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Michigan's primary could be important this year

Jack Lessenberry

This has been an intense first week of the year in Michigan politics, with Governor Snyder signing deeply controversial bills,the Flint water crisis, and renewed concern over the impending financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools.

For now, this has almost blotted out concern over the fast-approaching presidential primary season, after months in which it seemed like the news was all Trump, all the time. Well, think about it or not, Michigan’s presidential primary is exactly two months from today.

And there’s reason to believe the primary might be considerably more important this time than in the past. For one thing, both parties are using it to select their national convention delegates. That has only happened once in the last quarter century.

Instead, Republicans have mainly used a primary, and Democrats a variety of complicated caucus systems. Few voters took part, and fewer understood how they worked.

This had the additional bad feature of allowing Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, if they so chose. Republicans resented this.  

Michigan's primary results have often been embarrassing or bizarre.

Michigan’s primary results have often been embarrassing or bizarre. Michigan primary voters chose Henry Ford in the first-ever Michigan primary exactly a century ago, even though he wasn’t running for anything. Democrats were embarrassed badly in 1972, when George Wallace won their Michigan primary with a tremendous landslide in the biggest-ever turnout.

Eight years ago, the state violated both parties’ rules by scheduling a January primary, partly because then-Governor Granholm thought this would give her an “in” (and maybe a job) with Hillary Clinton, who she was convinced would be the nominee.

She was wrong. Even though John McCain was going on to win the nomination that year, Michigan Republican voters chose a candidate who dropped out of the race in a few weeks. As for Democrats, they manged to leave one name off the primary ballot: Barack Obama.

As for Democrats, they managed to leave one name off the primary ballot: Barack Obama.

The state should do better this year. Though we vote after the traditionally early states like New Hampshire, our primary comes before most other big states like Ohio, Illinois, New York and California vote. 

Every conceivable candidate’s name will be on our ballot, including one “Rocky” De La Fuente, a California car dealer, who became the first presidential primary candidate ever to get on by collecting signatures. The one safe prediction is that some of the dozen GOP candidates on their side of the ballot will have dropped out before we vote. Actually, at least two already have – Lindsay Graham and George Pataki. Once voting starts in other early states, candidates who fail to score will quickly see their donations dry up.

Nobody wants to give money to a loser, and that will effectively end their campaigns. Michigan has actually been decisive in choosing a nominee a couple of times.

President Gerald Ford was in grave danger of losing renomination to Ronald Reagan forty years ago, but scored a huge victory in his home state that started his comeback. In 1992, both President Bush the first and Bill Clinton helped cement their nominations with big victories here.

Well, maybe we’ll do it again this time. And you may as well plan on voting. You are, after all, paying for it; the primary costs the taxpayers ten million dollars.

May the best candidates for Michigan win.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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