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Dems look to Michigan primary as testing ground for November

Volunteers hand out signs at a rally for Bernie Sanders at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Michigan's presidential primary is Tuesday.(Anntaninna Biondo/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

DETROIT (AP) — Ask Arlene Williams about President Donald Trump’s promises to bring back auto industry jobs that have evaporated across Michigan and she’ll point with irony to the Chevy Blazer.
General Motors is now remaking the iconic American SUV after a lengthy hiatus — but building parts of it in Mexico and elsewhere overseas.
“These are some of the staple brands and yes, they’re back,” said Williams, 49, who works at a GM plant in Romulus, Michigan, southwest of Detroit. “They’re just not being made in the U.S.”
The largest of six states voting Tuesday, Michigan could redefine a Democratic primary that has become a showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But many voters are already looking ahead to November and whether Trump can again win in the state that perhaps more than any other catapulted him into the White House in 2016.
For Sanders, the stakes could hardly be higher. He defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan in 2016, emboldening his argument that he could win with a diverse coalition that drew well from young voters, working-class whites and African Americans. But it is the kind of victory he has not been able to replicate so far this time, and if he does not on Tuesday, any chances at the Democratic nomination may be greatly diminished.
Biden has been emphasizing the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry, which provided an economic lifeline for GM and Ford, likely saving thousands of jobs. He is also counting on continued strong support among African American voters.
How Michigan votes will also be clarifying for November. Some see Sanders’ sweeping promises to cancel student debt and provide health care for all potentially energizing young voters but not older ones wary of his democratic socialist ideology. Centrist and safe, Biden could do exactly the opposite, though.
Others worry that both candidates are taking black Democrats for granted. All that may add up to neither being able to carry the state against Trump.
“There’s not a lot of energy, not enough energy, I would say, even for the primary,” said Michigan state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, whose district includes a large swath of northwest Detroit. She said the Democratic Party continues to use the same playbook of waiting until the last minute to do intensive community outreach — which crippled it in 2016.
Indeed, major party turnout in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit and is strongly African American, fell by more than 64,000 votes in 2016 as compared to 2012. That’s especially important since Trump leveled the Democrats’ famed “blue wall” with narrow wins in states that were supposed to comfortably go to Hillary Clinton: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, which he won by just 10,704 votes out more than 4.8 million cast.
Tuesday will be the first test of Democrats’ ability to take them back.
They already can point to hopeful signs. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has endorsed Biden and been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick, won in 2018, as fellow Democrat and Sen. Debbie Stabenow was cruising to re-election.
Veteran Michigan pollster Bernie Porn said the president remains unpopular with independents and Republican women, especially in the suburbs — though he said Trump’s standing has recovered some in the wake of impeachment.
“I think Trump is in trouble,” Porn said.
Flipping the state back could be built on gains in places like Grand Rapids, childhood home of Gerald Ford and long the epitome of country club Republicans, often most interested in fiscal conservatism but also closely watching social issues. It has begun moving to the left amid an influx of jobs bringing new residents from other parts of the state and the country, Porn said.
Sanders staged a rally Sunday in Grand Rapids and — vowing to grow the Democratic electorate by winning over young, minority and working-class voters — hit the University of Michigan and blue-collar Flint and Dearborn, home to a large concentration of Arab Americans. It is a promise he has made in other states during the primaries, but so far has largely failed to deliver.