The writer covered state and regional politics at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
With eight days before the election, Gretchen Whitmer and other Democratic candidates for statewide office may have a problem with a lack of voter enthusiasm in Detroit, the party’s biggest and most loyal source of support.
According to two new polls, Whitmer’s Detroit backing in the governor’s race stands at 77 or 78 percent. Republican nominee Bill Schuette is stuck in single digits.
That lead sounds formidable, but Democrats traditionally rely on Motown to provide huge margins in statewide elections, to offset the GOP votes in west Michigan and Up North.
Bernie Porn, pollster for Lansing-based EPIC-MRA, said it’s no surprise that when the Democratic Party scheduled Friday night’s Michigan campaign rally featuring Barack Obama, they brought him to a site in Detroit.
“A Democrat should be at least in the mid-80s in Detroit. Sometimes they’re in the high 80s or even 90,” said Porn. “They’re lagging a bit and they’ve got some work to do.”
A statewide EPIC-MRA poll Oct. 18-23 found that Whitmer had 77 percent support among likely Detroit voters, while Schuette was at 3 percent, independent and third-party candidates garnered a combined 13 percent, and 7 percent were undecided.
On a scale of 0 to 100, some 61 percent of Detroiters said in the survey that their motivation to vote was at 100. That compares to 72 percent in heavily GOP outstate areas.
A quarter don’t care
Another poll, taken Oct. 15-17 of black voters statewide, most of whom live in Detroit, also found numbers that should concern Democratic strategists. In this survey by Target Insyght, a Lansing firm, 33 percent had not heard of Whitmer and 23 percent showed little interest in the outcome of the governor’s race.
"In Detroit, people want to get to know the candidate. In Detroit, you can’t just get out the vote, you’ve got to get out your vote,” said Target Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolus. “The point is that the black vote is not monolithic. The poll shows that 18 percent identify as independents, and there are some Republicans in there, some voting for third-party candidates.”
The Target-Insyght results were similar to those reported by EPIC-MRA: 78 percent for Whitmer; Schuette, 6 percent; independent and third party, 6 percent; and 9 percent undecided.
The Democrats’ potential Detroit problem first percolated to the surface months ago, when the party embraced an all-white, all-female ticket for the top offices: Whitmer, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, secretary of state nominee Jocelyn Benson and attorney general candidate Dana Nessel.
Many Democrats were thrilled with a lineup that gave such prominence to women, but the backlash in Detroit was harsh. Black political activists and commentators denounced the “indignity” of a Democratic ticket devoid of minorities. Whitmer addressed the issue by naming Garlin Gilchrist, a black Detroiter, as her running mate.
But Gilchrist soon proved to be a potential liability when it was reported that the lieutenant governor nominee owned a vacant, dilapidated apartment building in Detroit he bought to renovate, and failed to pay the taxes on time. Overall, political analysts doubt Gilchrist’s troubles will have an impact on Tuesday’s elections because running mates are rarely a factor in gubernatorial races.
Whole ticket may be in danger
Still, an enthusiasm gap in Detroit looms as a potential dark cloud for the Democrats. In addition to Whitmer, Benson and Nessel, both locked in tight races with their Republican opponents – Mary Treder Lang and Tom Leonard, respectively -- would likely be affected. Stabenow, who faces a black Republican candidate, newcomer John James, has seen her state lead slip, though in Detroit she remains ahead by an 86-7 percent margin, according to EPIC-MRA’s numbers.
While requests for absentee ballots have skyrocketed throughout the Detroit tri-county area – a good sign for the Democratic ticket – there’s no clear indication yet that AV ballots have surged in the city. Motown turnout remains a perpetual problem for a state Democratic Party that needs big participation in nonpresidential elections. In the last gubernatorial election in 2014, turnout in the city was just 31 percent, compared to 43 percent statewide.
At the same time, EPIC-MRA’s statewide survey shows the gubernatorial race narrowing, with Whitmer ahead of Schuette by a 46-41 percent margin. Other recent polls give the Democrat a wider cushion.
Voter enthusiasm in the Motor City could make or break Whitmer’s chances if it’s a close contest on Nov. 6. For example, if turnout in Detroit reaches 45 percent and the Democratic nominee receives 85 of the vote, that would probably represent an ideal scenario for the Dems at this point. But if the turnout in the city is down around 40 percent and Whitmer stays where she’s at in the polls, at roughly 78 percent, that would mean a comparative shortfall of more than 30,000 votes. Even in a statewide race, that could be decisive.
On Saturday, one day after Obama’s appearance, another attempt to boost voter energy was the goal behind a rally in Detroit, with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans leading the cheering section for Whitmer and the Democratic ticket.
At Friday’s rally at Cass Tech High School, Obama engaged in a lengthy speech that made numerous partisan references to the Trump administration, recognizing that the controversial president is the most galvanizing force in this midterm election. But the former Democratic president also emphasized that Detroiters need to accomplish one thing – show up on Election Day. “Sitting on the sidelines,” he warned, is unacceptable.
“The main reason I’m here,” Obama said, “is to make sure you all vote."