poll, which finds Biden up by seven points overall with likely voters, had only a few days to ask respondents about the candidates’ respect for the military. (The question was cycled in after the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about Trump insulting “loser” war dead, based on anonymous accounts that were confirmed by other outlets, including The Post.) The result found a gap you don’t usually see in a race between an incumbent president and a challenger: Thirty percent of voters said that Trump doesn’t respect the military and veterans “at all,” compared with 12 percent who said that of Biden.
Wisconsin election officials, who were scheduled to begin distributing absentee ballots next week, got a dose of uncertainty Thursday when the state’s Supreme Court called a time-out. The Green Party’s presidential campaign and the campaign of rapper Kanye West have sued to get included on the ballot after the state’s election commission kicked them off — West missed the filing deadline, and the Greens failed to provide updated information about a vice-presidential candidate.
But the conservative-controlled court narrowly ordered that ballots can’t be distributed until the court resolves the Greens’ dispute. That halts a process that was well underway, as county clerks, who control ballot distribution, were working to print ballots and labels and get a head start on the historic number of requests. Some have already been printed, lacking West and lacking Green nominee Howie Hawkins.
In the states
New England wrapped up its primaries Tuesday, with few surprises in federal races but some striking liberal upsets down the ballot.
In New Hampshire, President Trump went two-for-two on endorsements, as better-funded candidates won primaries with his backing. Republican attorney Bryant “Corky” Messner won the party’s Senate nomination and will face Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November, after defeating retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. Both candidates were making their first runs for office, and Bolduc closed the gap to single digits by dominating the towns around Lake Winnipesaukee. But Messner far outran Bolduc in the Republican-heavy towns close to Boston and in the city of Manchester.
Messner loaned millions of dollars to his campaign, but Shaheen starts the eight-week race with a lead in every public poll. She narrowly defeated former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who had relocated to the state, in 2014, but better-known Republicans like Gov. Chris Sununu and Trump strategist Corey Lewandowski opted against running. If she wins, she’ll be the first Democrat ever reelected to the Senate from New Hampshire twice, and turnout was promising: Thirteen thousand more voters opted for the Democratic primary on Tuesday than voted in the GOP primary.
A lot of that had to do with the Democrats’ primary for governor, which went to Dan Feltes, the young majority leader of the state Senate. He narrowly defeated Andru Volinsky, a 64-year-old member of the state’s five-seat executive council. Most elected Democrats backed Feltes, while liberal groups and Sen. Bernie Sanders backed Volinsky.
The candidates’ coalitions matched up with their images: Volinsky ran away with the race in the Connecticut River Valley towns closest to Vermont. But Feltes dominated in the Boston exurbs and won easily in the state’s four biggest cities. He faces an uphill climb against Gov. Chris Sununu, who is seeking a third term after his handling of the coronavirus pandemic boosted his approval rating. GOP turnout also outpaced Democratic turnout, even though Sununu had only token Republican opposition.
Republicans also picked their candidates in the state’s two House seats, with Trump-backed party strategist Matt Mowers winning in the swingy 1st Congressional District and former state legislator Steve Negron getting a rematch with Rep. Annie Kuster in the bluer 2nd District. The second race was a disappointment to some national Republicans; a PAC created to elect more Republican veterans had gotten behind Negron’s rival Lynne Blankenbeker, whom he beat narrowly in a crowded 2018 primary and beat by nine points this week.
The closest thing to a surprise Tuesday came in Rhode Island, where Rep. Jim Langevin, a moderate who represents much of the state outside of Providence, beat liberal challenger Dylan Conley by a 2-to-1 margin in a low-turnout race. Langevin had won just 64 percent of the vote against two challengers in 2016, but this race was on nobody’s radar; Conley spent just $10,000 to Langevin’s $654,000, and left-wing groups ignored the contest entirely.
The left was more focused on state legislative races, where it routed a number of conservative Democrats, the third consecutive cycle of intraparty gains. Six liberal candidates triumphed in House primaries, and six more had the advantage in Senate primaries, though more will be known at the end of the week when the state counts more absentee ballots.
President Trump used the middle of a difficult week to do something conservatives considered key to his 2016 success: He published a list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court, and challenged Joe Biden to do the same.
“Joe Biden has refused to release his list, perhaps because he knows the names are so extremely far left that they could never withstand public scrutiny or receive acceptance,” Trump said. “He must release a list of justices for people to properly make a decision as to how they will vote.”
But it’s unclear that Biden has a “list” at all, and candidates for president didn’t publish names of who they might nominate to open court seats until 2016. Trump did so twice before that election, first releasing an 11-name list in May of that year, right after his rivals for the nomination had dropped out, and with Republicans preventing then-President Barack Obama from filling the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. A few months later, Trump added 10 more names, including Neil M. Gorsuch, whom he’d eventually nominate for the seat.
The power of this list has grown in histories of the 2016 election, for the simple reason that voters focused on the vacancy broke for Trump. In the 2016 exit poll, 21 percent of voters named “Supreme Court appointments” as their top issue, and those voters broke by 15 points for Trump. Hillary Clinton, who had said she would renominate Obama’s pick if she won the election, only occasionally talked about the court. But Democrats were happy to see Trump put Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) on the list, because it did what Trump’s 2016 rollouts never could: Tell their voters that if one of the court’s older liberals left the court, they’d be replaced by someone Democrats knew and couldn’t stand.
“This shortlist move worked for Trump in 2016, but the politics are different this time,” tweeted Brian Fallon, the executive director of the liberal court reform group Demand Justice, which (in vain) has urged Biden to produce a nominee list. “Both the Kavanaugh battle and worries of RBG health have shifted the situation. Two polls in the last month show Dem voters prioritizing the Supreme Court more than Republicans.”
The court announcement may have been a one-off; Vice President Pence made news only during a Wednesday stop in Pennsylvania for criticizing Kamala D. Harris‘s skepticism about a vaccine if the president gets it approved before the election. (Harris, and most Democrats, say they’d trust the Food and Drug Administration but worry about political manipulation.) Harris spent Wednesday in Florida, continuing the campaign’s in-person re-engagement with swing states after a six-month pause.
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