Debbie Dingell was one of the few Democrats who saw Donald Trump coming. She’s worried that her party will underestimate him again.
The 66-year-old representative from Michigan first noticed his pull with voters in her district, which stretches from Ann Arbor to Detroit, in August 2015 at a United Auto Workers picnic. The union workers and their families expressed curiosity about the Republican newcomer they recognized from TV, were disillusioned by the national Democratic Party, and were even more unenthusiastic about the party’s nominee. “Debbie, we can’t be with that Hillary Clinton,” they told her again and again.
As the story goes, Dingell, a three-term representative and the widow of the late congressman John Dingell, relayed her concerns to the Clinton campaign immediately: The former secretary of state wasn’t spending enough time communicating with white, working-class voters, she warned. Even a year later, when poll after poll showed Clinton up by a comfortable margin in Michigan ahead of the general election, Dingell was adamant that her party not take the state for granted. In the end, she was right: Michigan, which a Republican presidential candidate hadn’t won since 1988, went to Trump by a few thousand votes. The polls had simply been wrong.
Dingell didn’t believe the polling numbers in 2016, and she doesn’t believe them now. Recent surveys suggest that Joe Biden has a real shot in Michigan, a state he likely needs to capture to unseat the president. Polls show the former vice president leading Trump by at least 5 points there, and one survey last month, from an in-state pollster, actually showed Biden up by 16. The anti-Trump Twitterati and the political press have circulated these findings with great excitement, just as they did similar surveys in other battleground states. Dingell hasn’t. “That’s a bullshit poll,” she told me simply, in reference to the 16-point survey. Biden may be a different candidate from Clinton, with his strong union ties and middle-class identity, both of which he’s cultivated over decades. But he still needs to make personal connections with working-class Michiganders, she warns—outreach that has been impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.
I spoke with Dingell about what she’s hearing from her constituents these days, what advice she has for Biden and other Democrats, and what she’s most afraid of happening between now and November. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: You warned that Trump might be successful in Michigan back when other Democrats weren’t quite so concerned. How did you know that he’d do so well with people in your district?
Debbie Dingell: I have a very unique district. I probably have one of the most diverse districts in the country. I have the Downrivers. They’re factory towns with a lot of union workers. Then I have Dearborn, which is the Ford Motor Company headquarters and has the largest population of Arab Americans in the country. And then I have Washtenaw, which is Ann Arbor, which is progressive. I see it all.
Downriver, the Trump signs were everywhere. The union workers were talking to me about it. I was hearing enough people not happy with Hillary. In the progressive community, the Bernie people were anti-Hillary, and they were complaining the whole time. The Bernie supporters were saying they weren’t going to vote or weren’t going to turn out.
Godfrey: How do you feel now?
Dingell: I’m a gut politician. I’m a person that, in a normal life, goes to 14 events a day. It’s not normal right now. I don’t have that listening mechanism that I always have. But in the last three weeks, I’ve started back out. I’ve been to [events in progressive] Washtenaw, [voters] are active and engaged. I went to a veterans’ hall—Trump is losing some of those voters, but he has not lost them all. Some of the veterans were still strong Trump [supporters].
The Bernie supporters, the very progressive community, are just mad at everybody in the Democratic establishment. Hopefully, they’re going to recognize that they can’t sit out this election.
Godfrey: Clinton never had the kind of lead over Trump that Biden does right now. And the president’s response to the pandemic and the George Floyd protests doesn’t seem to have endeared him to voters.
Dingell: I don’t trust polling. I don’t believe that Biden is 16 points up in Michigan; that’s a bullshit poll, and it’s the same people who said Hillary had it in the bag. I worry about polling suppressing votes. I don’t want anybody to think their vote doesn’t matter.
I’m seeing lots of Trump signs start to pop up. There are some very complicated issues that Trump is playing to divide this country. He is energizing his base, and we have to energize ours. If the election were held today, Joe Biden would win, but I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and November.
Godfrey: Voters back in 2015 and 2016 seemed to have a knee-jerk hatred or distrust of Hillary Clinton. Is it the same with Biden?
Godfrey: Why do you think that is?
Dingell: Because Joe connects with working people. A lot of people took [it] to heart when Hillary used the word deplorable. They felt that she looked down on ’em.
Godfrey: You told President Barack Obama back in 2015 that these people in your district were not feeling better off, even though—
Dingell: While the president saved the [auto] industry, those workers hadn’t had a pay raise. They weren’t feeling better off. You need to understand this industry: If you played by the rules—if you came to work and showed up, you worked hard—you’d get taken care of for a lifetime. Then [industry] bankruptcy came along, and suddenly, nothing’s secure, nothing’s safe, and you’re scared. That anxiety still lives in their hearts and their souls. Trump understood that; Hillary didn’t.
Godfrey: So if you were advising Joe Biden right now, what would you urge him to do to make sure he wins these voters?
Dingell: Find a way to reach out to working men and women, and show the side of him that I know. I begged [Biden’s former chief of staff] Steve Ricchetti to bring him into Michigan four years ago [on Clinton’s behalf]. Workers needed to see somebody who understood.
Godfrey: But if Biden can’t be there in person now, how can he meet these voters?
Dingell: We’re trying to figure it out. They have talked about: Is it possible to have a town-hall meeting [at a UAW plant]? But the fact of the matter is that when you’re dealing with COVID in the plant, and you’re telling people that they need to keep their physical distance, you can’t do it. It would be irresponsible for the UAW to ask their workers to go.
So we’re trying to figure it out right now. Let me assure you, they’re working on it. Jill [Biden] did an event with the governor [over the weekend], with the bricklayers.
Godfrey: What could Trump do to change things up and win your district in November?
Dingell: I got yesterday, from somebody, something called a confession. [Editor’s note: It was a viral, anonymous social-media post.] I used to think I was pretty much just a regular person. But I was born white into a two-parent household, which now labels me as privileged, racist, and responsible for slavery. I’m a fiscal and moral conservative, which by today’s standards makes me a fascist because I plan a budget. But I now find out that I’m not here because I earned it, but because I was advantaged … I think and I reason, and I doubt much of what the mainstream media tells me, which makes me a right-wing conspiracy nut. I’m proud of my heritage and our inclusive American culture. It makes me a xenophobe.
That’s what I’m worried about. This letter right here is what worries me.
Godfrey: What do you mean?
Dingell: Donald Trump is trying to divide us with fear and hatred. And he’s using [these] wedge issues. I went to a neighborhood the other day and counted 100 Blue Lives Matter signs.
Godfrey: In general, how would you characterize how you’re feeling about November?
Dingell: It’s a lifetime between now and November. I’d rather be in a Democrat’s shoes than a Republican’s. But I take nothing for granted.