LANSING — Michigan Republicans say they've assembled an "unprecedented" ground game for the November election and have a not-so-secret weapon in their battle to re-elect President Donald Trump: in-person campaigning.
As Democrats turn to virtual rallies and phone calls amid the COVID-19 pandemic, masked-up Republicans resumed door-knocking in June, have hosted “MAGA meetups” across the state and will welcome Vice President Mike Pence to Traverse City on Friday.
Experts say the ground cover could be critical for GOP prospects in Michigan, where the Trump campaign has halted television ad spending and gave the state little air time in this week’s Republican National Convention.
"Knocking on doors is the most potent effort that you can make as a campaign because people remember it," said Steve Mitchell, a veteran GOP pollster who told Bridge that recent surveys he’s done show many Michigan voters don’t mind canvassers coming to their doors despite the coronavirus, particularly those in more rural areas outside of Metro Detroit.
- With Gretchen Whitmer on national stage, Michigan Dems plot to dump Trump
- As Election Day approaches, Trump and Michigan GOP now push absentee voting
"If you don't want to answer the door because you're concerned about COVID, you just don't answer the door,” he said. “You still recognize the fact somebody was there and left a brochure."
Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, making him the first Republican to carry the state since 1988. But he faces strong headwinds in November: Michigan Democrats dominated the 2018 midterm election that functioned as a referendum on Trump, and presidential nominee Joe Biden is leading in every statewide poll.
Trump Victory Michigan, a joint effort between the president's re-election campaign, the National Republican Committee and the state GOP, transitioned to a fully digital operation in March as the coronavirus surged in Michigan but is now back on the ground, said spokesperson Chris Gustafson.
While he declined to say how many doors they've knocked, Gustafson called it "the largest and most advanced campaign in the history of the Great Lakes State."
"With an army of over 43,000 volunteers and staff covering all 83 counties, we've made nearly 5 million voter contacts and we're not slowing down as we work tirelessly to re-elect President Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot," he said.
The Michigan Democratic Party is "not yet comfortable” knocking on doors “or asking our teams to be out” given COVID-19, Chair Lavora Barnes told Bridge last week.
Instead, Democrats are focusing on telephone calls, text messages and virtual events to energize and attract voters. Vice presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on Wednesday remotely joined a Black outreach roundtable in Detroit, her first solo event since becoming the first African-American and Indian-American woman to secure a major party nomination.
"We'd love to be able to get out and do some canvassing, but it doesn't look like the public health crisis is going to allow us to do that," Barnes said.
"What we are hearing from voters is that they appreciate our respect for the public health situation as it stands and appreciate that we're taking all the precautions we can to keep the voters safe, keep the staff safe and keep everyone safe."
Michigan Republicans are doing their best to keep voters safe too, even as they resume ground operations, said spokesperson Tony Zammit. The party recommends volunteers wear masks and gloves and take two steps back after knocking on a door, he said.
“It's getting that in-person contact that's so important during an election.”
Michigan gets short shrift at GOP convention
Michigan got only passing mentions at this week’s Republican National Convention, but Zammit argued that Pence’s pending visit shows the state is still a priority for the Trump campaign.
"Especially right now during COVID, you're going to see strategies change sometimes temporarily,” Zammit said. “But the Trump campaign and the Michigan Republican Party have made an unprecedented commitment this year to winning the state for President Trump.”
The Republican convention cast Trump as a tough-on-crime president with a softer human side.
As protesters marched against racism and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, speakers praised Trump for building an economy that was benefiting Black voters — at least until the coronavirus pandemic struck.
And while the president has faced criticism for downplaying the public health threat in public statements, supporters praised Trump for limiting travel from China in February and working to speed up the regulatory process for COVID treatment drugs.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, a Northville resident who led the Michigan GOP during Trump's 2016 win, mentioned the state in a Monday night speech, calling herself a “mom from Michigan with two wonderful kids in public school who happens to be only the second woman in 164 years to run the Republican Party."
U.S. Senate candidate John James was also briefly featured in a pre-recorded segment that aired before most television networks began their prime-time coverage.
But Democrats paid more attention to Michigan in their own national convention last week, giving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a prominent speaking slot. She used it to slam Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic while touting Biden’s economic turnaround chops because of his vice-presidential role in the 2009 auto industry bailout.
Trump has feuded with Whitmer over pandemic policy and encouraged activists to protest her public safety orders. While he did not mention Whitmer or Michigan, Trump on Monday again blamed governors for the uneven coronavirus response.
“Many of the governors were totally ill-prepared," the president said in a speech to open the RNC convention, which he was also set to headline Thursday night. "Nobody wants to say that, but it’s supposed to work that way: federalist. We did a great job.”
Speaking in a Democratic press call on Tuesday morning, Whitmer called the first night of the Republican convention "grim and spiteful and fear-inducing."
"We know the way out of this crisis is to get the virus under control," she said.
‘Trump can win’
Michigan Republicans told Bridge they're eager to talk about the president's record of cutting taxes and scrapping regulations to energize an economy that had been doing well prior to the pandemic.
But COVID-19, which has so far killed 6,424 people in Michigan as of Wednesday morning, may drown out other election issues, Mitchell said, as Democrats argue Trump's failure to slow the virus cost lives but Republicans contend the president is best suited to lead the recovery.
While Biden is on the ballot, "it's really a race about Trump," Mitchell said. "The sides are extremely polarized."
That polarization has been on display this summer as Democrats voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against racial injustice. Trump and his allies argue violent demonstrations – including June skirmishes in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids – are indicative of the type of "chaos" that would ensue under a Biden administration.
Voters are "looking at these cities that were allowed to be looted in the name of George Floyd, and it's reached a level of ridiculousness that people are unable to comprehend," said Linda Lee Tarver of Lansing, an advisory board member with Black Voices for Trump.
"The bottom line is leadership matters," added Tarver, who was in Washington, D.C., this week as the Republican convention unfolded there.
Zammit said Republicans are not worried about voter polls showing Biden with a consistent lead in Michigan, noting Trump also trailed in the polls here four years ago before his win.
"Michigan is a state that has historically been decided late," he said. "And so when we get to Election Day, President Trump's going to be ahead here and win the state."
Biden is a favorite in Michigan, but if Republicans "can get out the vote — and they've got the ground game to do it — Trump can win," Mitchell said.