And well they should. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by largely taking it for granted, even though union leaders sent up warning flares that the race was getting much tighter than their data analysis showed. But at least the Clinton campaign had some infrastructure in the former blue-wall state, and had a ground game of sorts.
Four years later, Joe Biden doesn’t have anything on the ground in Michigan — and people are starting to notice it, Time Magazine reports:
“I can’t even find a sign,” Sabbe says outside a Kroger’s in Sterling Heights, where surrounding cars fly massive Donald Trump flags that say “No More Bullsh-t” and fellow shoppers wear Trump T-shirts for their weekend grocery runs. “I’m looking for one of those storefronts. I’m looking for a campaign office for Biden. And I’m not finding one.”
The reason Sabbe can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online. The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here. Biden’s field operation in this all-important state is being run through the Michigan Democratic Party’s One Campaign, which is also not doing physical canvassing or events at the moment. When I ask Biden campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials how many people they have on the ground in Michigan, one reply stuck out: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’”
In that sense, calling it déjà vu is unfair … to Hillary Clinton. At least her campaign put that kind of infrastructure in place, even if they didn’t make very good use of it. Team Hillary over-relied on data analysis and 30,000-foot messaging, but they didn’t use those exclusively. Team Biden’s doing nothing but that strategy:
All this means there are no young volunteers in Biden shirts pounding the pavement for their candidate, no clusters of posters marking the Biden field offices in various precincts, few bumper stickers on the highways. There are more Biden signs than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, locals say, but not enough to give the impression of an enthusiastic presidential campaign in a crucial swing state. When Biden visited Michigan last week, only a handful of supporters came to see him; his campaign didn’t disclose the location of the event in advance, even to the local Democratic county chair, because it didn’t want to attract a crowd that could spread COVID-19 or violate Michigan’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 100 people.
In short, in one of the most important swing states in the country, Biden’s campaign is all but invisible to the naked eye. His lack of a physical footprint is all the more striking because Trump flags festoon everything from pickup trucks to massive airplane parts being transported down the highway. Roughly 30 Trump supporters gathered to protest outside the Biden event last week, waving their flags and cheering as passing cars honked. (Roughly eight Biden supporters showed up.) After driving around some of the state’s swing districts for the past week, talking to than dozens of voters, the only reason you’d think Biden was up in Michigan is because the polls have consistently said so.
And this is perhaps the biggest reason to take this season’s polls with an even bigger grain of salt than usual. The polls we get are based on likely-voter turnout models that (a) don’t account for COVID-19 behavior changes, and (b) don’t account for the massive imbalance in personal-contact campaigning. Both could have a big impact, but it’s almost certain that (b) will have an impact on voter turnout.
Even more to the point, Democrats aren’t doing much of the retail politicking down-ballot either, because they didn’t build the resources for it. The RNC kept that in-house and deploys it strategically for its House and Senate candidates, whose campaigns participate in it while doing their own GOTV efforts. Democrats have to rely on their candidates to do it, but usually that starts at the top with a presidential candidate who soaks up most of the resources that get poured into the election. All Biden’s doing with the money is running 30,000-foot national-messaging ads rather than tie his agenda to specific regional and local issues in an organized manner.
Finally, add in the impact of the riots and crime waves sweeping urban areas, and it’s fair to say that no one really has an idea of how to build a likely-voter model that will produce predictive polling. Even more to the point, without any ground organization, Team Biden has no way of knowing where they stand in Michigan or anywhere else, whether their message is resonating, or how to adjust to get better enthusiasm. And all of that might well produce Democratic déjà vu after Election Day — and not just in Michigan, and not just in the presidential election.