Michael Coleman didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election. But this year, on a chilly fall day around lunchtime, the 69-year-old came to the Detroit Department of Elections to hand-deliver his ballot roughly a month before Election Day. He said he didn't want to take the risk of it getting lost in the mail.
"I don't like neither one of them, but I voted for Biden, you know," Coleman said, his voice trailing off.
"Trump — he's not good. He won't denounce white supremacists; he has disbanded the pandemic team," Coleman added. "I'm not real political, but for lack of a better word, he's an a**hole."
Coleman didn't love his choices in 2016, and he doesn't love them this year either. But he's adamant President Trump needs to go. If that means voting for Joe Biden, he'll do it.
Democrats' so-called "blue wall" crumbled in 2016 as Trump eked out a victory in Michigan by 10,704 votes. It was the first time the state elected a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Turnout in Detroit's solidly Democratic Wayne County fell with roughly 34,000 fewer voters in 2016 compared with in 2012. Some Democratic Black and brown voters like Coleman didn't like their options that year, so they either voted third party or stayed home. And this wasn't unique to Wayne County — Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, another state narrowly carried by Trump, tells a similar story.
But after seeing Trump in power for nearly four years, activists and voters say politics feels more perilous. COVID-19 has hit communities like Detroit particularly hard; a disproportionate number of Black voters have lost a relative or known someone personally diagnosed with COVID-19. For them, the 2020 election is a referendum on the president's response to a crisis that has already claimed the lives of more than 213,000 Americans. The disillusionment some voters felt in 2016 has been replaced with outright anger directed at the president and his administration.
"A lot of people didn't like Hillary Clinton. Let's be honest," said Ken Whittaker with the Michigan People's Campaign, a progressive group that endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries but then decided to back Biden this summer. "I'm not gonna say everybody likes Joe Biden, but there is a much better understanding that progress doesn't always mean running 10 blocks forward. Sometimes progress is stopping your slide going 20 blocks backwards."
"This year feels different"
In the last presidential election, Zeinab Chami, a 36-year-old high school English teacher in Dearborn, Mich., voted third party.
"This year feels different; it feels like there's more at stake," Chami said. "There's a possibility that I'll vote for Biden. And that possibility of voting for Clinton did not exist in 2016 I'll tell you."
Chami is torn between voting for Biden and leaving the top of the ticket blank.
"The only reason I'm even considering an establishment Democrat is because the current president is such a morally repugnant person," Chami said, after a day of teaching virtual school.
But she's suspect of Democrats' foreign policy writ large, and she thinks Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have shown unrelenting support for Israel despite what she views as its deeply problematic behavior toward Palestinians.
As a teacher in the era of COVID-19, issues like public education and health care are also important to her.
"I feel like Donald Trump and his movement are trying to kind of tear down the social safety net," she said.
She worries that four more years of a Trump administration could be devastating for domestic issues that matter to her. But as a progressive who wants universal health care and a reassessment of the United States' foreign policy, she's also worried that a Biden presidency pushes those conversations aside.
"My concern is that if Joe Biden becomes president, people are going to be so relieved that we're rid of Donald Trump that they're going to say, 'OK, that's it, no more change is needed in this country, we are back to status quo,' " Chami explained.
Her concerns are common among progressive voters, who say Trump is a symptom of the social and political unrest in the country, rather than the cause.
"Honestly, if [Trump] won again, then there would be no resistance to a progressive candidate next time," said Michael Cushman, a Detroit resident and former organizer for Barack Obama's campaign who voted third party in 2016.
Getting voters to turn out
Democrats are desperate to turn people like Chami and Cushman into concrete Biden voters. The question is how they do that.
Whittaker believes one viable tactic is relational organizing, a strategy his group first championed in 2018, in which volunteers contact friends and family, rather than strangers.
"If you're getting cold calls from an organization, you tend to ignore it, but if it's your daughter or your husband or your wife, uncle, auntie that's saying this issue is concerning to me, you're more likely to engage," said Whittaker.
His goal for the Michigan People's Campaign this year is to tap into a network of 100,000 people through family and friend connections.
Cushman acknowledged that family pressure played a role in his decision to ultimately fill out his mail-in ballot for Biden.
"Me and my father have been having this generational debate for a long time," said Cushman. "He believes that we need the safest choice, which is Biden ... so between that and my aunties, you know, we talk about politics all the time."
But Cushman, like Chami, isn't a fan of Biden's policies. He says his politics are much more closely aligned to someone like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"People may be uncertain, people may not be sure about Biden per se. But they damn sure don't want Trump," said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a group focused on building political power among low-income Black and brown people in the city. Snyder previously worked as the youth vote director for the Clinton campaign in Michigan.
"Objectively, the energy's different," he said.
Still there are skeptics. El Jay Parker, a 33-year-old autoworker, reluctantly voted for Clinton in 2016, but this year, he's leaning toward leaving the top of the ballot empty.
"I know that people are terrified of Trump, but I don't feel like being a little bit better than Trump is good enough for me," Parker said.
The Democratic presidential nominee is not as progressive as Parker would like on issues of health care and criminal justice reform. Neither was Clinton, he admits, but he felt like when she was pressured from the left, she was willing to move, whether or not she genuinely agreed.
"With Biden, throughout his campaign, with town halls and interactions with people, he doesn't seem like he's going to budge," said Parker. He was turned off seeing the former vice president spar with a couple of voters during the primaries.
"Any time that he's challenged, he just tells you, 'I'm not the guy for you. Go vote for someone else,' " said Parker. "If you're running for president and you want my vote and you're not willing to listen to my concerns, then why do I owe you my vote, regardless if there's Trump there or not?"