By David Hill - 05/03/06 12:00 AM EDT
The gubernatorial race in Michigan should cause Republicans everywhere to take heart. A slew of polls taken during March and April all came to the same conclusion: Democrat Jennifer Granholm’s bid for reelection is on the ropes.
Separate surveys by national pollsters Rasmussen and Strategic Vision and by local firms EPIC-MRA and MRG all pegged Granholm’s electoral support at just 43 to 44 percent. The polls signal that Michigan could be the leading edge of a surprising Republican showing in November.
At a minimum, they demonstrate that President Bush’s weak standing in the polls doesn’t give every Democrat a free ride this year. The Strategic Vision poll, based on 1,200 interviews, found the president’s overall approval rating in Michigan at just 34 percent. And for his handling of the economy, Bush received an approval rating of a paltry 27 percent. As in much of the nation, the president is not providing his party’s nominees with coattails to run on.
Moreover, the EPIC-MRA polling suggests that Granholm’s Republican opponent is not even making his own coattails. Businessman Dick DeVos, heir of the storied Grand Rapids family that built Amway, has a statewide favorable name ID of just 28 percent. But that didn’t seem to hold him back. The poll shows him tied with Granholm, each candidate garnering 43 percent of the vote. It’s exceedingly rare to see a challenger’s ballot share running 15 points ahead of his favorable name ID. So there are lessons to be learned here.
But to understand these lessons, it’s helpful to review some political history. In 1990, John Engler upset incumbent Gov. Jim Blanchard. Blanchard was a suave, sophisticated Democrat. Engler was the gritty son of a Beal City farm family.
Once elected, Engler upset the silk-stocking crowd by taking harsh but necessary steps to fix things. He threatened to cut funding for the arts, was accused of throwing the state-supported poor and sick into the streets during a winter snowstorm and started pushing relentlessly for charter schools and tax cuts.
In spite of the elite class’s misgivings about Big John, something miraculous happened during the 1990s in Michigan. Engler magically captured the support of working men and women. His shop-steward manner convinced swing voters from Flint to Benton Harbor that Engler was “Tough Enough to Bring Michigan Back.” And he did, pushing the state to unprecedented economic success. He was reelected twice. But by the third term, his star was fading. The governor’s heavy hand had become a liability.
The 2002 election illustrated the maxim that every open-seat race is a response to any perceived shortcoming of the prior administration. Because Gov. Engler had become too tough and too strong, Michigan was looking for something soft and feminine, everything that Iron John was not. Granholm ran as the coffee-klatch candidate who wanted nothing more than to set up card tables and chat with neighbors about fostering community and cooperation. Democrat Debbie Stabenow had upset Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham with the same silly business in 2000, so “coffee talk” was all the rage.
But now it’s 2006, and Michigan is tiring of both Starbucks lattes and Granholm. The voters crave some Red Bull or a SoBe to muster the vigor to do what must be done. Otherwise, Michigan’s economy will languish because Granholm seems not to be hardworking enough or tough enough or committed enough to bring the state back.
The feminization of Michigan politics has failed the Democrats. Voters might keep Stabenow around for another tour of duty. She’s perceived as accomplishing more. But there is no way Michiganders will reelect both these sisters in the same cycle. Granholm is likely to be the odd woman out if DeVos plays his cards right.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.