McCain, Meet Macomb

by John J. Miller on June 30, 2009

in Politics

  • SumoMe

September 29, 2008

A bellwether Michigan county shows what he must do


On September 5, the day after John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination, he and Sarah Palin headed to a rally in Sterling Heights, Mich. “A little straight talk here,” said McCain. “I need Michigan to win.”

That’s not exactly true. President Bush proved that a Republican can lose the state and still prevail. If McCain and Palin do manage to flip Michigan from blue to red, however, they’ll probably guarantee themselves a victory in November. The location of their appearance — the Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Macomb County — was well chosen. “This place is a bellwether,” says Harry Veryser, a longtime conservative activist in the area. “The way Macomb County goes, so goes the state.”

The locals have a history of picking winners on Election Day. Yet Macomb County is more than just another battleground in the Midwest — it’s the iconic home of Reagan Democrats, the breed of voter whose defection to the GOP in the 1970s and 1980s signaled the end of liberalism’s high tide and the emergence of conservatism as a national force.

Ever since, the county’s white, middle-class residents have taken on a symbolism that far outweighs their numerical clout. Stories about voting behavior in Macomb County have become a quadrennial staple of political journalism, as reporters from everywhere beat a path to these suburbs just north of Detroit. An Irish television crew recently dropped in, to the amazement of absolutely nobody. These media pilgrims pay homage to a resilient piece of conventional wisdom. In Macomb County, more than Michigan’s 17 electoral votes may be on the line. It might be said that the way Macomb County goes, so goes the nation.

That would be very good news for McCain, if summertime polls hold up. Although he trails Barack Obama in Michigan, he is leading in Macomb County. Is it possible that we’ll soon hear about a new voter bloc called “McCain Democrats”?

Forty-eight years ago, Macomb County was the most Democratic suburban county in the United States. JFK took 63 percent of its votes. LBJ and Hubert Humphrey also racked up big wins in 1964 and 1968. Then things started to change. The county trended Republican, and by 1984 the pendulum had swung about as far as it could in the other direction: Ronald Reagan captured 66 percent of Macomb County.

Shortly after that rout, frustrated Michigan Democrats decided to figure out what had gone wrong. They teamed with the United Auto Workers to hire Stanley Greenberg, a onetime Yale professor who had left academia for the world of public-opinion polling. Through phone surveys and the emerging science of focus-group interviews, he studied the Democrats’ dilemma. He presented his findings in 1985, first at a meeting of state party chairs in Chicago and then to national leaders in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t realize that my ideas would be controversial,” says Greenberg.

But they were. Greenberg explained Macomb County’s realignment through the lens of what he called “Reagan Democrats.” The term is so familiar nowadays that it’s easy to forget that Greenberg coined it, or that anybody would consider it provocative. Simply put, Greenberg argued that a core of Macomb County’s voters — white, middle-class, lacking a college education, heavily Catholic, and often from card-carrying union families — had soured on their traditional party. His analysis focused on the residents of a specific place, but it carried national implications, because voters of this type lived everywhere from Scranton to Spokane.

Race had a lot to do with their political shift, said Greenberg. Reagan Democrats were especially turned off by forced busing and racial preferences. They remained resentful over Detroit’s race riots in the 1960s. In his 1995 book Middle Class Dreams, Greenberg summed up their attitudes this way: “These white Democratic defectors expressed a profound distaste for black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics.”

Many people in Macomb County found this interpretation patronizing. “He wanted it to be about racism, racism, racism,” says Leon Drolet, a Republican county commissioner whose father was a Reagan-voting UAW member. In truth, a lot of other factors also contributed to the county’s political transformation. Democrats were becoming the party of abortion on demand. This didn’t sit well in Macomb County, which continued to elect the likes of David Bonior — a thoroughly partisan Democrat who nevertheless maintained a pro-life voting record in Congress. Concerns about patriotism, the military, and national security also played a large role, appropriately enough for a county named after a 19th-century Army general.

Still, Greenberg zeroed in on race. But instead of issuing a politically correct denunciation, he suggested a new style of Democratic politics that would be less race-conscious and more class-oriented. At the time, however, Jesse Jackson was between his two presidential runs. His influence within the party was strong, and his allies refused to give Greenberg a hearing. “I was kind of banned within party circles,” says the pollster.

Unlike the Reagan Democrats, Greenberg didn’t bolt his party. Instead, he became a key adviser to the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate group that would propel Bill Clinton to the presidency. Clinton himself was receptive to Greenberg’s ideas about race and class. His high-profile criticism of anti-white statements by Sister Souljah, a rap performer who appeared at a Jackson-sponsored event with Clinton, came at Greenberg’s urging. It was part of a strategy to win back Reagan Democrats, and it appears to have paid off: Clinton lost Macomb County in 1992, but by only five points. It was a huge improvement over the blowouts. In 1996, Clinton became the first Democrat to carry the county since Humphrey, winning by eleven points. Since then, the election returns have tightened. Al Gore carried Macomb County by two points in 2000, and President Bush snatched it by one point in 2004.

Earlier this year, Greenberg decided to take a fresh look at Macomb County. He polled likely voters in July and found McCain ahead of Obama by seven points. (Around the same time, a Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters gave McCain an eight-point advantage in the county.) Greenberg also convened six focus groups of what he calls “Democratic defectors” to gain a more complete view of their political thinking.

As it happens, authentic Reagan Democrats may be a vanishing breed. At the very least, they’re an aging demographic: To have established a pattern of voting Democratic before switching to the GOP during the Reagan years, you have to be at least in your late 40s. “We should stop calling them Democrats, because they’ve become Republicans,” adds Ed Bruley, the head of the Macomb County Democratic party.

Labels aside, there can be no doubt that Obama has a problem in Macomb County. Polls show that 52 percent of its voters say they would be comfortable with “a Democrat” as president, but only 41 percent say they would be comfortable with a President Obama. Greenberg calls this an “Obama gap” and urges the candidate to close it by focusing on middle-class economic anxieties. There’s no comparable “McCain gap”: About half of the county’s voters would be comfortable with either “a Republican” or McCain as president.

McCain holds a few distinct advantages over his rival. He has campaigned in Macomb County before — he won Michigan’s GOP primary in 2000 and was back again in 2008, losing to native son Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, Obama didn’t even appear on the state’s Democratic primary ballot this year because of an intra-party squabble over the primary’s timing. Finally, Michigan voters may have soured on political sensations with law degrees from Harvard: Their tax-raising Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, is even less popular than President Bush. “If you like what Jennifer Granholm has done for Michigan, you’re going to love what Barack Obama will do for America,” says state GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, in a line that Michigan Republicans are bound to repeat this fall.

Yet Obama may be the source of his own problems. “If Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee or even the vice-presidential nominee, the election in Macomb County would already be over — she’d win it,” says Candice Miller, a Republican who represents a chunk of the county in Congress. Now Palin may give McCain a boost. “She’s a hockey mom and we’re Hockeytown,” says Jim Carabelli, the head of the Macomb County Republicans. “She’s had to stay at the rink and drink hot coffee to keep warm. She’s real people. She’ll relate to Michigan.” At the Sterling Heights event on September 5, the locals gave her a Detroit Red Wings jersey.

What does Obama’s race have to do with it? If Obama loses this election, liberal pundits are sure to blame racist Americans for rejecting a black candidate in what will otherwise be a strong year for Democrats. Greenberg insists that this would be a mistake. “When you talk to Democratic defectors in Macomb County today, they give no sense of feeling threatened by blacks,” he says. “These voters are open to Obama, even now. If he loses, I’ll be able to come up with ten different explanations as to why, equally strong.” Nationally, for instance, voters say they prefer McCain to Obama on national-security issues by 26 points. In Macomb County, however, McCain’s lead grows to 43 points. Among Democratic defectors, it’s 69 points — a margin that Greenberg calls “breathtaking.” Moreover, when pollsters summarized the candidates’ public-policy positions without associating them with either McCain or Obama, they learned that Macomb County voters favored McCain’s views.

That summarizes the challenge for McCain between now and Election Day: to connect with voters whose hearts are tugging them toward the Democrats but whose heads are telling them that, for the White House at least, they prefer this Republican.

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