Kaja Braziel has historically voted Democrat. The 30-year-old Detroit native remembers casting her first-ever vote for Barack Obama, which eventually factored into her support for President Joe Biden.

Four years later, Braziel says she's apprehensive about voting for Biden again. The Wayne State University senior, who also works full time, is upset that Biden hasn't done more to address student loans. She acknowledges he's not solely responsible for falling short of his promises, but says it's an issue nonetheless.

"It doesn't stop that from affecting my thought process of, when do I get to be a real adult?" said Braziel, who sacrificed an additional job in order to commit to her studies. "When do I get to buy a house? When do I get to feel stable enough to think about seriously having kids?"

Braziel has her doubts about continuing to support Biden, but says she doesn't feel drawn to Republican candidates either. Eight months out from the general election, she told NPR's Morning Edition she doesn't know who to vote for, or whether she will even vote at all.

"It doesn't seem like any choice is really a good choice at all," said Braziel. "It feels more so like you're caught between the devil you know and the devil you don't. And at this point in time, it feels like both the devils that we know. And I'm not comfortable with either of them."

Braziel is not alone.

NPR's Morning Edition spoke with many metro Detroit residents ahead of Tuesday's primary who didn't plan to vote because they assumed Donald Trump and Biden's victories were a foregone conclusion — an assumption that proved correct within minutes of polls closing.

People of all ages and backgrounds — from college students to autoworkers — said they weren't sure who, if anyone, to vote for in November either.

While their preferred parties, voting histories and policy concerns varied, many cited the economy, immigration, foreign military aid and societal divisions as their top issues, and said neither Trump nor Biden have done enough to solve them.

There was palpable disillusionment across the board, consistent with national polling that shows a majority of U.S. adults are pessimistic about the likely nominees and the state of politics in general.

That could spell trouble for both parties, since Michigan is one of a handful of swing states expected to help decide the presidency. Trump won it by just under 11,000 votes in 2016, while Biden won by over 154,000 votes in 2020, a year that saw record turnout of 5.5 million voters.

Conversations with eligible voters in the Detroit area help explain why enthusiasm is dimming — especially among key demographic groups like young voters and Black voters — and what the leading candidates would need to do to win them back.

A family of autoworkers worries about immigration, inflation and division

For Shelly and Matt Zissler, 47 and 50, working on cars is in their blood. The third- and second-generation autoworkers met on the job and got married in 2019. The following year, they both voted for Trump.

That was the first time Shelly, a lifelong Democrat, voted Republican. She says it's because she felt Trump was "mentally better to run our country." Matt, who identifies as a libertarian, had voted for Trump before but describes 2020 as a "very painful vote."

Sitting at home in Flint, about an hour north of Detroit, the couple tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that they're not sure how they'll vote come November, but they wish they had different choices.

"I personally would like to see new people running," Shelly said. "Because I feel like we're just going to keep repeating this cycle of what we've already been through, if it's the same two people."

They could look to leadership of the United Auto Workers union — of which they are among more than 380,000 members in several states — for guidance on how to vote. UAW president Shawn Fain officially endorsed Biden last month, a coveted distinction in a state where support from blue-collar workers buoyed Trump in 2016.

It's a major get for the candidate who bills himself as the most pro-worker president in U.S. history, and became the first sitting president to join a picket line in modern history when he showed his support for striking autoworkers last fall. But it doesn't necessarily translate into votes from all UAW members.

"I will never let anyone tell me who to vote for," said Matt. "I'll take information from everyone. But in the end I'll make up my own mind, whether it's a union-endorsed candidate or not."

The two say their top concerns include immigration and foreign aid. Shelly blames Biden for the record number of migrants crossing the southern border, and says she doesn't understand "why it can't be figured out." Matt wants the government to stop sending money to wars overseas and do more to help people struggling at home.

"I still want to help people whenever we can," he said. "But what if it comes at the cost of our own people, especially our veterans?"

Both are also concerned about the prices of things like gas and groceries. Shelly's 28-year-old son, Matt Vaughan — a fourth-generation autoworker — says he still struggles at times, despite the generous pay raise he got in the most recent union contract.

Above all, the Zisslers take issue with how divided the country is. They say they have lost friends over politics. And they blame politicians in D.C., who they see as arguing with each other instead of listening to their constituents.

"I think we're mirroring Washington more and more and more," Matt said. "They're supposed to be leading us and they're acting like fools over there."

They hope the candidates will do more to try to bring people together. They believe the right person could do it — but don't think that's either of the names poised to be on the ballot this fall.

Some Black churchgoers have lost faith in Biden

Black voters are credited with helping Biden win Michigan in 2020, thanks in large part to churches and other organizations who mobilized their members. That's particularly true of Detroit, where Biden beat Trump by 94% to 5%.

And yet some Black voters in the city, especially younger Black voters, told NPR that they've lost faith in Biden. As they filed out of Sunday services at Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, several shared that they had yet to decide who to vote for in the general election.

Ka'Marr Coleman-Byrd, a 27-year-old tax consultant who voted for Biden in 2020, says he'll make up his mind closer to November based on where things stand with issues like foreign aid, race relations and student loans.

"Growing up, I feel like I voted Democrat just because it just seemed like the thing to do," he said. "I'd say now ... I'm sort of more into politics and seeing exactly what both parties present, so it's not just like a blind vote in a sense."

Just 50% of Black adults nationally approve of Biden, down from 86% in July 2021, according to a December AP-NORC poll. And there are signs that Black Michiganders' support for Biden — which Democratic strategists see as key to his reelection — is waning.

A Howard University Initiative on Public Opinion poll released this month found that 91% of Black voters in Michigan plan to vote in the general election. When asked who they would vote for if that were today, 49% of respondents said Biden and 26% said Trump.

Deasia Sampson, 28, said she always makes it her duty to vote, even though she's not sure who it will be for this time around. She points to student loan forgiveness, inflation and funding for schools as her top concerns, especially as a mom of a 3-year-old.

Sampson works for the state Department of Health and Human Services, helping administer EBT and Medicaid programs. And she said she's seen firsthand how many people are applying for benefits compared to before the COVID pandemic.

"Yeah they have this or have that, but they're still struggling with food, still struggling with their utility bills, still struggling with medical coverage," she added.

Her husband, CJ Sampson, agrees. While he considers himself a liberal, he's lost confidence in Biden. The 31-year-old wishes he had seen more police reform since voting for Biden in 2020, is torn about whether his life was better under Trump or Biden.

"It's kind of a mixture of both," he said.

Several churchgoers in their 70s also gave Biden mixed reviews, docking points for things like high health care costs and the amount of money the U.S. is giving to Ukraine. Biden's age — arguably his biggest political vulnerability — was a deterrent for some and a nonissue for others.

Velma Matthews, 76, voted for Biden in 2020 and plans to do so again. She thinks he's a good person and believes in his politics. But she's not necessarily pleased with how the government is functioning.

Her advice for politicians? "Get down to doing the business of government and stop all this craziness that's going on."

Dissatisfied college students wonder how to make their votes count

Wayne State University's Detroit campus was mostly quiet last Friday at lunchtime, but not at the long, narrow table where six undergraduates gathered to share their election anxieties with Morning Edition.

The students range in age from 19 to 30 and hail from various parts of Michigan. Many of them are majoring in global studies. And all of them — not just Braziel — are unhappy with the choice likely awaiting them in November.

"In the last election, I remember feeling disappointed that I couldn't vote, because it felt more meaningful then — it felt like a reaction against Trump," said Addison Tracy, 21. "Rolling around to this election and being able to vote in it, with probably the same two candidates and two choices ... I don't feel hopeful or like I'm voting for something that will be that meaningful."

Michigan saw a surge in young voters in 2020, to Biden's advantage. And voters 18-29 turned out at a rate of 37% in Michigan in 2022, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University — far higher than any other state it analyzed and the national average youth turnout rate itself.

But many students told NPR they're not sure whether they'll vote this year — at all, let alone for Biden. Their top concerns include the economy, human rights, the Israel-Hamas war and the state of politics in general.

Rania Umer, 19, does not think she'll vote. She doesn't support Trump, citing Jan. 6 and his human rights track record. But she also disagrees with Biden's response to the war — specifically, the fact that the U.S. has not called for a permanent cease-fire or stopped sending military aid to Israel.

"If someone does not want either of these things, what are they supposed to do?" she asked. "It's not like we have a choice. We are being pushed to vote undecided, third party, not vote at all."

That sense of disappointment fueled a movement of Arab American, Muslim and other young voters, mostly in the Detroit metro area, to vote "uncommitted" on Tuesday as a warning to Biden: Change course on Gaza or risk losing our votes in November. The campaign had achieved more than 10 times its goal of 10,000 votes by early Wednesday morning.

Some students around the table said they'll ultimately vote for Biden in November, despite their reservations. Several specifically described it as a form of "harm reduction," comparing Biden's stance on abortion access and LGBTQ rights to that of Trump.

"There aren't good options for any of us," said Tracy. "We're going to have to find other ways, whether it's direct action or organizing and protesting ... to show what we want, because voting clearly doesn't seem to be a tool that's working right now."

Collectively, the students said they feel taken for granted by Democrats, turned off by Republicans and dismayed that each party seems to be campaigning on what to vote against, rather than for.

Jovan Martin, a junior, said there's a clear need for a change in American politics, and that could start with people taking a stand in this election. He himself is torn between voting undecided or for Biden.

"Why is it that I have to vote in an election for two people that I hate, for two people that I feel like don't represent me, for two people that are the oldest in American history?" Martin said. "And then it's like, oh, maybe our democracy, maybe there's a problem here. And then if we get enough people, it spreads like a virus. And then, that's change."

What then, do they say, to people who say they're risking democracy — by throwing away their votes or potentially helping pave the way for another Trump term? Some acknowledged it's not a decision they make lightly or even proudly. Others were quick to dismiss the idea that this is an especially consequential election.

"Are we not going to forget the decades' worth of election that had the slavery debate, that actually rended our country and had a civil war?" said Sandeep Menon, 23, who is also a member of the Michigan Army National Guard.

"The issue that we have to worry about is not that, oh, our democracy is just going to suddenly end if Trump were to become president ... Our institutions get eroded away when we fail to maintain them."

Over an hour into the conversation, with a certain heaviness in the air, NPR asked the students whether there was anything giving them hope. The prevailing answer was the discussion itself.

"I know for a fact there are thousands upon thousands of people that agree with every single one of us," Martin said. "And if we're able to talk and convey these things, this is democracy, what we're doing right here."

The broadcast interviews for this story were produced by Ziad Buchh and edited by Reena Advani.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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