In March, Michigan was part of a so-called political revolution.
Defying almost every poll, the state went for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) in the Democratic primary, an unexpected upset of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s win was driven in part by young people — including University of Michigan students — who turned out in large numbers with a clear preference that wasn’t Clinton.
In the general election, however, Michigan has been blue for a long time, since 1988. It wasn’t really supposed to matter whether students at the University of Michigan, or other students and millennials in the state, didn’t ever entirely transfer their enthusiasm to Clinton — until recently.
But as the race in Michigan has begun to tighten, with Clinton only five points ahead, Democrats have begun ramping up their presence in places like Ann Arbor in a bid to ensure millennial enthusiasm as it’s looked like the state may be headed toward one of its closest matchups in decades.
“Many of the students originally were Sanders supporters, and I do think that you’ve got some students that Clinton was not their first choice,” said Aaron Kall, an expert on election politics and the University's director of debate. “They’re probably closer to Clinton than (Republican presidential nominee Donald) Trump but there were a lot of hard feelings during the primary and they’re kind of on the fence on whether to turn out.”
In September, Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, came to campus. In October, Sanders spoke at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Capping it all off on Monday, one day before the election, was President Barack Obama, displaying the significance that both Michigan and Michigan’s millennial vote have suddenly come to have in the last days of a narrowing race.
In all these of those visits, a message has been clear — the vote in college towns matters, especially in Michigan. The campus enthusiasm for the surrogates delivering the message has been clear, too. Hundreds of people came to see Sanders, and an estimated 9,000 came for Obama.
But at Obama’s speech Monday, how that enthusiasm will translate to Clinton wasn’t completely apparent. Clinton has struggled with the narrative that young people aren’t enthusiastic about her, though polling has showed they overwhelmingly prefer her over other candidates. In the lead up to the event, some students were buzzing more about the person Clinton sent in her stead, than the candidate herself, with several shouts of “four more years” mingling with chants of “Hillary.”
While waiting in line, Ann Arbor resident Mimi Lanseur, wearing an Obama T-shirt, and Yaqoota Aziz, a recent University alum, said they believe there is a gap in enthusiasm between Clinton and Obama. Both noted, however, that they were still very much in support of Clinton.
“I’m less enthusiastic, because I don’t like how controversial she is,” Aziz said. “But I think she’s just as competent.”
“She’s the most qualified person to ever run for president in this country,” Lanseur said. “Maybe I don’t get excited about her the way I got excited about Obama, but I trust her. And I trust her to make difficult decisions. And I trust her to be as informed as possible.”
Don, a merchandise vendor at Monday’s event who didn’t give his last name, spelled out the differences in enthusiasm in a more quantifiable way.
“With the sales, honestly, if it’s Hillary events by herself and it’s just Hillary, sales are kind of low,” he said. “But when you’ve got Barack Obama and Michelle doing something with her, or Bernie Sanders doing something with her, sales are good.”
Sanders 2016 buttons, he added, are always a reliable sell.
For the speakers who took the stage before Obama, building enthusiasm among millennials and students was a clear focus. Appeals varied from policy topics like from Clinton’s higher education plan, which aims to create tuition-free college to individuals with families making under 125,000, to the Affordable Care Act. The importance of this election and fighting bigotry — including criticisms of Clinton’s opponent, Trump — were also themes, as was electing the first female president.
“I, as a woman and African American, have a lot to lose if this election does not go to Hillary Clinton,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D–Southfield) told the crowd, stressing the contrast Clinton presents to Trump on combatting discrimination.
A few minutes later, Rep. Sander Levin (D–Royal Oak) highlighted Obama administration policies that he said have aided young people, asking the crowd to raise their hands if they had health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
In his remarks, Obama touched on many of those same issues, though he didn’t make many direct appeals to students. Instead, he spoke more broadly, telling the crowd a Clinton presidency would lead to job growth, increased equality and aid with student debt issues.
“She will work her heart out to create jobs that families can live on; childcare that you can afford,” he said. “She’ll fight for students who are struggling with college debt. She'll fight to make sure that women get paid the same for doing the same work as a guy.”
LSA senior Tamara Hofer, who lined up to get into the event at 5 a.m., said several of the policy issues discussed were particularly resonant to her as a student.
“Health care is obviously really important for me, because 26 isn’t that far away for me and I’ll be off my parents’ plan,” she said. “But also education, and getting more people into college.”
For LSA junior Jalal Taleb, comments from several speakers about combating discriminatory rhetoric were particularly poignant, including those on fighting Islamophobia from Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).
Among some other students on campus, the contrasts to Trump were key even if enthusiasm wasn’t there. LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of the former Students for Sanders group active on campus during the primary, said he believed most of the individuals who had belonged to the organization would turn out for the Democrats.
“As far as I can say, I think the vast majority of former Sanders backers are behind Clinton now- rather enthusiastically or to stop Trump,” he wrote. “A vast majority will vote tomorrow!”
Beyond the issues highlighted by the introductory speakers, Obama also spoke more directly about his legacy, telling the crowd he thought he has earned the right to be trusted by Michigan voters statewide.
“Plants that were closing when I took office are working double-shift now,” he said. “The auto industry has record sales. I think I’ve earned some credibility here. Manufacturing jobs have grown at the fastest rate since the ’90s — when another Clinton was president. I think we’ve earned some credibility here. So when I tell you that Donald Trump is not the guy who’s going to look out for you, you need to listen.”
He charged that in contrast to Clinton, Trump is unfit and unqualified for the presidency because of his temperament, business reputation and rhetoric about several groups.
“Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be Commander-in-Chief,” he said. “He’s unqualified to be America’s chief executive. He brags that he’s a business guy. But we’ve got a lot of businessmen and women who succeed without stiffing small businesses and workers. Once they’ve already done work for you, and then suddenly you don’t pay them?”
LSA senior Jesse Dorbian, who said he came to the event to hear Obama campaign for Clinton, noted that he appreciated hearing about Hillary Clinton’s economic work.
“What stood out for me most was the fact that Hillary Clinton is willing to help out people in need and help people get to the top, instead of Donald Trump just favoring himself,” he said.
Hofer said she thought both Obama’s presence and the emphasis on his legacy would be a boost in Ann Arbor, but that the Clinton campaign should still be concerned about student turnout.
“I think people are still not as enthusiastic as they need to be,” she said.
Taleb echoed Hofer’s sentiments.
“Clinton for a while had a problem connecting with young people, including me, and I’m voting for her tomorrow,” he said. “Having (Obama) here in Ann Arbor to boost that millennial vote was really important.”
But for at least some people in line Monday, whether or not Clinton generates the kind of enthusiasm Obama did won’t be all that matters on Election Day.
“Obama was special in a lot of ways, but Hillary Clinton … thinking about the fact that I have the privilege of voting for a woman for president, like right now, that makes me want to cry,” Lanseur said. “I don’t need to be excited about it. It’s way bigger than that for me.”
Tuesday, Democrats will find out if it’s the kind of revolution millennials statewide are ready to be a part of.