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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Michigan holds its presidential primary today.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know who's likely to win, but we don't know what messages voters may be trying to send with their vote or decision not to vote, as the case may be. And they matter because Michigan is a presidential swing state, one of six that went to Joe Biden in 2020 and decided the election.

INSKEEP: Now he seems likely to face Donald Trump again. And Biden and Trump, of course, are the favorites today. For a preview today, we're joined by our co-host Leila Fadel and by NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea, both in the great state of Michigan. Good morning.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: Don, what are you looking for?

GONYEA: Well, on the GOP side, Donald Trump should have little trouble. Nikki Haley is on the ballot. She vows to continue to give Republican voters an option other than Trump, at least through Super Tuesday. On the Democratic side, there's President Biden, who faces only minor challengers on the ballot, except there is one challenge to Biden that is really worth watching today. It's an orchestrated campaign by pro-Palestinian activists who are angry, and that is an understatement. They're angry that Biden has not called for a complete and permanent cease-fire in Gaza, and to pressure him to do so, to send him a strong message, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, many of them based in Dearborn, are urging Democratic primary voters to vote uncommitted.

INSKEEP: Leila, I've been listening to your reporting in that voter group. How widespread is the protest?

FADEL: I mean, it's beyond the Arab and American Muslim communities. We heard that same outrage in the Detroit metro area about Gaza from young people, progressives, other people of color and specifically from young Black voters who were saying to me, they worry about Gaza, but also human rights in the U.S. - voting rights, police brutality, equality, inclusivity, and of course, the economy came up too. And that's all making them think about sitting out this election. Take Kaja Braziel. She's Black, a full-time student at Wayne State. She's 30, and she had to quit one of her two full-time jobs to enroll in school. She's a lifelong Democrat, has always voted, but this year she's not inspired in the Democratic primaries today. She may vote uncommitted, and in the general election, she's thinking about staying home. So I asked her what she wants to hear from a candidate for president.

KAJA BRAZIEL: We need a livable wage. It is absolutely ridiculous that you can work 40-plus hours and not be able to support yourself, let alone a family.

INSKEEP: OK, so she can send a message in the primary, but there's also the general election. Are there people in these voter groups who are thinking of Donald Trump as a choice for them in the fall?

FADEL: There's a small, small minority. The big question is more how many show up for the Democrats - the big question in a state like Michigan, where it's all about the margins. When we asked the campaign about their concern around the protest vote against Biden among would-be Democratic voters over Gaza, they said he's working for peace in the Middle East, but then highlighted a lot of other important issues that might appeal to these voters, like his investment in green energy or his stance on reproductive rights. So it seems like the campaign is hoping to win back voters who are angry with these other issues where they might see him as doing well. So again, all of these voter groups important, but none give Michigan to a candidate alone. I think Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the first Arab American mayor of a majority Arab American city, put it to us best.

ABDULLAH HAMMOUD: We're not sizable enough to make a candidate win or sizable enough to make a candidate lose.

FADEL: Now, after hearing from him, we went to a Baptist church right here in Detroit and spent some time with Reverend Kenneth Flowers. He's a committed Democrat, a Biden fan. He'll be voting. But he points to the low unemployment rates and the infrastructure bill as some of the wins for his community. But he's in his 60s, and he says he's concerned because in his congregation and community, he's hearing that same apathy and sometimes anger. Now, Black voters turned out for Biden in 2020. He won by about 94% among that demographic. This year, though, Flowers says, based on his conversations, the president doesn't have the same pull now as he did then, and he has a lot of work to do before November.

KENNETH FLOWERS: President Biden needs every Black vote he can get. Now, at the same time, he nor Vice President Harris should take our vote for granted. They have to earn it.

FADEL: Of course, no group is a monolith, Steve, but that's the type of apathy we heard, not just in these candidates, but in the two-party system itself.

INSKEEP: And let's remember that the vote was pretty close in 2020. Now, now, Don, Leila has given us some impressions of specific voters there. How do those impressions compare with what you have experienced as someone who's living in Michigan?

GONYEA: Oh, it's real, according to my reporting, according to my living here and encountering people. It's especially palpable in the Arab and Muslim American communities, certainly. But African American voters talk about their frustrations. And if you head out to the suburbs, where a lot of independents and more moderate Republicans helped Biden out in 2020, they're still watching, and for some, it's maybe not even a choice between Biden and Trump. It's whether or not to vote at all at the top of the ballot. This is indeed worth mentioning. And already people are quick to ponder a third-party vote when I have conversations with them. I used to hear a lot of that over the years in the general election, but never during primary week. And now Nikki Haley supporters I talked to are wondering what other options may be out there for them. Same with Arab American voters, certainly with Black voters too.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned suburbs. Of course, there's a lot of Midwestern suburbs that were red, very red years ago and getting more blue. And the question is whether Biden can sustain that. And I also wonder about the union vote in Michigan.

GONYEA: Union households traditionally support Democrats. Some like Trump, certainly, but overall, Biden won them big. With the United Auto Workers union, it's usually around 60% for the Democrat, a solid margin by any measure, right? And it helped Biden win in 2020. But the catch is there's no letting up for Biden. He needs to do that again. He needs that margin. He does have a big endorsement from the UAW and its charismatic new leader, Shawn Fain. The UAW is coming off a strike in the fall, and they got a contract with big raises. Biden even marched on the picket line with them.

FADEL: Yeah, well, I went out to Flint, where GM was founded, and despite all these wins, I spent time with a family that's four generations of autoworkers, and they all seem to be leaning - not enthusiastically, but leaning towards Trump over things like immigration and Ukraine.

GONYEA: And that underscores this is not a monolith. Biden needs to work it because he needs to do well with unions more than ever, especially if other pieces of the coalition, as we've been talking, are not enthusiastic. You know, it's a mix of constituencies that Democrats really need to win in Michigan. Biden needs to attend to them all and to do so by keeping the margins of victory at their typical level within each group. And Trump, meanwhile, just has to make some inroads and to pick off enough of them to win himself.

INSKEEP: We'll keep listening for both of your reporting in the days ahead. NPR's Leila Fadel and Don Gonyea, thanks to you both.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

FADEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The U.S. government wants to stop a merger of grocery chains, and nine states are going along.

MARTIN: America's two largest supermarket chains, Kroger and Albertsons, want to become one. That megamerger would reshape the industry, which now also includes retail giants like Amazon and Walmart. But the Biden administration and several states are suing to block it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alina Selyukh is here. Good morning.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, and I want to clear up the very important thing. I grew up in Indiana saying gro-shery (ph). People also say gro-sery (ph).

SELYUKH: People complain about that. I've heard - I mean, obviously lots of people say gro-sery. I say gro-shery. No one's complained.

INSKEEP: OK, gro-shery it is for the course of this report.

SELYUKH: We'll stick to that.

INSKEEP: How big would these two grocery chains be if they're combined?

SELYUKH: This would be the biggest grocery deal in recent history. It's worth almost $25 billion. And so what you have is you have Kroger, which is the largest supermarket chain - it owns all these other stores like Ralphs, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer - and then you have Albertsons, which is its top direct competitor. And it also owns Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco. And together they employ 720,000 people. They own about 5,000 locations across 48 states. And so the Federal Trade Commission, along with nine states, are suing to stop that merger, arguing that it would erase competition for both shoppers and for workers.

INSKEEP: Wow. I'm realizing listening to this, I mean, my mom, hundreds of miles from here, is shopping in one of these stores. I'm shopping in...

SELYUKH: Everyone is.

INSKEEP: ...One of these stores. Yeah. So what is the case that the companies took to the government that this merger should be OK?

SELYUKH: They presented this deal as existential to surviving in today's grocery business. They say, sure, we're top regional chains, but the real competitors are these national giants like Amazon, Walmart, Costco, even dollar stores. Walmart sells more groceries than Kroger and Albertsons combined. Plus, they say, the two of them are the largest union shops in American retail. And so they say blocking their deal would actually just boost these massive nonunion stores. And they certainly expected tough scrutiny. They also tried to cushion their deal by pitching a plan to sell off hundreds of stores in areas where they overlap, to basically create a competitor to themselves.

INSKEEP: Saying we're the union shops would seem to be an argument designed to appeal to the pro-union Biden administration, but it sounds like federal regulators weren't impressed.

SELYUKH: They did not buy the arguments on - for example, on the plan to sell the stores, the FTC said this plan is a messy hodgepodge that the buyer would struggle to run, let alone grow to compete. On the question of national competitors, I posed that one to Rahul Rao. He's one of the main officials on this case at the FTC, and he said the review really looked at how people actually shop for food.

RAHUL RAO: For example, there's not a Walmart near where I live. In a lot of rural communities, there aren't Walmarts out there. It takes days for Amazon to be delivered.

SELYUKH: Dollar stores don't carry a deli or butcher, and the main argument against the merger right now is that Kroger and Albertsons compete head to head on food prices, on pharmacy hours and quality of products, on benefit packages, and they wouldn't really need to if they're the same company.

INSKEEP: Is this lawsuit going all the way to trial?

SELYUKH: I think so, and pretty rapidly in legal terms. It will be a very interesting case. One thing to note, regulators are going to be testing this new kind of argument, which is that mergers should protect not only consumers and prices, but also workers. And we haven't really seen it tested in court, so it will be interesting to watch.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thanks for the update on the gro-shery, gro-sery, gro-shery industry.

SELYUKH: Gro-shery, gro-shery. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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