Michigan 2024 Presidential Primary: Biden-Trump discontent could bring drama to predictable contest

Dueling conventions for Republicans? A revolt among Democratic voters? For a primary election in which the two winners seem all but pre-determined, Tuesday's primary could still invite some chaos. 

Political experts agree that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are likely heading toward a rematch in the general election. That's frustrating for voters fed up with seeing the same faces running for election.

Even with a slate of candidates that may bore voters, Michigan is known to inject a little mayhem into national politics. Could it do it again?

The state Republican Party has fractured to the point that conservative voters aren't sure who is in charge of the state GOP infrastructure. Twin caucus-style conventions scheduled in early March could end with conservatives awarding two sets of delegates.

Meanwhile, fury over Biden's handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict has spurred a breakout campaign that urges Democratic supporters to vote "uncommitted" on their ballot next Tuesday. How many do so could indicate how much anger the president is facing. 

Beyond each party's predicaments is a consensus among voters that Biden and Trump are too old to be running and lethargy around another political cycle that's regurgitated the same two candidates may be setting in.

"We've seen consistently for more than a year that the majority of Americans and Michigan don't want a rematch between two dithering old fools," said Adrian Hemond, who runs the political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

The implications could lead to lower turnout in the primary election on Feb. 27 - and possibly the general election in November. Even a small shift could decide Michigan, which again finds itself in the spotlight of a major election.

Trump-Biden baggage

"This really should be a dud," said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University. "There's nothing on the ballot and the presidential primary contest is basically over."

A predictable primary won't motivate people to participate in the election, he said, adding that low turnout may be a larger symptom of people's displeasure with their options. "We're hurdling toward a rematch that lots of voters do not want," Grossman said.

For Biden, 81, and Trump, 77, age has frequently been used as a critique against voting for either of them. But the baggage doesn't stop there.

For Trump, four separate criminal trials alleging abuse of power, lying to investigators, and attempting to overturn the 2020 election. A conviction in any of those cases could hurt him on election day.

But the former president is also the single-most popular candidate in the country, Hemond said, adding "and it's not even close." 

His hold over the Republican Party has allowed him to cruise to early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire without ever debating his opponents. Only former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley remains in the contest. 

Michigan's rebellious streak has made it something of a wildcard in past elections, John Sellek with the political consulting firm Harbor Strategies said. Most recently, their siding with Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic primary only added to the chaos of the cycle eight years ago.

Sellek doesn't expect Haley to play spoiler this time around.

"Rebel elections do happen, but I think Trump will clean up," he said. "If you look at polling numbers for Nikki, for people who self-identified as conservative, Trump got 80% of those people."

Haley isn't the only candidate that Trump is polling ahead. An EPIC-MRA poll conducted among likely 2024 November voters in Michigan found him leading Biden by four points in a hypothetical head-to-head contest.

Among reasons that Biden has slid in polls against Trump are his struggles with both young people and Arab-American voters.

That same EPIC-MRA poll found more than half of respondents want a cease-fire declared between Israel and Gaza. Biden refusing to call for one has angered those that live in and around Dearborn, many who have lost relatives during the fighting in Gaza. 

That issue alone could hurt Biden in Michigan - a state he can't afford to lose. 

"(For Biden) where it hurts is someplace he's already struggling, which is the young vote," Sellek said. "He's already struggling with those voters. They may not have been motivated to vote before - maybe they now have a reason if it means exercising a protest vote."

Listen to Michigan, the group encouraging voters to cast "uncommitted" has railed against Biden since the early days of Israel's invasion. They've found enough success and media attention to spur the president to send a White House delegation to Dearborn to meet with Arab leaders and discuss policy.

If the uncommitted vote reaches double digits among Democratic ballots, Sellek says it could have a significant impact. Depending on how many do, Hemond says it will serve as an "imperfect measure of dissatisfaction" among that part of the electorate.

"It's at least a decently imperfect proxy measure of how many people are seriously motivated by that specific issue," he said.

Dueling Republican conventions

Michigan sending a batch of "uncommitted" delegates to the Democratic Party's national convention likely won't change the result, even if it invites some disarray into the contest.

More havoc may be on the way for the state Republican Party. 

The Michigan GOP will elect its own presidential delegates during two separate contests: a presidential primary on Feb. 27 and a caucus convention on March 2. 

The fragmented system is the result of a change that Michigan Democrats approved in early 2023. Democratic lawmakers voted to move up their primary as the national party sought to reshuffle which states first pick delegates. 

But scheduling an earlier date for Michigan's primary violated the Republican National Party's bylaws. As a solution, the Michigan GOP divided up how it awarded delegates. 

The hybrid model calls for awarding 16 of 55 delegates on the primary, and the other 39 delegates during the convention. 

The confusion doesn't end there, however. Ever since a breakout faction of state Republican Party leaders voted to oust Kristina Karamo from her chair position, there's been no clear leader of the state apparatus.

Karamo has refused to step down, even as the RNC has officially recognized the elevation of Pete Hoekstra, a former ambassador under the Trump administration, as the state party's new leader.

A news release from the Michigan GOP sent Tuesday said a state district convention with Hoekstra overseeing things will begin on March 2 in Grand Rapids. At the same time, another district convention is scheduled for the same day in Detroit, the state party website shows. 

"The chaos and courtroom battles - they really are so corrosive to efforts to organize ground game going forward," Sellek said. "And that's saying something, since Trump is running things with an iron fist."

Michigan's early voting

The 2024 presidential primary is the first statewide election for Michigan where early voting is allowed. A total of nine consecutive days of in-person early voting is now a constitutional requirement, following the passage of Prop 2 in 2022. 

According to the Michigan Secretary of State, more than 50,000 people have cast ballots at early voting sites since Feb. 17, which kicked off the first weekend of early voting. 

Along with the early in-person vote totals, there are more than 746,000 absentee ballots that have been returned - which is almost 300,000 more than the number of absentee ballots that were received before the 2020 presidential primary contest.

Voting by absentee has become easier and more accessible in recent years with the pandemic speeding along the transition toward more mail-in ballots. 

Even Trump, who previously railed against mail-in ballots, has changed his tune about voting absentee. During a campaign stop in Michigan last weekend, he encouraged supporters to vote early.