By the time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the stage two Sundays ago and bellowed, like the rock star she’s become, “Thank you, Dearborn,” she would have been forgiven for starting to lag. This would be at least her sixth speech of a two-day, 500-mile Michigan weekend, and yet no hair was out of place, the intensity of those slightly bulging eyes hadn’t dimmed, her voice wasn’t cracking. And when she did flub—she referred to the soccer field we were on as “this room” and said “that effort takes change” instead of “that change takes effort”—she quickly caught herself and emitted what sounded a bit like a giggle. That was the only clue that, at 28, she’s almost as close to her teen years as she is to meeting the age requirement for president.
“On June 26, nobody knew who I was,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the day before her out-of-nowhere unseating of 10-term U.S. Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary to represent the safe-blue, heavily minority sections of the Bronx and Queens. “But now, after our hypothesis was proven, I see now that we have way more power than we realized.”
That hypothesis is that progressive Democrats need not play to the political center or the right, that there are enough votes to win via a platform of “free” everything for everybody and genuine empathy for minorities, the working class and poor.
If all those candidates lose, it does suggest fairly or not that she is not as influential that people maybe think she is.
“She’s now staked her name and reputation on this Michigan race and she’s campaigning for candidates in Massachusetts, Mississippi and Florida,” says Donald Zinman, political science professor at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, where Ocasio-Cortez and El-Sayed spoke to a crowd of 1,000 recently. “If all those candidates lose, it does suggest fairly or not that she is not as influential that people maybe think she is. She’s a very promising young woman who could have a great career and work up the ladder, but a lot of people in Michigan are going to ask what authority she has to inject herself in our governor’s race.”
Yet defying the old politics of working “up the ladder” is, in fact, central to the Ocasio-Cortez mantra. Her age and inexperience are among the many reasons—along with her Puerto Rican heritage, her womanhood, her comparatively underfunded campaign and her far-left platform—that she says she was both underestimated and victorious.
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The El-Sayed candidacy is especially key to either the blossoming or deflation of the legend of Ocasio-Cortez. He’s been in third place in every publicly reported poll behind front-runner and former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer and self-funded businessman Shri Thanedar. But the national media is watching carefully anyway—a reporter from Axios and both Dave Wiegel and Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post flew in last weekend to follow him—so as to avoid being caught off-guard as they were by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as well as poll-defying triumphs of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and Donald Trump in the general.
While the now-president’s win was within the margin of error of most polls, Sanders was consistently down by 20 points on the eve of his upset. El-Sayed and Ocasio-Cortez believe the same undetected voters behind Sanders in 2016 will show up for him; he does, however, have the disadvantage of Thanedar spending $11.4 million of his own money to brand himself the “most progressive” candidate in the race even though there’s evidence he only recently came to those views.
“Polling in Michigan just doesn’t work and there are clear structural reasons why,” El-Sayed tells me. “If you’re polling people who can answer a landline in the middle of day and you’re assuming somehow you can create some population representative sample of the state of Michigan, you’re clearly don’t understand math or you’ve forgotten the fact that people’s ways have changed.”
People are coming out because they want to believe in a politics that’s about all of us. People like Alexandria have shown us how it’s done.
“You saw the excitement there, you saw the folks that turn out for this movement and our job is to excite people to believe in our politics again,” El-Sayed said. “People are coming out because they want to believe in a politics that’s about all of us. People like Alexandria have shown us how it’s done.”
Yet that remains an open question. Ocasio-Cortez pulled off an upset in a safe district against an overconfident, perhaps even lazy, incumbent. She won’t, at least this year, have to see – as Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams will and El-Sayed might—if the argument holds up in a serious race against a viable Republican eager to more brutally attack her big-spending proposals.
In fact, part of Ocasio-Cortez offered a peculiar stratagem to me for putting El-Sayed over the top next week that suggested she knows her approach works best when, uh, the other side’s voters don’t show up: “All you need to look at is voter turnout. Only 25 percent of Michiganders vote in the primary. So, so long as the majority of people don’t vote, then the majority of votes are there to win the primary.” (Actually, just 17.4 percent of registered voters in Michigan turned out for the primary in 2014, the last non-presidential election year.)
Intriguingly, though, she did seem to learn from the controversy that erupted after she referred to the “occupation of Palestine” on PBS, a phrase many activists use to question the legitimacy of Israel. She later backtracked and admitted she isn’t fluent enough on the issue yet, and in front of two large Muslim audiences in Dearborn she somehow didn’t even namecheck the topic.
Ocasio-Cortez is undeterred by those who wonder whether she’s too green and whether she risks her brand by overexposing it. She even turned that concern of the chattering classes into a talking point.
“So many people told me not to come out here to Michigan,” she said at a Michigan fundraiser. “So many people told me not to come to Detroit, saying stay home. Stay small...I don’t want for us to have learned and discovered great things in the Bronx and not have that spread to other communities. We all need to be running right now. We all need to be running or help somebody run.”
Still, there is some evidence that the focus being on Ocasio-Cortez was, perhaps, confusing the issue for audiences. In stops in Grand Rapids and Flint, El-Sayed introduced her; in two later appearances in Dearborn, defying the campaign press office’s schedule of speakers, she introduced him instead. The El-Sayed campaign told me there was no reason for the flip, but observers lauded it.
As Trump’s most dedicated supporters stand ready to respond to any and every critique of him, so, too, are Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders.
The too-much, too-fast question around Ocasio-Cortez is of little interest to one of her more prominent future colleagues, Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell. Dingell, who definitely waited her turn to run for the seat her husband vacated in 2015 after 50 years, nonetheless welcomed Ocasio-Cortez to Michigan.
“This is what I get upset about, when people say, ‘Does she have the authority to tell people who to vote for’,” Dingell tells me at the get-out-the-vote fair and rally for Muslim voters in Dearborn. “If candidates want her to campaign for them, then she’s absolutely welcome to. She’s young and she’s energetic. Representative government means we have all kinds of people who are active and engaged and she is one those people who has been engaged.”
Somewhat aware of the need to show her relevance to the locals, Ocasio-Cortez did sprinkle her talks with recollections of a road trip to Standing Rock in December 2016, during which she stopped in Flint to meet community activists about that city’s infamous lead-contaminated water crisis. “It was the day I left Flint that I was first asked if would run for Congress,” she said. “That is a true story.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity was impossible to refute during her Michigan swing, what with the countless fan selfies, swollen crowds and web-video tapings with or on behalf of the long list of Democratic candidates seeking some of her fairy dust. And, as Trump’s most dedicated supporters stand ready to respond to any and every critique of him, so, too, are Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders.
Case in point: After telling that Flint story and then referencing the launch of her Congressional campaign in the spring of 2017, she went on this rant: “After two years of being ignored, two years of knocking on doors, two years of people saying, ‘Little girl, it ain’t possible’, two years of stop selling a pipe dream, two years of saying this country won’t vote for Medicare-for-all, two years of people saying tuition-free college isn’t supported even in the state of New York, two years of saying a Green New Deal is not possible, two years of that where we proved all of it wrong.”
On my own Twitter account, I wondered how it could be two years if she started running a year ago. To which one of my followers replied with an apt distillation of Ocasio-Cortez’s response to pretty much every criticism or naysayer: “Oh shut up.”