Who sits in Michigan’s governor’s office could be determined by who doesn’t vote today, as much as who does.
Even in a good turnout year, about 1 million fewer Michigan residents will cast ballots in a midterm election (like this year) than in a presidential election, and traditionally those voters who do show up are more likely to vote conservative. Just how many of those sometime-voters make it to a polling place today will likely determine whether Republican Gov. Rick Snyder wins a second term, or Democratic challenger Mark Schauer takes his job.
In recent days, Democrats have been buoyed by polls showing underdog Schauer in a statistical dead heat with Snyder. Anecdotally, some county clerks are reporting brisk activity with absentee ballots in advance of Tuesday’s live voting. Democratic strategists have theorized all year that if they could win the turnout game, they’d win the governorship.
Recent history backs up that theory: Six hundred thousand fewer Michigan voters cast votes for governor in 2010 than in 2006. Rick Snyder’s 2010 vote total was almost 275,000 shy of Jennifer Granholm’s vote total in 2006. So, on Tuesday night, keep an eye on the vote totals.
Conventional wisdom suggests low turnout will help Snyder while higher turnout will help Schauer.
Do midterms favor conservatives?
Those who vote in midterms tend to be more politically active, which tends to make politicians running in midterms even more partisan.
Voters today are also likely to be more conservative than in presidential elections, as more Democratic voters (who tend to be young and minority) tend to stay home.Low turnout increases the chances that Republicans will win statewide offices from the governor to University of Michigan regents.
Over the last four gubernatorial elections, an average 3.3 million voters headed to the polls, more than 1.4 million fewer than had, on average, showed up at the last four presidential elections. The results were telling: Republicans and Democrats split the last four gubernatorial elections but Democrats (Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2010) easily won all of the presidential contests in the state.
Not all voters who sit out midterms are Democrats, of course, but enough lean liberal that Michigan Democrats are pushing a slogan this year: “When we vote, we win.”
The antithesis of that slogan: When they don’t vote, they lose.
Here are some key factors to look for when results start coming in tonight:
Rick Snyder and Detroit
Snyder’s Democratic opponent four years ago, Virg Bernero, won 93.7 percent of the vote in Detroit, but only 31 percent of registered voters in the city cast ballots. The gubernatorial vote count in 2010 in Michigan’s largest city was down about 54,000 from 2006.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey is projecting a 40 percent turnout today, which, assuming Schauer draws a similar percentage of the Detroit vote, could mean an additional 40,000 votes or more for the Democrat. That alone could be decisive in a close governor’s race.
The number of absentee ballots is one indication the city could see 40% turnout, compared to 31 percent (or about 176,000 voters) in 2010, she said. Of 56,000 absentee ballots distributed, about 30,000 had been turned in as of Friday, she said.
Political and media consultant Steve Hood told Bridge a 40 percent turnout is possible based on increased Democratic advertising and absentee voting. The city’s voters are influenced by issues such as the state’s recent control over Belle Isle, school funding and the pension tax, he said. The issue of the Detroit bankruptcy case – the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history - won’t gain either candidate a significant number of votes because likely voters are split on it. “New voters don’t care about it,” he said.
Detroiter likewise may be influenced by the future of the Detroit school system, which is currently run by a governor-appointed emergency manager. For months, speculation has circulated that the governor wants Mayor Mike Duggan to be involved in running the Detroit Public Schools.
“With a Schauer victory, Detroiters might be more involved in the decision-making process,” Hood said.
Which four counties to watch
Watch what happens with the vote in the Detroit, Flint, Ann Arbor, and Lansing regions. More than one-third of all statewide Democratic votes have come from four counties in the past three gubernatorial elections: Wayne, Genesee, Washtenaw and Ingham.
If turnout is high in those four counties, it should be a boost to Schauer.
Turnout was relatively low in those counties in 2010 when Democrat Bernero won a combined 488,000 votes in Wayne, Washtenaw, Ingham and Genesee counties combined. By contrast, Jennifer Granholm fared much better - winning more than 728,000 votes in those areas in 2006 and 586,000 votes in 2002.
But Eric Foster, senior consultant and chief strategist for LB3 Management in West Bloomfield, north of Detroit, offered four different counties to watch: Oakland and Macomb north of Detroit, as well as Monroe and Kalamazoo counties.
Ex-Detroiters and nonwhite voters in those counties can tip the scales, he said. “No Democrat in the state has won without winning at least two of those four counties,” Foster said.
How will the Snyder independent voters of 2010 vote today?
Over the past three gubernatorial elections, nearly two-thirds of voters in Wayne, Washtenaw, Ingham and Genesee (63 percent) voted for the Democratic candidate. But that wasn’t the case in 2010. That year, Snyder rode the support of moderates to much higher than expected vote totals in those four Democratic strongholds. Snyder actually carried Ingham County in 2010, nearly carried his home county of Washtenaw, and earned 46.4 percent of the vote in Genesee. Snyder also took home 38 percent of the Wayne County vote in 2010, compared with only 26.9 percent in 2006 and 30.5 percent in 2002 for his GOP predecessors.
Snyder argues his handling of the Detroit bankruptcy and other policy matters will continue to help him with urban voters Tuesday. Schauer has tailored his message to say Snyder’s a bad fit for urban voters. We’ll see on Tuesday – with the actual results in those four counties – who won the argument.
Two big swing counties
Oakland and Macomb counties, along Detroit’s northern border, are also important to both sides on Tuesday. Arguably, they are both swing counties. Taken together, they’ve slightly favored the GOP in the past three gubernatorial elections combined (50.6 percent to 46.8 percent). But, when the past two presidential elections are added in, Macomb and Oakland voters have slightly favored Dems at the top of the ticket across all five most recent statewide elections (50.1 percent to 47.5 percent).
And, these two counties are outsized in their impact. They are only two of Michigan’s 83 total counties – yet they account for about 10 percent of the statewide vote.
Democrats have sought to bolster their prospects in suburbia through Schauer’s running mate, Lisa Brown, who hails from Oakland County. Snyder carried Oakland handily in 2010, but Granholm won it in both 2006 and 2002.
Snyder easily won Macomb in 2010. Granholm carried Macomb convincingly in 2006, but she lost it by a five-point margin in 2002.
Could Michigan turnout be dampened by the weather, particularly in low-income areas that have less access to transportation? There’s a good chance of rain across much of the state today. Voters getting off work in a downpour in, say, Detroit in the late afternoon (where rain is forecast to begin around 3 p.m.) could decide casting a ballot isn’t worth getting wet.
“It’s not about if it rains, but when it rains – 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., that could be a problem if it’s a heavy downpour,” Hood said Monday.
Then again, it’s likely to rain all day in the Republican stronghold of Grand Rapids, according to forecasts.
In a close election, storm clouds can make a difference. One study found that, if weather had been different on election day, John F. Kennedy may have lost the 1960 presidential election, and Al Gore likely would have been sworn in as president in 2000.
That same study, though, showed weather only influences elections that are already very close. Looking at the voter turnout across the country over 14 presidential elections, the study found that every inch of rain dampens turnout by less than 1 percent (an inch of snow cuts turnout by about a half-percent).
And finally, a little voter shaming
Michigan residents aren’t the only ones who vote more heavily when the Oval Office is up for grabs. Non-presidential election turnout is lower across the country, and has been since the 1840’s. That’s despite the likelihood that state and local elected officials will have a bigger impact on their lives.
“It’s almost a cliché, but local elections have the most impact and the lowest turnout,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “Your school board or city council has a greater impact on your life, but people don’t seem to register that with their votes.”
In the last gubernatorial election in 2010, about 45 percent of registered voters cast ballots. If Michigan were a country, that level of electoral participation would rank Michigan 163rd in the world, behind Haiti and just ahead of Mauritania.
Leelanau County had the highest turnout in Michigan in 2010, when about 61 percent of voters punched a ballot. Cass County voters were the most apathetic, with just 35.7 percent of voters wandering into a Southwest Michigan polling place.
Mike Wilkinson contributed graphics to this report.