LANSING – Traditionally, presidential candidates have focused their efforts in Michigan on a handful of heavily populated metropolitan areas such as Detroit and Grand Rapids.
But if Michigan moves the date of its primary to be earlier in the nominating process, that could change, according to Robert Kulisheck, the former head of Northern Michigan University’s political science department.
“My memory goes back far enough that I remember Democratic presidential primary candidates used to visit the U.P.,” Kulisheck said. “In fact, they visited Marquette on several occasions.”
Kulisheck recounted a time in 1988 when Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore, Paul Simon and Dick Gephardt all visited Marquette. While 35 states or territories had voted before Michigan’s caucus, they were locked in a five-way race with Jesse Jackson and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis.
“Even though the election was taking place after Super Tuesday (the most crowded primary day), the contest was continuing and they were scrambling for support in these states,” Kulisheck said. “And they managed to send people up here.”
At the time, Kulisheck said, a majority of counties in the Upper Peninsula voted for Democrats, which is no longer the case.
Under the proposed change, candidates could have an incentive to again spread their campaign events into more geographically diverse areas, focusing on more personal retail politics, as they have long done in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
“It’s important for candidates. When they make a presence personally in an area, people are more likely to pay attention,” Kulisheck said. “Those who were kind of wavering may be actually likely to get out and vote for a candidate.”
Kulisheck pointed to Reps. Betsy Coffia, D-Traverse City, and Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, who were both essential to Democrats flipping control of the state House last year, as evidence that the party can make inroads in Northern Michigan.
Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, who serves on the Elections and Ethics Committee, said she isn’t worried about candidates potentially paying less attention to the urban area of the state she represents.
“Michigan is an incredibly dynamic, diverse state,” McMorrow said. “This would just give us yet another opportunity to show the rest of the country why this is a state that can and should lead the way for presidential elections, for where the country’s going as a whole, and I’m excited about the possibility.”
President Joe Biden supports shuffling the primary calendar to give early voting slots to Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia and Nevada.
The Senate has voted along party lines to move the date of Michigan’s presidential primary from mid-March to late February beginning in 2024.
Republicans opposed the bill, arguing that it would put the state in violation of current Republican National Committee rules, leading to the state having significantly fewer delegates at the party’s nominating convention in 2024.
Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Groveland Township, who previously served as secretary of state, said she wouldn’t oppose moving the date of the primary if the new date doesn’t violate either party’s rules.
“I don’t really see a lot of difference, as long as it doesn’t take away delegates,” Johnson said. “If we do the date that’s being requested right now, it takes away the vast majority of Republican delegates and makes Michigan much less of a powerhouse in this whole process.”
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