DETROIT, Mich. — Tucked between rallies in Pennsylvania (where Hillary Clinton expects to win) and Ohio (where she thinks she can lose), the struggling Democratic nominee on Friday slipped in a toe touch in Detroit — an effort to gird against tightening polls in this critical state.
Clinton allies have long depended on Michigan’s 16 electoral votes falling into her “win” column, to form the blue base upon which their “consensus path,” or most likely path, to 270 electoral votes depends. It’s a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, and where four years ago President Obama bested Michigan-native Mitt Romney by 9.5 points.
Clinton has had a stable and comfortable lead here for most of the general election after losing it in a stunning upset to Bernie Sanders in the primary (the Real Clear Politics polling average gives her a 5.5 percent lead over Donald Trump). But a Detroit Free Press poll released Friday showed Clinton’s margin shrinking to four points over Trump, and the Republican nominee’s support up four points in the past two weeks.
Trump and the Republican National Committee have also hinted at a new focus on Michigan, where the population seems to fit the mold of the more Donald-friendly states: about half the voting age population is made up of white voters without college degrees.
Clinton’s own operatives on the ground said the tightening race here was simply part of Trump’s gains in the country overall, since Clinton’s third debate bump has flattened and any last gasps of momentum were stalled by FBI Director James Comey’s stunning announcement that he was reviewing new evidence in the old email probe. “I’ll let the pundits speculate about why,” Michigan senior adviser Steve Neumann said when asked about Clinton’s shrinking lead here. “We’ve seen tightening in states across the country. That’s where a ground game can come into play. We’re organized and ready to have a very vigorous get out the vote effort across the state.”
The campaign, which has had 35 field offices open across the state for months, also made a six-figure ad buy in Michigan, as well as Colorado, Virginia and New Mexico, other states along their most likely path to victory.
Clinton’s rally of about 4,000 supporters Friday evening was made up of a diverse crowd that gathered at Eastern Market, the revitalized commercial core of the depressed city.
There, she made her closing argument about the dangers of her opponent, repurposing a segment of her primary stump speech to paint a dark picture of a Trump presidency. During the final weeks of her race against Sanders last summer, Clinton often prompted voters to “imagine a tomorrow where any young person can graduate from college debt-free,” as well as “imagining” a laundry list of her other policy proposals in action.
But Clinton presented a fun house version of that speech Friday, four days out from Election Day. The former secretary of state asked the Detroit crowd to “imagine that my opponent is taking the oath of office. Imagine having a president who demeans women and mocks the disabled, who insults African-Americans and Latinos….Everything he has said and done, both in his career and in this campaign, tells you what could happen.”
It was Clinton’s second campaign stop on one of her busiest days on the trail since Super Tuesday. After campaigning at the Steelers stadium in Pittsburgh with billionaire supporter Mark Cuban, and then her additional rally in Detroit, Clinton was set to fly to Cleveland for a get out the vote concert headlined by Jay-Z before ending the night in Miami.
But it was this stop in between the expected rallies in the most competitive battleground states that raised a red flag. Post-Comey, Clinton now appears to be fighting hard in states that once seemed like her firewall.
Her top campaign officials insisted Michigan was still in the “likely win” column and that they did not expect to have to replace it with wins in other, tougher, states. “Michigan is a state we feel we’ve got a lead on — we want to make sure we hold that lead,” campaign chairman John Podesta told reporters aboard the campaign plane. “We want to end with a crescendo for enthusiasm, make sure we’re in communities across the state. If you look at the demographics we’re dealing with we’re feeling really good.”
Friday marked Clinton’s third visit to the state since last summer’s Democratic National Convention. That pales in comparison to the time she has spent in battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania — she has visited both of those states more than a dozen times since clinching the nomination on June 7. The campaign has sent surrogates such as Tim Kaine, Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, as well as celebrities including “Orange is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba and Cher to campaign here on her behalf.
But Clinton aides said she has spent less time in this state, in part because Michigan has very little early voting — about 100,000 voters have mailed in absentee ballots, but the vast majority cast their ballots on Election Day. But Republicans on Friday were also crowing about their growing strength in the state.
“I like where we are in Michigan right now,” Sean Spicer, the spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in an interview on “Morning Joe” Friday morning. He said his polling in Michigan showed him a “dead even” race.
Spooking Clinton here is also the bad memory of Sanders’ out-of-nowhere victory in the March 8 primary. Public polls — and more problematic, the campaign’s internal data — predicted Clinton winning the primary here by a healthy five-point margin. But Sanders upended those expectations, and prolonged the grueling primary, by posting a 1.5 point surprise victory. The Michigan loss marked one of the low points of the primary for Clinton, who was furious at how badly the campaign had misread the state. But Clinton officials said primary polling is much more difficult to nail than general election polling, and that the hidden Sanders coalition did not mean there were hidden Trump voters.
Clinton could offset a loss in the Midwestern state if she pulls out wins in Nevada, Florida and Pennsylvania. But the paths get narrower and steeper without it.
Despite the increased pressure, Clinton appeared in good spirits on Friday. Cuban, who accompanied her on the campaign plane between Pittsburgh and Detroit, told reporters on board that he was impressed by her demeanor. “I expected some jitters,” he said. “I didn’t see any.”
Clinton left the building on a hopeful note, with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” blaring over the loudspeaker. The crowd cheered along with the line from the chorus, which mentions “born and raised in South Detroit.”
The irony, however, is that the songwriter, Steve Perry, admitted there was actually no such thing as South Detroit: south of the city is Windsor, a city in Canada.
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