A couple months ago few people put Michigan in the Battleground territory except Mitt Romney, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and this blog. Recent polls demonstrate Obama’s narrowing lead and weakness in suburbs raising GOP hopes in the Great Lakes State. The Wall Street Journal takes a look at Michigan ahead of the Romney bus tour visit on Monday:
Barack Obama breezed to victory in Michigan in 2008 and, until recently, his bailout of the state’s auto industry looked to have armored him well for November. But signs of trouble are brewing in the Great Lakes State. If they grow, they would signal broader problems for the president in the industrial Midwest. Across Michigan, but particularly in several key counties that hug Detroit,veteran GOP strategists point to evidence of ebbing support for the president among independents, despite an improving economy egged on by the booming car sector.
Ramping up and hitting the ground running:
Conservative groups from outside the state are now showering Michigan with television ads, at a cost already of around $3 million, about three-quarters of what the campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain spent here during all of 2008. Their aim is to soften the ground for Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, whose own campaign is now staffing up in the state. Recent polls vary widely but generally point to a narrowing lead for Mr. Obama.
Risks to Obama:
An Obama loss in Michigan could imperil the president’s path to victory in the Electoral College, potentially requiring him to win one of the two hardest-fought states, Ohio and Florida. Heading into the fall, signs of weakness in the industrial belt also would require the Obama campaign to pour far more manpower and resources than planned into other states, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that Democrats have held in all of the last five presidential campaigns. “If Barack Obama can’t win Michigan, he can’t win the White House,” said Katie Gage, a longtime Michigan political operative and Mr. Romney’s deputy campaign manager. “We will compete there aggressively.”
Economy out front:
With the election likely to hinge on voter sentiment toward the economy, state job numbers released Friday by the federal government offered a mixed picture of the region’s economic health. Ohio gained 19,000 jobs last month and saw its jobless rate drop to 7.3%. But Michigan lost 5,000 jobs and saw its unemployment rate tick up to 8.5%, slightly higher than the U.S. average. Both the campaign and Michigan GOP lawmakers cite several factors that appear to be giving Mr. Romney a boost. The unemployment rate, which topped 14% in the summer of 2009, has eased markedly under Gov. Rick Snyder, a former-businessman-turned-politician. That has allowed Republicans to argue that voters should trust Mr. Romney, who carries a similar resume.
Softening support in Democrat strongholds:
Mr. Romney appears to be gaining adherents among suburban swing voters, who could tip the balance here. Recent polls in the state, including some internal surveys done for the state GOP, point to slumping support for Mr. Obama in the voter-rich outskirts of Detroit.
An EPIC/MRA poll of likely Michigan voters last week, which had the two candidates in a dead heat, found that 72% of independents held a negative view of Mr. Obama’s job performance, up from 60% in March. A rolling average of Michigan polls still has Mr. Obama up by five percentage points.
Ground shifting out from under Obama:
Michigan hasn’t sided with a Republican nominee since 1988, but the state has swerved sharply to the right in recent years. The governor’s mansion, state legislature, Supreme Court and all statewide offices except for the two Senate seats are now in Republican hands. Michigan Republicans and the Romney team are focusing their efforts on Oakland, Macomb and western Wayne counties, which stretch from Detroit and its populous suburbs to rural farm country. Mr. Obama in 2008 got 61% of the three counties’ votes. A poll in March found him winning 53% support from the counties. Oakland County, where Mr. Romney grew up, contains some of the most affluent communities in the country. Macomb is home of the “Reagan Democrats,” blue-collar voters who traditionally had voted for Democratic candidates before tilting to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Wayne contains Detroit but gets more conservative to the west. Gov. Snyder carried both Oakland and Macomb by wide margins in 2010 amid a surge of support for Republican candidates.
Ground game, GOTV and field offices
Michigan’s state GOP is setting up local-level, get-out-the-vote operations in “Victory Centers” around the state, aiming to have 26 running by July and even more by November. The Romney campaign just hired a state campaign director and now has five paid staffers, more than it has in the pivotal, but less populated, state of Colorado. Michigan GOP Chairman Robert Schostak and about 50 party activists gathered last Saturday to open one of the latest at a shopping mall in Utica, a busy suburb about 29 miles north of downtown Detroit. Pointing to rows of phones on tables at the rear of the office, Mr. Schostak said to the assembled volunteers, “You guys are going to abuse these phones and wear them out.” Republican activists say they’re setting ambitious goals to recruit foot soldiers for the fall. Mr. Shostak told the volunteers at the Utica office that he wanted to boost the number of identified Republican voters in Macomb by 63,000 names to about 224,000 names by Labor Day.
Obama campaign on notice
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign feels confident it can keep Michigan in its corner, buoyed by public approval for the administration’s $85 billion auto bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC. Mr. Romney opposed the bailout, a fact the Obama campaign promises to point out as often as possible. But the president’s team is also treating the state like a battleground. It recently opened its 10th Michigan field office and is recruiting hundreds of volunteers to register voters and rally grass-roots support. The Obama campaign’s goal is to convince Michigan voters that the president’s decision to rescue the Detroit auto makers spurred a broad recovery in the state’s economy.