The decision by Democrats to hold a presidential debate in Michigan falls into a pattern that has seen the party invest in states lost by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Although the state swung in Donald Trump’s favor by a narrow margin of 11,000, Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose the state in 28 years. She was also narrowly defeated by Bernie Sanders in the Michigan Democratic primary, which marked a major upset for her campaign and in retrospect foreshadowed Clinton’s challenges ahead.
Working class voters, faced with the decline of manufacturing and industrial jobs, played a significant role in propelling Trump to victory. Local officials have cautioned Democrats that for any candidate to pass muster, a clear platform on healthcare, trade and jobs will be of utmost importance.
But for Democrats to succeed, winning back working class white voters is not the only priority.
Candidates have also focused on inner-city issues, such as affordable housing, and drawn attention back to the Flint water crisis, while campaigning near Detroit. The city is 83% black, meaning any debate among Democrats on income inequality will have to account for race and the systemic barriers before people of color.
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Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said: “The key $10,000 question is whether the friendship lasts for the two hours of the debate because they’re colleagues and they have not gone negative with each other on the campaign trail. When you get on the stage under the bright lights, it could certainly change.
“I think Sanders has the incentive to do that, frankly, because he fared much better in the last cycle. He’s slipping to almost single digits now. If anyone needs to make a move and have the focus on the campaign it’s Sanders and, by going negative against Warren, that could be the way.”
Kall, editor of the book Debating the Donald, added: “I think she would be hesitant to respond and we saw in the first debate there were many instances where she could have interjected herself forcefully into the debate but she kind of disappeared for an hour. So if she doesn’t respond, it could be successful for him and put some more spotlight on him, which has been lacking in the last several weeks or months of this campaign.”
The debate’s proximity to Flint, Michigan, has thrown a spotlight on the need for candidates to better flesh out their plans to ensure safe drinking water and fight environmental racism.
Candidates have been generally vague about how they plan to tackle these issues. Here are some of the exceptions experts tracking the campaigns note:
- Kamala Harris this week released her campaign’s plan to fight environmental racism. She would score federal proposals for their impacts on vulnerable communities. And in the Senate, the California lawmaker proposed legislation to invest nearly $220 billion in drinking water.
- Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, this week introduced his climate justice plan, for “ensuring that every American working family and community is included, and none are left behind, as the U.S. transitions off of fossil fuels.” In that plan he would also ban PFAS chemicals.
- Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey also introduced a bill to allow states to use existing funds to pay for lead problems.
- Elizabeth Warren wants to reinstate an Obama-era rule called Waters of the US that governed which waterways were regulated by the federal government.
“We’ve seen some candidates talk about water in more or less vague terms. There’s definitely people who have talked about the need to invest in water infrastructure – Biden, Inslee, Harris, Buttigieg. Right know those are just kind of top level ‘yes, we need to invest in water infrastructure,’” said Madeleine Foote, the League of Conservation Voters’ deputy legislative director.
These debates will give candidates the chance to get into the details behind those promises.
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Detroit has an inauspicious place in debate history. It hosted a Republican primary contest in 2016 in which Donald Trump made reference to the size of his manhood.
Candidate Marco Rubio had mocked Trump’s hand size ahead of the debate. The future president did not let it lie. “Look at those hands, are they small hands?” he asked the audience. “And he referred to my hands, ‘If they’re small something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it.”
Even though some are desperate for a break-through moment, it is hard to imagine any Democrat going to quite such lengths.
Around the country, drinking water supplies are threatened by lead, fluorinated chemicals, agricultural runoff and algal blooms. Michigan has seen all of those problems.
Campaign watchers expect to hear more on water quality tonight and tomorrow.
Erik Olson – the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund’s senior advisor on toxics and drinking water – said he wants to hear “really detailed plans for how they’re going to address the underlying problem, which is underinvestment in our drinking water supplies and our water infrastructure,” and a “failure of regulation and enforcement.”
The CNN debates have offered Detroit a chance to show off its downtown regeneration. The Rev Steven Kelly, rector of St John’s Church – close to a new arena and new Google office – said: “This parish has gone from being primarily folks coming in from the suburbs to people riding their bikes to church, and this neighbourhood has not seen that in probably 40 years. So that’s an exciting change for us.”
The church remains an antidote to divisive politics, Kelly added. “One of the nice things about being a downtown parish is that on any given Sunday, especially during an election cycle, I’m going down the rail handing out communion to somebody who works for the Republican candidate and somebody who works for the Democratic candidate and somebody who works for the Libertarian and somebody who works for the Green party. We leave our problems at the door and and we all pray and worship together and then maybe we have an intense discussion at coffee hour, but I try to discourage it.”
With Michigan’s status as a vital swing state, local issues could figure prominently in the debates. Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said: “Last time the election was decided by only 11,000 votes; it could be integral to determining the winner in 2020. In the city of Detroit specifically there were so many tens of thousands of voters who did vote for President Obama but just sat it out, whether it was Hillary Clinton fatigue or she didn’t spent enough time here.
“Those are voters they are really trying to reactivate and get that Obama coalition back to win the state, and they had a lot of success with that in 2018 – the governor, every statewide office, several Congress races went Democratic – and so they want to follow up on that momentum to make Michigan part of that blue wall again to prevent Trump from winning re-election. I think that you’ll see a real focus both on local and statewide issues in the debate: things like the environment and clean water, the automobile industry, manufacturing, infrastructure.”
Hours away from the next Democratic debate