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What's the Matter with Michigan?

Democrats have grown accustomed to winning Michigan by relatively comfortable margins. Bill Clinton flipped the state in 1992, bringing home the Reagan Democrats and giving the party its first win in the state since 1968. Clinton’s margin grew to 13 points in 1996--five points better than his national popular vote margin against Bob Dole--and he successfully passed the torch to both Al Gore and John Kerry, each of whom also finished 5-6 points ahead of their national margins in the state.

But Barack Obama has had trouble getting traction in the Wolverine State. Although nearly all polling since the Democrats resolved the state’s messy delegate situation in June has had him ahead, it has often been by uncomfortably small margins--just one point, for instance, in a Public Policy Polling survey released on Monday. For most of the election cycle, Michigan has polled no more than 1-3 points ahead of Obama’s national poll standing, placing it well within the range of a potential Republican takeover.

All of this comes in spite of a seemingly favorable environment for the Democrats. Michigan, its fortunes still tied to the struggling domestic auto industry, has the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 8.5 percent. Its population is 14 percent African-American, among the highest figures outside of the South. And it has two huge university towns in East Lansing and Ann Arbor, potential ground zeroes for youth voter enthusiasm. Why, then, have Obama’s numbers been sluggish in Michigan? There is no shortage of reasons:

Late Start. The Obama campaign presently has 32 field offices in Michigan, and should eventually more than double the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s ground operations there. But to some extent, it is making up for lost time. In conversations with friends and family during the Democratic primaries (I am originally from East Lansing), I did not sense much frustration with Obama in particular for his decision to withdraw his name from the state’s primary ballot after Michigan moved ahead of the DNC’s February 5 cut-off date and had its delegates revoked. But I did sense aggravation and dampened enthusiasm for the Democratic Party in general. And whether or not those frustrations linger, Obama simply has not spent as much time in Michigan as he has in other parts of the industrial Midwest, having recused himself from campaigning there during the primaries. According to The Washington Post’s candidate tracker, Obama has held 18 campaign events in Michigan since he launched his campaign last February, half the number he has held in Ohio (36), and less than half the number he has held in Pennsylvania (42). Neighboring states like Indiana and Wisconsin--less essential to the electoral map--have also gotten more Obama face time.

Unpopular Governor. Unlike in many other states, where the failures of the economy fall squarely on the shoulders of the Republicans, George W. Bush gets to share the blame with incumbent Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm, whose approval rating was a tepid 37 percent in a recent poll conducted by the Detroit Free Press. That is a particularly poor result for a governor who had just been re-elected with 56 percent of the vote in 2006. There was the sense that Granholm had been given a mulligan in 2006, charged with bringing jobs back to the state. As the unemployment rate has risen, trust for Granholm and her party has eroded.

Unpopular Mayor. A more serious problem, however, may be Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit, who finally announced his resignation last Thursday after pleading guilty to a pair of felony charge for obstruction of justice. Already, there has been an advertising effort by a 527 group called Freedom’s Defense Fund to tie Obama to Kilpatrick, full-on with a Willie Hortonesque mug shot as Kilpatrick’s criminal charges are scrolled in front of the viewer. Moreover, the whirlwind of scandals surrounding Kilpatrick has distracted Detroit’s City Hall from its usual role in building Democratic Get Out The Vote efforts, as Kilpatrick’s cronies and enemies have fought amongst themselves. The Obama campaign has reversed its policy from the primary campaign and will pay street money to operatives of the local political machine in Philadelphia for their assistance in turning out the vote on Election Day. They will very likely need to follow suit in Detroit.

Organized Republican Party. Michigan is one of the few remaining refuges of the moderate Republican. Nine of the 15 members of its congressional delegation are Republicans, but most are reasonably popular and have built some distance from Bush, with none ranking higher than the 90th most conservative member of the House.

Maverick, the Prequel. Although he was eventually defeated by Mitt Romney, son of former Michigan governor George Romney, in this year’s Republican primary, John McCain and Michigan share an important bit of history. In 2000, McCain defeated Bush by 7 points in the state’s Republican primary, thanks to heavy crossover voting from Democrats and independents in the state’s open primary, who saw him as a palatably moderate alternative. As such, it remains harder to tie McCain to Bush in Michigan than it might be in another state.

Race. Lastly, stemming back to the Detroit Riots of 1967, which triggered massive white flight into the city’s wealthy suburbs (Detroit, at 82 percent African-American, remains the country’s blackest major city), Michigan is not devoid of racial politics. Just one African American, former Secretary of State Richard H. Austin, has ever held statewide office in Michigan. And the area around Howell in Livingston County is a former Ku Klux Klan hotbed. The racial tensions aren’t as overt as they once were, but nevertheless, the de facto segregation between Detroit and the suburbs creates little interaction between the state’s black and white communities, and the combination of Kilpatrick and the difficult economic situation may evoke some latent prejudice. Although I am generally not a believer in the Bradley Effect, Michigan is one state where it might be worth keeping an eye out for.

The more remarkable feat may not be that John McCain remains close in Michigan, but that in spite of all these obstacles, Obama has kept slightly ahead. The other piece of good news is that Michigan is not, strictly speaking, a must-win for Obama. If Obama wins Florida, for instance, he will probably not need either Michigan or Ohio, and he could tie the electoral map at 269-269 by winning Virginia, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico, plus the remaining Kerry states. But banking on one of those scenarios is like banking on the Lions making the playoffs--entirely possible mathematically, but just not very plausible to any experienced observer. Obama will need to redouble his efforts in Michigan, emphasizing his jobs programs and his middle class tax cuts, and familiarizing himself with the byways of Macomb County.

Nate Silver is the founder of, a political website, and a contributor to The New Republic.