Michigan will be back

Poll a state long enough and you’ll know its people’s mettle. Over time, I have come to see states as either strong and brimming with self-confidence or timorous and retreating. Michigan has taken a blow this week — this decade, to be fair — but the people of Michigan are still standing. And I bet they’ll be moving ahead long after the residents of many other states have thrown in the towel.

Michigan economic-development gurus could probably give you a list a mile long of reasons you should invest in the state by moving your business or jobs there. They’d probably mention things like state financial incentives, great universities, natural resources, picturesque tourist destinations and real estate bargains in this economic quagmire. And they’d probably change the subject if you brought up the subject of labor unions, taxes or road repairs, persistent trouble spots.

What the experts often forget is the resolute spirit of the people. I was reminded of this recently when two statewide polls were released, one conducted by Denno-Noor Research and the other by longtime Michigan researchers EPIC-MRA. Both asked statewide samples of Michigan residents how long it will take for Michigan’s economy to be turned around.

The Denno-Noor version measured slightly more optimism for a quick turnaround. It found that 30 percent believe recovery will happen in one to two years. Just 22 percent of the EPIC-MRA sampling shared this hopeful viewpoint. Both polls had about equal numbers of pessimists. Fourteen percent of Denno-Noor and 11 percent of EPIC-MRA respondents feel that Michigan’s economy is beyond fixing, at least in their own lifetimes. The majority of Michiganders believes that they are in for a long, hard ride, one that will take three or more years.

This is an important insight for voters as they choose among the many candidates running to be Michigan’s next governor. Some candidates will doubtless offer a quick fix, trying to induce more voters into the one-to-two-year recovery mindset. It’s just too tempting to offer instant results. But other candidates (including businessman Rick Snyder, for whom I have done work) may look at the numbers and see a more responsible, realistic and patient population that wants real change and is willing to wait for a genuine long-term solution.

Despite their realistic take on the economy, Michigan residents are not soured beyond hope. For example, the EPIC-MRA poll found that 61 percent of voters statewide are optimistic that the election of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing can “improve things” in the Motor City. Only 26 percent of those surveyed were outright pessimistic, saying that “things in Detroit will remain the same and not improve.”

The Denno-Noor poll also found that the Michigan spirit is not only resolute and selectively optimistic, but also that it’s infused with loyalty. The pollsters asked voters about the next car they would purchase. Virtually all said they’ll be buying American, with only 9 percent choosing a foreign brand. Thirty-four percent plan to buy GMC, 32 percent a Ford and 9 percent a Chrysler product.

I once heard the jokes that Ford bought Jaguar and GMC acquired Saab just so their execs could purchase foreign exotics while still “buying American.” Michiganites evidently subscribe to the time-honored value of Texas politics: that you “dance with the one that brung you.” They find a way to negotiate change while practicing fidelity to the status quo. Finding a way to apply that balance to union issues is the next great challenge for Michigan. There can be little doubt that big unions have contributed to Michigan’s economic and automotive woes. So how do you preserve the contributions of labor without the liabilities that make the state non-competitive for some industries? Answer that question and you might lead Michigan’s strong people forward.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.