What to know about Michigan’s primary election

<span>Michigan is holding its primary on Tuesday and Biden and Trump are likely to win.</span><span>Illustration: Marcus Peabody/Guardian Design</span>
Michigan is holding its primary on Tuesday and Biden and Trump are likely to win.Illustration: Marcus Peabody/Guardian Design

Michigan moved up its primary contest this year, creating a domino effect for the state’s Republican party that led to a primary and a caucus being held in yet another confusing moment for the US primary election.

The midwestern state’s primary will be held on 27 February for Republicans and Democrats, who voted to move up the date to meet requests from national Democrats and President Joe Biden to diversify the states with earlier primaries.

Related: Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib tells fellow Democrats: reject Biden in primary

Then, Republicans will meet to caucus, potentially in two different conventions because of party in-fighting, on 2 March. At that time, GOP activists will vote on how to allocate most of the state’s delegates, with the other portion of delegates being awarded based on the results of the 27 February primary.

Nevada, too, saw a GOP contest split in two, with a primary that no one won and a caucus won by Trump. The Democratic reshuffling of their electoral calendar also led to an unsanctioned Democratic primary in New Hampshire, where Biden won but the delegates might not count in the end.

How the Michigan primary works this year

Michigan’s presidential primaries moved up this year, which in a year with a better understood electoral calendar and competitive elections would give the state more clout and lead to candidates working hard to win over the state’s voters.

On 27 February, Michigan voters in both parties will be able to cast a vote in person for a presidential candidate on their party’s ballot. They have also had a chance to vote by mail and early in person ahead of election day. Voters need to choose one party’s ballot for the presidential primary.

The Democratic primary will award 117 delegates based on the day’s results.

For Republicans, a week later, the state party will hold its convention, where a caucus will award most delegates. The primary results will dictate 16 delegates, while the caucus will figure out how the remaining 39 delegates are awarded. Only elected GOP precinct delegates and state lawmakers will be able to vote during the caucus. The state’s 13 congressional districts will meet separately at the convention to award three delegates each.

The caucus format is seen as more favorable to the former president and current Republican frontrunner Trump, whose appeal to Republican activists in state parties is broader than his opponents’.

Who’s in the running?

Republicans are choosing among Trump, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and pastor Ryan Binkley, though other candidates who have since dropped out of the race will still appear on ballots.

Trump is expected to win by wide margins, as he has in all the early states so far.

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On the left, Joe Biden will be on the ballot alongside his sole mainstream challenger, the Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips. Phillips has stayed in the race despite low numbers, and Biden is likely to pull off an easy first place.

There’s an effort afoot, though, for Democrats to vote “uncommitted” as a protest. More on that later.

Why is the Michigan GOP election so strange this time?

National Democrats and Biden wanted to rearrange the presidential election calendar because Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states with contests, are not representative of the party’s constituents. Instead, states such as South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan should be prioritized, they argued, because they are more diverse and more like Democratic voters overall.

Michigan Democrats agreed, and the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, signed off on the law that moved the primary date up last year.

The wrinkle, though, is that Republicans couldn’t just simply move their date up, too, because Republican National Committee rules say that only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina can hold their contests before 1 March. The state’s Republicans worked with the RNC to come up with the primary/caucus dual format to comply with these rules.

The Democratic calendar changes and their downwind effects have led to some confusion for voters in both parties this year for a few reasons: rearranging contest order has made some early states upset, Republicans didn’t change their calendar to match, and the contests aren’t very competitive so voters have in some cases just tuned out the primaries.

Beyond the calendar problem, Michigan Republicans are dealing with intense in-fighting that could lead to two separate conventions on 2 March, one in Detroit led by the ousted state party chair, Kristina Karamo, who has argued she was not properly removed and is now the subject of a lawsuit attempting to confirm her ouster and get back control of the party apparatus. The other would be led in Grand Rapids by Pete Hoekstra, the new chair.

Because the RNC recognizes Hoekstra as the chair, the delegates awarded at his convention would presumably be the official ones, though Karamo could try to send her own to the national party. It’s a mess!

What could happen on the left?

The Democrats are not devoid of political drama, either. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents parts of Detroit and Dearborn, has backed an effort to get Democratic voters to choose “uncommitted” on their ballots instead of voting for Biden as a protest against the president’s support for Israel, one of his key liabilities with liberal voters.

Listen to Michigan, the group behind the push, wants to get at least 10,000 votes for “uncommitted” to send a message to Biden ahead of the general election and lend support for a ceasefire.

There’s little risk for the effort to hinder Biden in the presidential primary, where he will probably win handily. The organizers have said they don’t support Trump or plan to vote for him when the two men are likely to be matched up in November, but the push gives voters a way to make their voices heard on this issue.

Who are Michigan’s voters?

The push for an “uncommitted” vote in Michigan makes particular sense because the state is home to one of the country’s largest populations of Arab Americans. Detroit is home to the country’s largest Arabic-speaking population. More than half of Dearborn’s population is of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. The way the Israel-Gaza war plays out will be a major part of voters’ calculations there.

On the whole, about 14% of Michigan is Black, 3.5% is Asian American and nearly 6% is Latino, the 2020 census shows.

The state is firmly a swing state. It went for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020, and it’s in play for either candidate come November. It often serves as a bellwether state, skewing close to the way the country tends to vote in a given contest.

When will we get results?

The primary election on 27 February ends at 8pm central time, and results should come out bit by bit starting later that night. If contests in other states are any indication, it’ll quickly become clear who won – and that’ll be Trump and Biden.

For the 2 March caucus, the convention starts at 10am central in Grand Rapids (and maybe in Detroit, for the Karamo convention), with the state Republican committee set to meet by 8.30pm that night to decide the delegate allocations.

What will the results mean?

We’re not really paying much attention to who wins the Michigan primaries because that’s all but given at this point.

We are going to be watching a few storylines, though:

  • Will the “uncommitted” vote be sizable enough to push Biden on a ceasefire? And will there be moves in other states to send similar messages that don’t carry much political risk for the president?

  • Will second-place candidates like Haley on the right and Phillips on the left stay in the race? If so, what’s their strategy? With two older frontrunners, one of whom faces a smattering of criminal and civil court cases, the runners-up could become more important down the line.

  • How will two separate Republican conventions play out? Will they both try to send different delegates? The way the internal feud displays itself when Michigan is under the national spotlight will be interesting to see.