The Road to 2020 Should Run Through Michigan

By Lanae Erickson and Gabe Horwitz

Democrats trying to chart a 2020 path to the White House would be wise to make a side trip to Lansing. There they will find Michigan’s new governor focusing on something millions of Americans crave: Opportunity.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in her recent State of the State address, mentioned “opportunity” at least 20 times. Indeed, her speech’s title was “Michigan: The Home for Opportunity.”

These weren’t empty phrases. The governor put meat on the bones by calling for bold investments in Michigan’s under-funded public schools; expanded opportunities for small businesses and female entrepreneurs; and a new “MI Opportunity Scholarship” for high school grads pursuing community college rather than going directly into a four-year university.

Since Michigan primary voters don’t get the national attention lavished on those in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, why should contenders for the nomination take special note of this state and its rookie governor?

Whitmer easily dispatched two far-left candidates in her 2018 primary and went on to beat a Trump-supporting Republican to win a governorship that Democrats had not held for almost a decade.

Because she is running the state as she campaigned: as a pragmatic progressive. Whitmer easily dispatched two far-left candidates in her 2018 primary and went on to beat a Trump-supporting Republican to win a governorship that Democrats had not held for almost a decade. She ran on the urgency of providing opportunity now and tackling kitchen-table concerns like clean water and fixing “the damn roads.”

By contrast, some of the loudest buzz in the early Democratic presidential primary jockeying centers on much more distant ideals: Medicare for All. Free college. A guaranteed federal job.

Well, here’s a bet that the candidate who sounds more like Gretchen Whitmer — one who shapes their identity as an “Opportunity Democrat” (and puts real ideas behind it) — will be best-positioned to end Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency in 2020.

Governor Whitmer is running the state as she campaigned: as a pragmatic progressive.

We traveled the country in 2017 talking to people everywhere, including in Michigan. We found that what Americans want above all is the opportunity to earn a good life where they live. And for most people in most places, that’s getting tougher.

Whitmer sees this problem in Michigan, and for good reason. From 2005 to 2015, the state lost more than 18,000 businesses and nearly 150,000 private sector jobs.

Michigan’s unemployment rate (4 percent) is roughly equal to the national average. But it has proportionately more “discouraged workers” — that is, working-age people who have quit looking for a job and therefore aren’t reflected in the unemployment count.

Even for those who are employed, most of today’s jobs don’t support a middle class life. Nationwide, 62 percent of jobs do not pay enough to afford a middle class life for a family with children — even in a dual income household. Almost a third of jobs pay a “hardship” wage, which is less than what a single adult living on his or her own needs for basic necessities.

Those numbers are reflected throughout Michigan. In Detroit, less than half of the jobs people hold now offer a middle class life or better. In Flint, it’s 40 percent. Even in thriving Ann Arbor, the high cost of living means just 39 percent of jobs support a middle class life.

In Detroit, less than half of the jobs people hold now offer a middle class life or better. In Flint, it’s 40 percent.

The culprit? A rapidly changing economy, with the twin forces of globalization and technology that have concentrated opportunity in too few places and too few people. This has left voters understandably anxious. In response, Democrats must offer bold, practical new ideas that will provide every American a real opportunity to earn a good life.

Gov. Whitmer is setting a good example in Michigan. So have Democrats in the statehouse being well led by Rep. Christine Greig, who prioritized a “Building Opportunity” agenda. And despite Michigan’s relatively late vote in the primaries, those who seek the 2020 presidential nomination should pay special attention.

Of course, things will change dramatically in the general election, where the focus shifts from the primary calendar to the Electoral College map. Until 2016, the so-called “blue wall” states of Michigan and Pennsylvania had voted Democratic in six straight presidential elections, and Wisconsin in seven. Then the blue wall collapsed, as Trump won the three by a combined total of just 70,000 votes.

There is no clear path to the White House for Democrats without the blue wall. That means they had better pay attention to Whitmer and her counterparts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The next Democratic nominee must bring these states back into the fold — there is no clear path to the White House for Democrats without the blue wall. That means they had better pay attention to Whitmer and her counterparts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Those three Democratic governors won their elections by 1.3 million votes.

They did it with a focus on the things that voters in their states care about most: Retirement that is too insecure. Health care that is too expensive. Jobs that pay too little. Opportunity that is too scarce.

Governor Whitmer closed her speech with a stirring call to make Michigan “the home for opportunity for generations to come.” Presidential aspirants should heed that call, and apply that hope to the Democratic Party as well.


Lanae Erickson is Senior Vice President for the Social Policy & Politics Program at Third Way. Gabe Horwitz is the Senior Vice President for the Economic Program at Third Way.