Primary apathy in Michigan: Democrats, GOP struggle as supporters mull whether to even vote

Feb 26, 2024, 9:46 AM | Updated: 10:20 am

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Rev. Steve Bland Jr. remembers the massive get-out-the-vote effort he helped mobilize four years ago, when pastors and community leaders spread out across Detroit neighborhoods, made phone calls and worked around the clock to encourage people to vote.

He’s not seeing that kind of enthusiasm this time around.

Madeleine Byrne, a 25-year-old from Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, a wealthy suburban enclave that proved pivotal in Michigan’s swing back toward Democrats in recent years, said she likes how former President Donald Trump has “put America first” but has misgivings about supporting him in 2024.

“I think he causes fights where they aren’t necessary,” she said.

In Michigan, a state that both major parties say they must have to win the White House in 2024, a cloud of apathy has settled over the electorate. Even with crucial races for the U.S. Senate and Congress also on the ballot, genuine enthusiasm is hard to find. The state’s voters are poised to cast ballots in their respective primaries on Tuesday, but the prospect looms that they will be left with the same choices for president in November that they considered four years ago.

That means the biggest task for candidates may be inspiring Michigan voters to care.

“A good quarter of the people I talk to aren’t sure if they’ll vote at all,” said Lori Goldman, who founded a group called “Fems for Dems” to help drive up voter turnout for Biden in Oakland County four years ago. “A lot of people are just like, ‘I’m not voting. I’m not doing it.'”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Monday that over 1 million people had already cast their primary ballots, taking advantage of new voting laws that allow for nine days of early, in-person voting. A total of 2.3 million people — or 30% of registered voters — participated in the 2020 primary.

The early vote totals may include a number of “uncommitted” ballots from Democrats unhappy with Biden’s support for Israel in its response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib has urged voters to mark their ballots that way on Tuesday to send a message to Biden and other Democrats.

Among Republicans, Trump’s rallies draw enthusiastic crowds, and he has racked up decisive wins so far in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it remains unclear whether his support extends beyond the core of true believers who have helped him maintain his grip on the GOP. Surveys by AP VoteCast have shown that some Republicans, especially college-educated and moderate voters, have misgivings about the former president.

For voters such as Byrne, in politically competitive areas like Oakland County, the unease sometimes takes the form of Trump fatigue. Asked how she feels about the choice that’s looming in this year’s presidential contest, Byrne wrinkles her face.

“Honestly, I’ve been thinking about whether I want to vote at all.”

“We as Americans have this great privilege and, as a woman, I’m aware we’ve had it for only 100 years,” she said. “But given our circumstances, with the choices that we do have, I think it’s difficult to actually make a choice. And so, I wonder if I will.”

In 2020, voter turnout surged by 14% compared to the previous election, eclipsing the record set in 2008 for the highest number of votes cast in Michigan. The trend continued in 2022 when the state registered its highest midterm election turnout ever.

Young Michigan voters have stepped up in recent years. In 2022, Michigan saw the highest youth voter turnout rate nationwide at 36.5%, surpassing the estimated national youth turnout of 23% by over 13 percentage points, according to CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

But the excitement that led to hours-long lines on college campuses across Michigan appears to have died down.

“You’re hearing people say that maybe they’re going to stay out of the election or they don’t know who you’re going to vote for,” said Vrunda Patel, a junior at the University of Michigan.

Patel and fellow University of Michigan Democrats met with California Rep. Sara Jacobs, part of a wave of recent Biden surrogates sent in to drum up enthusiasm, at an Ann Arbor coffee shop to strategize for the upcoming election. The discussion mainly revolved around motivating college students to vote, with one student saying bluntly: “No one I talk to is excited to vote for Joe Biden this election.”

Jacobs offered reassurance.

“It’s a long way away from the election,” she said. “With the 2012 Obama campaign, this far out, Obama’s poll numbers were bad. People were not that excited. This is a normal progression in a reelection.”

Several students mentioned the idea of “uncommitted” votes in the Tuesday primary. Double-digit numbers could spell trouble for Biden in the general election.

“I’d rather the president be hearing how people feel now rather than in October,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has spoken with the president about his difficulties in Michigan.

Biden’s campaign is acutely aware of its enthusiasm problem. Several top surrogates, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have trekked to Michigan this month. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a co-chair of his reelection campaign, is already holding get-out-the-vote events.

Whitmer, who won reelection by almost 11% in 2022, has publicly and privately pushed the president to lean into his effort to defend abortion rights. Her own campaign benefited directly from a voter-led ballot proposal enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution.

Trump appears to have the luxury of looking to November. His supporters lined up for nearly a mile to hear him speak at an Oakland County event this month, and the rules of the GOP primary are tilted heavily in his favor.

“If we win Michigan, we win the election,” Trump told the enthusiastic crowd.

But Trump’s loyal core has not translated into wins in recent years. After winning the state by only 11,000 votes in 2016, he lost it by nearly 154,000 votes just four years later. In the 2022 midterms, all three of the statewide Republican candidates he endorsed were crushed by Democratic incumbents.

Michigan’s Republican Party may not be in position to help much in the fall. Dueling pro-Trump factions are now claiming to run the state party ahead of a March 2 presidential nominating convention during which 39 of the state’s 55 delegates will be awarded.

Trump, meanwhile, is trying to broaden his appeal to voters disillusioned with Biden and the Democrats. His campaign points to Biden’s faltering poll numbers with Black adults and what he characterizes as advantages on issues like immigration and the economy, He traveled to Michigan last year to court autoworkers, although the United Auto Workers union recently gave its endorsement to Biden.

Recent AP polling has shown that more U.S. adults are feeling slightly better about the economy, but so far those numbers have not translated into higher approval ratings for the president. If that disconnect persists, it could pose a challenge in places like Michigan.

Nearly 78% of Detroit’s population is Black, and the city has long been a Democratic stronghold. That isn’t likely to change, and yet frustration is running high among Black voters there. Few people expect to see the long lines of people who waited patiently in 2008 and 2012 to cast their ballots for Barack Obama, or even four years ago for Biden, his former vice president.

The current lack of enthusiasm won’t stop the Rev. Bland from once again working with pastors across Detroit to encourage voting. Bland got attention in 2020 with his statement that the Black community had gone from “from picking cotton to picking presidents,” and he remains steadfast in his determination to replicate that success.

“Apathy always is high when information is low,” he said. “So if we have informed people and we spend time talking, informing them about what’s at stake, then I think that’s what will bring the energy.”


Associated Press writers Corey Williams and Tom Beaumont contributed to this report.

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Primary apathy in Michigan: Democrats, GOP struggle as supporters mull whether to even vote