Editor’s Note: Matt Villeneuve is a graduate student at the University of Michigan who has interned with the National Park Service and The White House. He holds a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences/U.S. History from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in History from the University of Oregon. The team at NPI is delighted to welcome him to the Cascadia Advocate and thanks him for representing us as our correspondent in Ann Arbor, covering today’s get out the vote events.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, two kinds of fog greeted President Obama in Michigan today. The first kind was the fog that deposits dew on the grass, leaves car windows opaque, and sends your hands searching for pockets in the early morning air. The second is of the electoral kind.
After FBI Director James Comey handed Republicans a gift in the form of a letter revealing the Bureau was reviewing emails from a computer shared by Anthony Weiner and Clinton adviser Huma Abedin, the Clinton campaign found their comfortable lead here in Michigan dwindling.
The clarity of October 21st — when Clinton was up 11.6 points over Trump — has largely disappeared. Michigan has supported the Democratic nominee for President for many cycles now, but Hillary For America is not taking the state for granted.
Only one day before the election, Michigan has suddenly become a battleground state again, with Clinton up over Trump by only 4.7 points. At this eleventh hour of the campaign, the Clinton camp has ordered a full-court press on Michigan.
With Hillary in Grand Rapids and former President Bill Clinton in the state capital of Lansing, it was up to Chelsea and Barack to make the case to Ann Arbor and the thousands of millennial voters at the University of Michigan.
If there is anything that this son of Washington knows, it’s the capacity of fog — and rain — in spoiling a good day’s weather. Quite less familiar to me, however, is the feeling of being in a battleground state on the eve of a presidential election.
While the TV spots, billboards, and radio ads exist here in Michigan in a quantity unknown back home, the otherwise pernicious bombardment of campaign noise has one perk: the attention of the principals.
So it was that, with an HFA press credential in hand, I made my way into Ray Fisher stadium on the campus of the University of Michigan to observe what it was like to be at a campaign rally with the President of the United States in a battleground state just twenty-four hours prior to the last day of this unprecedented election.
I was not alone. The campaign had released tickets for more than 4,000 attendees, and the line started forming at the first base line before around 7 AM.
Outside the stadium, a long line snaked down past the railroad tracks. A band of #NoDAPL protestors chanted and banged on drums to the nods of affirmation by the crowd. Inside, the field had been taken over by the typically rally paraphernalia: sections of fencing, security checkpoints, and risers for the press.
The speaking podium bearing the seal of the President of the United States was situated on the third-base line — a fitting place usually reserved for the likes of Kyle Seager, now the stage was a new “hot corner” for these Democratic speakers. The stadium was at full capacity for Obama’s scheduled noontime speech by 10 AM.
Once inside, the assembled gathering had nearly two hours to wait for POTUS — the press’ often-used nickname for the President of the United States — to arrive.
It was a typical Ann Arbor crowd and a motley crew marshaled to support Hillary: among the crowd could be seen veterans of the Korean War ballcaps, a cowboy hat, a USS New Jersey jacket (a longtime member of the Bremerton mothball fleet), headscarves, a Nez Perce vest, and a Clinton campaign hoodie sporting the slogan “Michigan Hustles Harder” complete with a punny hashtag, #MIshecan.
Around me in the press area were a faculty member who teaches journalism, a freelance photographer for Politico, a reporter for Reuters banging away on his laptop, and high school journalism student there covering the event for his school newspaper. A nearby TV correspondent who spoke into a microphone for his own newscast set the narrative for the whole press corps:
The problem here for Hillary is that her poll numbers have really slipped… Clinton was up as high as eleven points in this state, though her lead is now only around five…
Though the crowd had assembled for the common attraction of the President in Ann Arbor, it also be proved to be a captive audience for other speakers.
While Obama was the main course, the rally audience was treated to a series of appetizers: local representatives, candidates for the UMich board of regents, and Michigan senators. Debbie Dingle, representing the 12th District of Michigan in which Ann Arbor resides, kicked the day off by setting the stakes.
“I am pleased that President Obama is here in Michigan to finish the campaign,” she said. “I’m not old, I’m seasoned. We hear every year that this is the most important election of our lifetimes, but this year it really is, and let us never see one like it ever again.” The crowd agreed.
Larry Deitch, running for re-election to the UMich Board of Regents implored attendees to “join hands in a coalition of decency to reject fear and bigotry,” and his colleague Denise Illitch announced: “I agree the with the First Lady and I quote her when I say education is the most important element for freedom and equality.”
In addition to the kind of solidarity talk found in many political rallies in safely blue states like Washington and Oregon, unifying all of these speeches was the added rhetoric of electoral leverage. Here the crowd was exhorted not just to support Democratic candidates in down ballot races, but to get out the vote for Hillary.
Solomon Rajput, a Clinton campaign field organizer, gushed with great sincerity and eagerness about the homeliness of his family: a mother who left loving notes in his lunch box and a father that always tried to pay the bill at dinner for guests.
His family was the same as many others in the crowd, he insisted, save for one thing: “In Donald Trump’s America, my Muslim family would not be welcome here.” Solomon laid out the obvious calculus: “There’s a reason Trump and Pence are here in Michigan. A day before the election. It’s because Michigan matters!”
His voice cracked in excitement as he spoke. “The eyes of the world [are] on Michigan. Let’s show them what we got!”
Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Michigan’s 14th District had a similar message for potential battleground voters. Her refrain was “I still believe” — and she charged the crowd with keeping faith that if America was a place where it was possible to elect a black man to the Oval Office, it could elect a woman as President.
“I still believe,” she repeated, “And as a woman and an African-American, I have a lot to lose!” The crowd cheered.
Then Lawrence perhaps best epitomized the rather privileged position of a battleground state when she said, “When God made the world, on the seventh day, he rested and put his hand down on the earth and made Michigan.” (Michigan is often referred to as The Mitten due to its geography.)
I had to laugh. If the eyes of the world, the hand of God, and President Barack Obama were in your state in the same twenty-four hour period, you sure couldn’t argue that your vote didn’t matter.
Michigan’s U.S. Senator Gary Peters gave the most fiery speech of them all. “Who would’ve thought that Michigan would decide the election?” he began.
“The entire country will be watching the State of Michigan and they will see not only did we win for Clinton, but we won big.”
After Peters left the stage, music played while the crowd waited for the president’s arrival. The sky was clearing and the sun was coming out. At one point, a cheer from the crowd went up to herald the arrival of the president, but it was premature.
“False alarm,” the word went around. “It’s just Harbaugh.” A series of football chants followed for Ann Arbor’s second largest celebrity of the day.
Finally, just past noon, the presidential motorcade arrived and Chelsea Clinton took the stage to introduce the President. She described how it was up to voters to decide “if Stronger Together is just a campaign slogan or an ethos of our values.”
She described her mother with great pride and enumerated all the progressive causes for which she stood. “If you want to protect the progress of President Obama, progress that he’s not given enough credit for, then you’ve got to vote,” she insisted. With great acclaim, POTUS then took the stage.
The President’s remarks were part stump-speech, part character reference for Hillary. “I’m feeling sentimental. This will be my last day of campaigning for a while,” Obama said. He began with gratitude: “I want to say thank you to so many grassroots organizers who pick up phones, hit the streets — you are the best organizers on the planet, and I am here today because of you.”
“Think about where we were eight years ago… I just realize some of you were ten.” The president then went on to mention by name a range of Disney Channel shows, each title met with great laughter from the audience, clearly a form of millennial pandering. Nevertheless, it brought out many smiles.
The President then chronicled all of the progressive causes that had been championed by the Democratic Party over the last two terms. The list should by now be long and familiar: the Recovery Act, the Patient Protection Act, the Paris climate accord, the death of Osama bin Laden, marriage equality, and so on.
However, among all the applause and celebration, the President offered a warning: “All that progress goes down the drain if we don’t vote.”
Taking a dig at Donald Trump in ways the name at the top of the ticket cannot, the President spent a good portion of his speech on the attack.
“I’ve seen what makes America great,” the President said. “Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be Commander-in-Chief. Did you hear this weekend that his campaign took away his Twitter account? Can you imagine him with the nuclear codes?” This was an effective laugh line, but Obama lobbed his sharpest barb of criticism against Donald Trump on the question of the fate of working-class people.
“Do not be bamboozled. In his seventy years on this earth, the Donald has never shown respect for working people. It isn’t clear he even knows working people save for those who clean his hotels and mow the lawns of his golf courses.”
The President then seemed to address the difficulty that both he and Hillary Clinton face in getting the support of mostly white working-class communities, some of which are largest in places like Michigan.
“Donald Trump said, ‘Let them go bankrupt,’ ” the President reminded the audience, referencing the country’s biggest automakers, which were rescued by his administration. “To every autoworker on the line, barkeeper, or small business owner, I think I’ve earned some credibility here.”
He added, “Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified for this office… but the good news is, Michigan, is that you are uniquely qualified to make sure he doesn’t!”
Obama ended his speech like so many others he’s given — by calling to mind our finest traditional values and highest democratic ideals. Obama urged all present to shake off the cynicism of this entire campaign cycle, saturated by what the President decried as “a dust cloud of nonsense.”
He then returned to making the case that Hillary Clinton is a true progressive.
Establishing her progressive bona fides, he implored his Ann Arbor audience: “Whatever credibility I’ve earned over eight years as your president… trust me on this one.” As the crowd cheered, the President leaned into the conclusion of one of his last stump speeches while in office. “The most important office in the democracy is that of citizen,” he stated. “The most powerful word in our democracy is ‘we.’ We shall overcome. Yes we can. I never said, ‘Yes I can,’ I said ‘Yes we can.’”
Channeling the spirit of 2008, the President concluded his final campaign speech by asking the crowd to “do what you did for me, for Hillary. Finish what we started.”
By the time the president left the stage, the music returned, and the cheering reached its fever pitch, the sun was high in the sky.
At half past noon, it was by then quite hot. Not only had the fog been lifted Ann Arbor, but the star power of both the President and the sun itself had Ann Arbor, if not Michigan, fired up and ready to go.
The Michigan polls close at 8 PM Eastern Time tomorrow.