2020 Election: U-M student groups gear up for Michigan primary

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 3:32pm

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10,704 votes. 28 years. In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump became the first Republican in 28 years to win Michigan — changing electoral history with 10,704 votes, a 0.3 percent margin of victory. From a battleground state to a near “gimme” for Democrats, Michigan has come to the front and center of the 2020 presidential election, with the University of Michigan in tow. But before the fanfare of a debate at the University in October and Election Day in November, each party needs a nominee. 

The Republican nominee is a foregone conclusion: It will be President Donald Trump, presuming he is not convicted in the Senate after being impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Trump will be the first president to stand in a general election after being impeached, as President Andrew Johnson failed to win his party’s nomination after his impeachment and President Bill Clinton was term-limited. Johnson’s Republicans and Clinton’s Democrats subsequently lost the presidency. As of early December, Trump enjoys an 89 percent approval rating among Republicans, and his reelection bid is widely supported, with some state Republican parties canceling their primary. The University’s chapter of College Republicans declined to comment about their organization’s plans for the primary election.

The real political battle in Michigan will play out on the Democratic side. On March 10, Michigan voters will head to the polls and ask their polling station staff for either a Republican or Democratic ballot. Michigan is an open primary state, so voters do not need to be a registered Democrat or Republican to vote in the primary. With 147 delegates up for grabs and general election hopes hinging on it, Michigan is a key target for candidates. 

March 10 marks a week after “Super Tuesday,” where 15 states and territories hold their primary or caucus. Michigan votes in a “mini-Super Tuesday” along with Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota, Missouri and Washington. 

Democratic candidates have to acquire 1,991 delegates, a simple majority, to secure the party’s nomination. But states are not winner-take-all. The Democratic National Committee awards delegates proportionally based on votes, so second, third and even fourth place candidates can pick up delegates. This means silver and bronze medals matter, but candidates need to pick up at least 15 percent of the vote to win delegates, which ideally entails going all over the state to try to pick up votes. In the 2016 Michigan primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., won with 49.8 percent of the vote and received 67 delegates, compared to candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 63 delegates for winning 48.3 percent of the vote. 

Candidates aren’t solely focusing on Detroit and its suburbs, the most populous blue area of Michigan, so Democratic candidates are expected to make their way to Ann Arbor, another Democratic stronghold. In 2016, Ann Arbor saw the likes of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate, on the Diag. Sanders held a rally at the UMMA. Even President Barack Obama came to speak at the Ray Fisher Stadium the day before the election, urging students and locals to vote for Clinton. 

The University of Michigan I knew in my first year, 2016, had famous politicians stopping in weekly and canvassers on every corner asking if you’re registered to vote. Then, two months into my freshman year, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Emotions ran high on campus — a vigil was held on the Diag the following day and even University President Mark Schlissel sent an email regarding the results. 

About 45 percent of University students voted in 2016, while 50.4 percent voted at all other reported institutions. In 2018, the University touted the midterm election voter turnout with the headline “U-M student voter turnout triples in 2018.” In reality, turnout tripled compared to the 2014 midterms, when an embarrassing 14 percent of students voted. The 2018 turnout — 41 percent — was still less than the 2016 turnout, but did outpace the national average. Shortly after Trump’s election, the Big Ten Conference created the “Big Ten Voting Challenge” between the 14 member schools to register more students to vote and encourage students to exercise their voting rights. Two winners will be crowned after the 2020 presidential election, both the school with the highest turnout and the school with the largest voter growth. 

The timing of the challenge begs the question: Why did this challenge come after 2016? The abysmal voter turnout for the 2014 midterms elections across the Big Ten didn’t spark a voting initiative. Voter turnout has always been an issue in the U.S., but only after the election of such an anti-establishment figure did our institutions of higher learning try to do something about it.

With weeks still to go before the Michigan primary, the latest poll from January has former Vice President Joe Biden winning the state with 29.9 percent of the vote and Sanders finishing in second with 19.9 percent. Both would pick up delegates in this scenario, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Ma., polling at 16.2 percent, would meet the 15 percent threshold and therefore qualify for delegates. In 2016, Sanders pulled off a narrow victory over Clinton, winning 49.8 percent of the vote, including winning Washtenaw County by about 8,000 votes. If Biden does win Michigan come March, one can expect Washtenaw County’s winner to differ from the statewide winner.

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The University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats is currently laying the groundwork for the eventual nominee and will not endorse a candidate in the primary.

“College Democrats does not endorse any candidate during a Democratic primary race. However, we are still heavily involved in this upcoming election cycle,” Camille Mancuso, communications chair of College Democrats, wrote in an email interview. “So far this year, we have engaged in issue advocacy, co-hosted debate watch parties with some of the Presidential campaigns on campus and registered hundreds of student voters.”

While the chapter is focused on the general election, some of its members are involved in specific campaigns, like many other students on campus.

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LSA junior Arden Shapiro serves as a campus corps leader for Students for Bernie. With a leadership group of 10 people, the organization works with Sanders’ national campaign to coordinate efforts on campus. Shapiro and other group leaders participated in “Students for Bernie Summer School,” an online-based program that teaches organizing and campaigning for Sanders. Utilizing an email list of more than 200, the group canvasses and engages in “friend to friend organizing.” Shapiro found herself drawn to Sanders’ “unwavering” advocacy for social justice and his plans to address climate change.

“I have always been drawn to Senator Sanders because I feel he is a fearless and unwavering advocate for justice and equality,” Shapiro said. “...The issue of climate is particularly important to me, and I feel that Senator Sanders is the only candidate who understands the urgency of revolutionizing our economy to combat climate change and protecting those most vulnerable to environmental injustice.”

Sanders recently topped an Iowa poll that notably has South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg slipping to third. Warren, who finished second in the poll and is ideologically closest to Sanders, accused Sanders of “sending his volunteers out to trash me,” in reference to a released Politico report. Sanders’ campaign has not commented, but Sanders himself praised Warren and said the document did not reflect his opinion.

LSA junior Jordyn Houle is one of four campus organizers for Warren at the University. In an email interview, Houle explained that her support of Warren is rooted in Warren’s focus on the need for fundamental change. 

“I support Elizabeth Warren because she has a bold, progressive vision for our country as well as the detailed plans necessary to make that vision a reality…” Houle wrote. “Senator Warren understands that systemic changes, such as a Green New Deal and universal free public college, are necessary in order to create an America where everybody can live a fulfilling life." 

Students for Warren at the University is directly affiliated with the national campaign. With about 40 students at weekly meetings, the group canvasses for Warren, registers voters and helps students with absentee ballots. The group also runs a listserv with nearly 300 members.

Warren entered the presidential race the earliest of the frontrunners, announcing an exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve 2018. In early February 2019, she formalized her run, and that November, Warren topped a New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa. Since then, however, her support has waned in the first caucus state.

LSA freshman Andrew Schaeffler helped co-found Students for Biden at the University. The group recently took over Biden’s campaign Instagram account, receiving hundreds of thousands of views on their efforts to elect Biden. Schaeffler is drawn to Biden’s education plan as well as his political track record and pragmatic approach. 

“What really draws me to Vice President Biden is a history of action and reasonable progressive policies that can be enacted,” Schaeffler said. “I believe that his policies, while they might not be the most far-reaching, the most expansive, they’re the ones that can actually happen. When you look at what candidate can not only produce results but has produced results, by far and away I believe that Joe Biden is definitely that candidate.”

Electability is also on Schaeffler’s mind, with Biden beating Trump by at least 5 percentage points nationally in CNN, Fox News and Quinnipiac polls from December. However, Biden suffers from a “young person problem,” with an October poll in Iowa finding that 2 percent of 18-29-year-olds support the former vice president. 

“As much as some people, in general, stray away from the electability argument when you look at polls in swing states … Joe Biden is the candidate that can reach across the aisle to voters who are both Republican and Independent, and I value that a lot in really anyone…” Schaeffler said.

While Biden has a track record of bipartisanship, Congressional Republicans have shown no indication of working with a Democratic president.

Students for Biden plans to do “dorm storms” in residence halls, where students knock on doors to canvass for Biden. With about two dozen students involved in Students for Biden, the group also plans to table in Mason Hall and drum up support. 

LSA senior Jessica Kosticak founded the student group supporting Buttigieg for president. Armed with a Twitter account “Umich for Pete Buttigieg” with a few hundred followers and a listserv with about 30 students, Kosticak is just getting started in politics, having studied biomolecular science during her four years at the University. 

“There’s been a huge learning curve for me getting involved with founding this organization and being more politically active, which is great, I hadn’t expected that coming into college,” Kosticak said. “… It definitely has been interesting for me to kind of learn a lot more about the political process and supporting a candidate, how that looks online and then how that looks in person.”

Buttigieg began gaining traction in the spring following a CNN town hall in March at South by Southwest. With his rise over the following months, Kosticak found herself drawn to his calm demeanor and his actionable policy proposals, such as “Medicare for all who want it.”

“I was blown away with how articulate he was — he reminded me kind of (President) Obama in that way,” Kosticak said. “He was able to express himself and his ideas in a way that was just calm and collected and I was drawn to that because I think with the turmoil going on in politics currently, that voice of reason is what we need.”

Since his rise, Buttigieg has positioned himself more moderately than some expected, failing to pass some progressive purity tests such as supporting Medicare-for-all, swearing off big-money campaign fundraisers and committing to the Green New Deal (Buttigieg has proposed a less aggressive version of the Green New Deal). These divisions were front and center at the December Democratic debate, where Warren and Sanders drew a stark contrast between their progressive policies and Buttigieg’s moderate stance, but Kosticak plans to support the nominee no matter what. 

“My hope is that after the Michigan primary and all the primaries, we settle on a nominee that all of the student groups and everyone, Democrats across the country, will be able to unite behind the nominee because we have bigger fish to fry…” Kosticak said.

Engineering senior Justin Zhao is actively involved in tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign for president. Zhao is a member of “Yang Gang Ann Arbor,” serving as the group’s event coordinator. Referring to Yang as “Andrew,” Zhao is drawn to Yang’s expertise in dealing with technology. Zhao referenced the race in artificial intelligence with China, data privacy issues and the government’s old fashioned approach to technology and its future.

“Right now our government is super behind on technology, I mean you saw the Facebook hearing with (CEO) Mark Zuckerberg,” Zhao said. “He is the best equipped to deal with technology and technology regulations.”

Zhao also likes Yang’s seemingly bipartisan, evidence-based approach to politics. One of Yang’s slogans is “Not left. Not right. Forward.” Zhao pointed to Yang’s use of data and math in his policy platform as a draw.

“He is very unifying because he is not ideological and you know he’s all about the math and then he’s all about solutions,” Zhao said. “It’s an ideas-based campaign so he’s all about solutions, data, math and those things are bipartisan. It’s not like a Democrat (sic) thing or a Republican thing.”

With about 30 active members, the group’s campaign efforts have thus far included tabling and chalking sidewalks, and the group’s continued campaigning is dependent on Yang’s results and prospects in the early primaries.

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It bears repeating: Anyone registered to vote in the state of Michigan can vote in the primary. Show up to your polling place, ask for a Republican or Democratic ballot and cast your vote for the nominee you want. If the departure of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is any indication, this race is going to change leading up to March 10. In the meantime, there are debates (including one this past Tuesday), Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, Super Tuesday and more. There’s a good chance that some of the candidates will have dropped out by then, taking their student groups with them. But for now, it’s all up for grabs here in Ann Arbor and at the University. Winners and losers abound, these presidential primaries will take no prisoners. 

Editor’s note: Sanders, Warren, Biden, Buttigieg and Yang were featured due to the presence of a student group on campus. Other 2020 presidential candidates did not have significant University of Michigan student efforts behind their campaigns.