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Hillary Clinton’s loss in Michigan, explained by the last Democrat to win in Michigan

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Heading into election night, Michigan was supposed to be a cornerstone of the “blue wall” of Democratic-leaning states that would prevent Donald Trump from winning the presidency. Instead, the state went for Trump — and is a key reason he, not Hillary Clinton, will be the one moving into the White House next month.

Freshman Democratic Sen. Gary Peters admits that he was surprised by the results in his home state, whose largest paper, the Detroit Free Press, mistakenly called the race for Clinton. He also stresses how narrowly Trump won: Michigan has nearly 7,000 precincts, so Trump’s 10,000-vote margin means he basically got just one more vote per precinct than Clinton.

Still, Peters — the only non-incumbent Democrat to win a Senate seat in 2014 — says the Clinton campaign made an array of unforced errors that allowed Trump to take the state. Among the biggest: failing to visit United Automobile Workers (UAW) halls full of union members who didn’t trust her position on free trade and using get-out-the-vote records that were so inaccurate that Clinton volunteers routinely found themselves knocking on the doors of Trump supporters. Those, he notes diplomatically, really aren’t the people Clinton should have been trying to bring to the polls.

Peters has an even more sobering message for Democratic leaders anxiously looking ahead to the 2018 and 2020 elections: Michigan should no longer be seen as a reliably blue state that the party can take for granted. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1988. If Peters is right, he may not be the last.

I recently spoke with Peters — a former financial adviser, Navy reservist, and three-term member of Congress — about what Democrats did wrong in Michigan this time and what they need to fix before the state’s voters next head to the ballot box. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Yochi Dreazen

Do you think Clinton’s loss was a harbinger of a long-term change in Michigan that may happen again in future elections, or was this an unusual set of circumstances that doesn’t mean Michigan will be less Democratic in the future than it has been in the past?

Gary Peters

Michigan has been wrongly perceived by a lot of folks around the country as being this blue state. Every state officeholder here is a Republican. They have the governorship, a majority in the state House, and a majority in the state Senate. In fact, of the 38 state senators, only 12 are Democrats. If you give somebody those statistics, they're going to probably scratch their head and say, "Why do people think that's a blue state?" When I won in 2014, I was the only Democrat to win in the state. A Republican governor won reelection by 4 or 5 points, and a lot of state senators won by even bigger margins, but I won by close to 14 points. It is a state that is definitely a ticket-splitting state.

There are a lot of independent voters, and you have to really run an election that's fighting for every voter and every community. You have to be in rural areas. Some Democrats think you just need urban voters. That doesn't work in Michigan. Certainly it's very important, and folks in urban areas are a critical part of our base that require or deserve a great deal of attention, but you have to do well in suburban areas and out in rural Michigan. That's the way a Democrat wins in Michigan. It's not something you can take for granted. It requires a great deal of work in order to win statewide.

Yochi Dreazen

Do you feel like the Clinton campaign got that message? First, that they did not take Michigan for granted; and second, that they understood the campaign 101 stuff you're talking about?

Gary Peters

They did have a large presence on the ground, but they relied on modeling to a much greater extent than they should have. They had a system to identify who they thought were Clinton voters, but they never actually went out to verify that.

I was surprised when I started getting anecdotal stories from people who were doing the get-out-the-vote effort. They were knocking on doors of people to tell them to make sure they cast ballots, but the people they were speaking to said they’d be voting for Trump. Some of the anecdotal evidence or stories I heard were up to half of the people of the doors that they were knocking were Trump supporters and yet they were on our get-out-the-vote lists. That tells me that no one actually called that person to find out who they were supporting. Obviously, politics 101 tells that if they tell you they're supporting Trump, you take them off your get-out-the-vote list. You hope they forget about the election.

From what I heard, they ran a data-model-driven campaign that forgot the basics of campaigning 101 where it's still a person-to-person, human-to-human effort. That includes working with our labor unions. I certainly ran into a great deal of angst from union members who were not confident of Hillary Clinton's message on trade. They didn't trust that she’d actually oppose the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] deal even though she was saying she would. If you're on the ground actually talking to voters, and you're recording that information and getting it back, it's either going to prove your model right or prove your model wrong. If your model's not right, then you better think about doing something else, and apparently that didn’t happen.

Yochi Dreazen

Heading into the election, were you or members of your staff communicating, "Hey, you need to do these things, you need to be in the state, you need to be talking to unions and stressing economics and the anti-TPP message"?

Gary Peters

Yeah, we communicated that. I also communicated that we would have liked to have the president or the first lady in before the last day before the election. That would help us drum up support in our urban areas. That was definitely communicated. It didn’t happen.

Yochi Dreazen

There have been news reports that Clinton never visited a UAW union hall, which seems like a misstep given how vital union voters are in Michigan. Is that right?

Gary Peters

As far as I know, she didn’t stop at any UAW halls. I probably would have been invited to be with her if she was going to one, and I never got that invitation. She didn't do any labor-specific events that I'm aware of. It's pretty rare that you aren't working closely with labor in a campaign, especially for statewide office. I'm sitting right here now, talking to you in the parking lot of the sheet metal workers before their holiday party. I'm going to be with my friends, with the sheet metal workers, to convey that they are important to me by showing up at their events. Labor simply cannot be taken for granted in Michigan. Not doing that sort of event certainly was a major oversight.

Yochi Dreazen

Do you think they did enough to win over undecided voters or Trump supporters, or were they just focused on turning out their own base?

Gary Peters

I don't think there was much of an effort in persuasion. The one thing that definitely was lacking, though, was a clear and consistent message. Their argument was primarily that Donald Trump didn't have the temperament to be commander in chief, and how could you support a guy who said all the horrible things that he did? Which was all accurate, and it's true; I don't understand how people can support someone given the way he conducted his campaign. But you have to have more than a negative message. You also have to have some very positive, aspirational message, and that was not as strong as it should have been in Michigan.

Yochi Dreazen

It seems like Trump had two main talking points that he just kept saying again and again and again, especially when he was in Michigan: one, that he’d kill TPP, and two, telling union members that [Clinton] takes them for granted, is off living in her bubble, and she doesn't actually understand what their lives are like. Were those what union members were hearing?

Gary Peters

Trump’s talk about TPP was certainly important for union members who have been impacted by trade deals. We have seen the erosion of jobs and employment in Michigan. The trade deals, the way they have been written in the past, have really hurt many workers here, so that message has certainly resonated very powerfully. Secretary Clinton said that she would not support TPP, but my personal experience in union halls is that a lot of people didn’t believe her.

Part of the reason that she didn’t have much credibility with some union members is that her husband was a supporter of NAFTA, and there's strong negative feelings about NAFTA in union halls across the state. The fact that her husband pushed NAFTA made it difficult for her to put out a message that she too would be opposed to these kinds of trade deals in the future.

Yochi Dreazen

Before the election, were the union leaders telling you what we now know, that their members weren't enthusiastic about Clinton and that you shouldn’t take their votes for granted? That there is a break for Trump?

Gary Peters

Yeah, they had concerns. The kind of input I got from union leaders was they thought there was a problem, but they didn’t how big it was because the Trump supporters weren’t really vocal about it. It's not like they were coming out saying, "We're voting for Trump.” What the union leaders were seeing, though, was a real enthusiasm gap. Trump would do these huge rallies, and then Clinton would do events that didn’t get all that many people.

Yochi Dreazen

Let me circle back for a second to your point at the outset, that Michigan is wrongly seen as a blue state. Do you get a sense that Trump was able to tap into something future Republicans will use as a playbook, or that he was just uniquely well suited on trade and economics and she was, in some ways, uniquely poorly suited?

Gary Peters

I believe it will be a one-off. I've got to put this in perspective too. It's important to note that he won by 10,700 votes, which is a pretty narrow margin. In Michigan, we have roughly 6,800 precincts. That means he got a little more than one vote per precinct [more] than she did. If 5,000 people had changed their minds, it would have gone the other way.

My hope is that this will be a wake-up call to the national Democratic Party and the supporters that Michigan cannot be taken for granted. When I was running for the Senate in 2014, my personal experience was that people would be, "Gary, Michigan's a blue state. You're fine. Don't worry." I was like, "No. You cannot take your eye off the bat." You have to be engaged and have to have the resources to make sure you get out a strong, persuasive message.

I would say to 2018 and 2020 folks that Michigan is a state where you've got to run a strong campaign. It's got to be heavily focused on an aspirational economic message. This is not a solid blue state by any stretch of the imagination.