At a rally in Detroit in March, Hillary Clinton declared that the road to the White House goes through Michigan in 2008.

Illustration by Laura Garavoglia
Illustration by Laura Garavoglia

Six months later, both the Republican and Democrat nominees stopped campaigning in the state as they make their final cases elsewhere.

But this was supposed to be the year that Michigan had a chance of breaking its four-election streak of voting Democrat.

John McCain had the advantage of having campaigned heavily in the state before Michigan’s Jan. 15 primary. Barack Obama didn’t make an appearance here until May, as having pledged not to campaign in Michigan after the Democratic National Committee stripped the state of its convention delegates for moving up its primary date in violation of party rules.

While Michigan has been in the blue column since Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992 by 7 points and former Sen. Bob Dole with a 13-point margin in 1996, the past two presidential elections were decided by only a few hundred thousand votes.

In 2000, Al Gore edged George W. Bush 51 percent to 46 percent. In the next election, John Kerry won 51 percent of the vote here.

McCain led in state polls until June, when the gap tightened after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. The week after the Republican National Convention, about 10 percent of the state’s likely voters were undecided and the two hopefuls were polling within three points of each other.

Neck and neck, both campaigns were braced for a fight.

“With the economy being such a big issue in this state, voters were absolutely looking to both candidates to answer the big question of what they were going to do about the economy,” said Brent Colburn, spokesman for Obama’s Michigan campaign. “We definitely saw it as a state that was going to be in play and was going to be a place we were going to have to fight to win.”

And for a while, McCain fought hard for Michigan’s 17 electoral votes. The campaign spent nearly $1 million a week here in September. McCain and surrogates made weekly visits after the Republican National Convention.

But on Oct. 2, with polls showing Obama leading by as much as 13 points in the state, McCain deemed Michigan a lost cause and pulled advertising and staffers, re-allocating funds to other battlegrounds.

A state that thought to be the crucial battleground state in September suddenly lost importance. The national media packed up and stopped reporting on the state’s economic woes. As Obama’s already impressive lead in the polls grew, he too, decided to move some of his staffers to other states.

So what happened to ostensibly decide Michigan’s vote a month before Election Day? McCain blew it.

COURTING THE REAGAN DEMOCRATS

To take Michigan, McCain had to win over the state’s infamous Reagan Democrats, white, working-class voters who voted for former President John Kennedy by a 2-to-1 margin in 1960, but got their name in 1980 after they overwhelmingly voted for former President Ronald Reagan.

But these voters weren’t supporting Reagan simply because they believed in trickle-down economics. They voted for him because he promised to break from the style of the previous administration. When Reagan was competing for the state’s middle class workers, he was running against an unpopular Jimmy Carter, who voters blamed for the struggling economy.

Just as Michigan’s voters rallied behind Ronald Reagan and answered him with a resounding “no!” when he asked in 1980 if they were “better off now than you were four years ago,” 28 years later, a new group of struggling middle-income voters are supporting the candidate who promises change — Obama.

It made sense that the day after the Republican National Convention, McCain was in Sterling Heights wooing the swing voters of Macomb County.

But McCain’s speech at the 10,000-person rally only briefly touched on the economy. He attacked Obama’s plan, claiming: “I’ll keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I’ll open new markets for goods and services. My opponent will close them. I’ll cut government spending, he’ll increase it. My tax cuts will create jobs, his raises will eliminate them.”

His nod to the Republican stock mantra of lower taxes wasn’t enough to assuage the financial worries of blue-collar voters in Macomb County, who polls now to have flooded to Obama.

LOSING THE BLAME GAME

The state of Michigan has suffered a recession for longer than the rest of the country. The state’s unemployment rate has been among the highest in the nation for years and is steadily increasing — more than 400,000 jobs have disappeared from the state over the past eight years.

And as the situation gets bleaker, Democrats and Republicans have only ramped up their finger pointing, leaving voters wondering whom to blame.

Democrats claim President Bush is responsible for the current crisis, accusing him of creating tax and trade policies that punish domestic industries. Earlier this summer, Obama took shots at Bush for not meeting with Big Three executives to discuss the ailing auto industry.

But Republicans point to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, elected in 2002. When Republican Dick DeVos challenged her as she sought reelection in 2006, he blamed her for the state’s loss of manufacturing jobs and rise in unemployment during her first four years — and she took shots at Bush for not meeting with Big Three executives to discuss the ailing auto industry.

But according to a poll released earlier this month by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, 36 percent of Michigan residents said Granholm was doing a “poor” job in office, compared to 56 percent of Michigan residents who said the same of Bush.

Regardless, political science prof. Vincent Hutchings said, voters don’t make their presidential pick based on state politicians. Rather, they choose their chief executive based on the performance of the party controlling the federal government.

“It’s a nice try,” said Hutchings. “Our state has serious economic problems, but that’s not the criteria people are using to evaluate the presidential candidates.”

And unfortunately for McCain, the current Republican president has one of the worst approval ratings in history, with just 17 percent of Michigan voters calling his performance “excellent” or “good.”

The Obama campaign successfully linked the incumbent president with the Republican hopeful. A Washington Post survey found that 51 percent of Americans believe McCain would mainly continue in the Bush tradition.

Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said Bush’s unpopularity in Michigan would handicap any Republican candidate here.

“Michigan is the biggest economic basket case in the country for the last eight years and all (the economic crisis) did was make the economy so overwhelming here and such a negative for the Republican nominee — whoever it was,” said Ballenger, a former Republican politician who has served in both houses of the Michigan legislature. “That happens to be McCain and that really killed him.”

BANKING ON THE WRONG CRISIS

McCain’s go-to attack on Obama is the freshman senator’s lack of foreign policy experience. In debates, he routinely listed countries that Obama hasn’t visited, hinting that his opponent was unaware of the ways of the greater world. Inherent in this charge is McCain’s desire to recapture some of the energy of the 2004 presidential race, when terrorism and U.S. action abroad was the hot button issue.

But after the financial meltdown drew attention to the nation’s slowing economy, voters wanted candidates to focus on troubles at home. As the economic outlook got bleaker throughout the month of September, Obama’s poll numbers only grew. In Michigan, where the economy has been slow for a long time, the boost in support for Obama was all the more extreme.

When the financial crisis deepened, McCain tried to prove that he was putting “Country First” suspending his campaign and requesting the first Presidential debate be postponed. But voters and the Obama campaign didn’t bite. Obama called his bluff and continued campaigning, pledging to appear at the debate whether McCain chose to show up or not. McCain resumed his campaign two days later, in time for the debate on a Friday. On Monday, a bailout deal fell apart and the stock market plummeted. McCain didn’t get a boost in the polls.

A Washington Post poll released last week gave Obama an 11-point lead nationally, but had Obama ahead of McCain by a 2-to-1 margin on “helping the middle-class.”

The same poll, however, found that McCain leads Obama by 19 points on the question of who would be a better commander in chief.
While it’s clear the current economic situation has played in the Democratic candidate’s favor, if the country were facing a crisis of national security, McCain likely wouldn’t be the underdog on Election Day.

“If we had another crisis, like a foreign policy crisis or some kind of terrorism crisis, that might have been sufficient to basically be the death knell of Barack Obama’s political career,” Hutchings said. “It would have really given a boost to John McCain.”

STRAIGHT TALK, UPSETTING ANSWERS

McCain won the Michigan Republican primary in 2000 against Bush, even though Bush had all but locked up the party’s nomination.

Despite the fact that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the state handily during the state’s primary in January — he earned 39 percent of the vote while McCain only received 30 percent — Republican operatives used McCain’s 2000 victory as evidence McCain could pull off an upset in Michigan.

They wrote off McCain’s significant defeat here in 2000, saying Romney, a Bloomfield Hills native and son of popular former Gov. George Romney, was always expected to sweep his home state.

But McCain’s struggles in the state can largely be attributed to his campaign strategy. When he drove through Michigan on his Straight Talk Express, McCain lived up to the bus’s namesake and did not alter his stock stump speech to pander to the state’s struggling workers. What he told them wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

When McCain stumped before the January primary, he was met with boos when he told a Michigan audience that some manufacturing jobs wouldn’t be returning to the state.

“I’m not willing to accept defeat like that,” Romney said, responding to McCain’s comment in a speech at Macomb Community College on Jan. 11.
In blue-collar Macomb County, Romney, a wealthy business executive, trounced McCain by 20 points, garnering 45 percent of the vote.

Months later, Obama easily exploited another McCain line to his advantage in Michigan. A long-time staple of McCain’s stump speech, the phrase “the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” came under fire as the financial crisis worsened in the month of September.

“Nine straight months of job loss, yet, just the other week, John McCain said the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” Obama said at a rally at Michigan State University. “Well, I don’t know what yardstick Senator McCain uses, but where I come from, there’s nothing more fundamental than a job.”

Colburn, Obama’s spokesman in Michigan, said Obama’s promises to retool factories and invest in the auto industry resonated with Michigan voters.

“The McCain camp came to say that the auto industry is a thing of the past, that it is a failed industry and an industry that we don’t believe in investing in and we don’t believe in supporting,” Colburn said.

It wasn’t a surprise that the man who said the auto industry wouldn’t return to its former glory conceded Michigan. McCain made the announcement to pull resources from the state the day after auto manufacturers released some of the worst monthly sales numbers in years.

MCCAIN’S OWN ECONOMIC WOES

Even while he was committed to winning Michigan, McCain couldn’t keep up with his opponent’s spending.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that in the five weeks after Labor Day Obama spent $5.5 million on television ads. McCain spent $3.7 million.

The Democratic National Committee spent $500,000 on ads for Obama. But even the Republican National Committee’s investment of $1.1 million didn’t give McCain an advertising edge over Obama.

McCain, who is using public financing, is limited to spending $84 million in the general election. Obama, who rejected public financing, is able to spend as much as he can raise.

In September alone, Obama pulled in more than $150 million, an amount more than double the record-breaking $62 million he raised in August.
Because of McCain’s deficit in polling and fundraising, the Republican campaign had to reallocate funds to states he was more likely to win.
“They just didn’t have the money to compete in Michigan or any other state the way that Obama has,” Ballenger said.

The fact that it was a Democrat breaking these fundraising records has pundits shaking their heads. For the past 20 years, Republicans have outraised Democrats by at least 10 percent in each election cycle. In 1988, Republican fundraising totals were twice as much.

“Obama has basically redefined campaign finance in this campaign,” Ballenger said. “He’s just so dramatically outspent McCain, which is very unusual for a Democratic candidate.”

Despite McCain’s retreat from Michigan, Obama still has 200 paid staffers and 60 campaign offices in the state. Even before McCain pulled out of the state, his presence in the state was dwarfed by Obama’s campaign.

NEW VOTERS WEIGH IN

Not only did McCain struggle to gain the support of swing voters in Macomb and Oakland counties, but Democratic voters are expected to turn out in much larger numbers.

Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land reported 328,000 new voters registered since the year began. Washtenaw County, a haven for Democrats, boasted a 10 percent spike in the number of registered voters.

The influx of first-time voters, the bulk of whom are likely to support Obama, is partly due to the campaign’s massive voter registration drives targeting minority, middle- and low-income families.

Kerry won Michigan in 2004 by about 150,000 votes. His narrow win was attributed to high turnout among black voters in Wayne County, where twice the number of voters chose Kerry than Bush.

“In 2004, John Kerry won the state primarily on the strength of the black vote … but now we have a black candidate on the top of the ticket so clearly Wayne County is going to turn out even higher than it did in 2004,” Hutchings said.

THROWING IN THE TOWEL

While the Republican base in Michigan will still turn out to vote for McCain, Ballenger said, independent and swing voters were likely alienated by his decision to pull out of Michigan and won’t support him.

If polls are to be trusted, Obama could take the state by a double-digit margin. The Big Ten Battleground poll released last week gave him a commanding 22-point majority in Michigan.

“McCain has basically thrown in the towel,” Ballenger said. “He’s scaled back everything and he isn’t doing anything and he’ll probably never be back. Well, that’s a disaster. You just can’t do that, but he did it.”

Although the media isn’t showing Michigan much attention, there’s a chance that the state will still be a barometer for voting patterns in other battlegrounds.

The message that won over Michigan’s blue collar voting bloc will likely win over the same demographic in the other Rust Belt states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“When this is all said and done, I think what you will see is that the economic arguments that we’re making — that are resonating everywhere across the country — just really started to take hold and really resonate a bit earlier in Michigan and other places,” Obama spokesman Colburn said.

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