sábado, 6 de setembro de 2008

WSJ: McCain Makes a Run at Michigan, A Wavering Democratic Stronghold

"Obama does not do well among whites in places with poisonous race relations," says Mr. Grebner. "Portland, Oregon, is exactly the kind of place where Obama does well among whites," whereas in Detroit, "Obama is not doing well among white people."

September 6, 2008; Page A1
Wall Street Journal

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. -- If John McCain becomes the nation's 44th president, it may be thanks to Michigan -- a prize the Republicans think they can claim for the first time in nearly 20 years.

[See Maps of Detroit]

On Friday, Sen. McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, arrived in this auto-plant town in Detroit's suburbs to begin their final election sprint. The goal: Persuade disaffected voters like Howard Mitchell that Republicans still deserve their support.

Mr. Mitchell, a 28-year-old video technician at an auto plant in nearby Pontiac, would seem a promising target for the Democrats this year. In 2000, he bucked his Republican neighbors and voted for Al Gore for President. And while he backed George W. Bush in 2004, today he is angry about Michigan's weak economy and nervous about the handling of Iraq. Mr. Mitchell says he wants change.

The good news for Republicans: Sen. McCain offers plenty of change for him.

"What bothers me most with Obama, he has no experience," says the burly, tattooed, divorced father of one, who says he's working two jobs now to afford health insurance for his daughter. "I believe in change, too. But what kind of change is Obama talking about?"

Michigan is a perennial must-win for Democratic candidates, as well as a bellwether for how the party will fare in nearby Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. This week, the Obama camp launched its first television ads targeted directly at Michigan voters. One, titled "Revitalize" accuses McCain of "selling out" Michigan auto workers. Spending on TV is a tacit acknowledgment the Democrats consider Michigan competitive this year.

Michigan is home to the original "Reagan Democrats," white, working-class voters who swung Republican. Today, on paper, conditions here favor the Democrats. Unemployment stands at 8.5%, the nation's highest. Michigan's home-foreclosure rate is twice the national average, which should make it easy for Sen. Obama to campaign against a Republican who stumbled when asked how many houses he owns. Democrats have won the state in four out of the past five presidential races.

However, Sen. Obama is the one who might face an uphill battle. For starters, he chose not to participate in Michigan's primary in January -- a decision that now deprives his campaign of a ready-made network of supporters. (Michigan held its primary earlier than the national Democratic Party wanted, so Sen. Obama and several others stayed off the ballot in solidarity with the party.) At the same time, Sen. McCain plays well among moderate Republicans and independents who dislike George W. Bush, whom Sen. McCain beat handily in the party's 2000 Michigan primary.

Michigan also has some of the most complex race relations north of the Mason-Dixon line. "Michigan is a challenge for any Democratic candidate," says Amy Chapman, the head of the Obama campaign here. "Everyone thinks it's blue. But you have to work hard to make it blue."

[Supporters rally for McCain and Sarah Palin as they speak at the Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights, Mich. on Friday.]
Associated Press
Supporters rally for McCain and Sarah Palin as they speak at the Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights, Mich. on Friday.

While the Obama campaign hopes to pick up a handful of reliably Republican states like Colorado in November, the flip-side is also true: The McCain campaign could win the White House by picking off a few traditional Democratic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Losing Michigan would be a tough blow for the Democrats. In 2004's general election, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 286 to 251 in electoral-college votes. If Sen. McCain picks up Michigan's 17 electoral votes, Sen. Obama would then have to pick up both Colorado and Nevada simply to offset the loss of Michigan. Then, to make up the rest of Democrats' 2004 shortfall, Sen. Obama would almost certainly have to prevail in several big states the Republicans won last time, including Virginia, Missouri, Ohio or Florida.

Right now, Sen. Obama holds a slim lead in recent statewide polls. However in the crucial Detroit area (where about half of Michigan's votes will be cast) some results foreshadow trouble for the Democrats. Most important: A Detroit Free Press poll in late August showed some 30% of area voters saying that they're open to switching preferences before November -- a significantly higher figure than normal. The vast majority of these wavering voters are white, polling experts say, making the state's racial politics particularly important.

Skipping the primary here means Sen. Obama faces significant logistical hurdles. For one thing, the Obama camp has no record of precincts where he did well or poorly; those data are invaluable for focusing on weak pockets in the final stretch of the race.

The Obama camp also acknowledges that skipping the primary probably deprived Democrats of a big bump in new voter registration, which soared in places like Georgia, Ohio and North Carolina ahead of primaries there. The Obama campaign says 495,828 new Michigan voters registered this year, but after factoring in the thousands of voters who died or moved away, the newcomers barely compensate for natural attrition. Michigan's state election office counts just under 80,000 additional voters on the rolls compared to 2004. By contrast, there are over a million more voters this cycle in neighboring Ohio.

Skipping Michigan's primary also left Sen. Obama with a lot of work to do introducing himself to voters. Voters here already know and like Sen. McCain: Back in 2000, he easily won Michigan's Republican primary -- dealing Mr. Bush one of his biggest defeats of that race -- almost entirely with the votes of crossover Democrats and independents.

"A vote for McCain is a protest against the status quo," said Daniel Marsh, a longtime supporter of Sen. McCain and tax attorney who lives in Troy, Mich., echoing a theme of Sen. McCain's acceptance speech on Thursday night. Dave Lenich, a 55-year-old carpenter, says he thinks "McCain will come in and clean house."

The Obama camp vigorously argues that it can win here by staying on message -- a simple message that says eight years of Republican management have devastated Michigan's economy, and that Sen. McCain represents a continuation of, not a break from, those policies. Not only has the housing-market slump and foreclosure rate been particularly painful here, but at the same time Michigan has suffered eight years of job losses in the auto industry.

"We're not taking anything for granted," says Michigan campaign spokesman Brent Colburn. "And we're not leaving anything behind."

The Obama campaign also says its strength lies in its field staff, including 200 paid employees in 31 offices so far, well more than what the Kerry campaign deployed here four years ago. It believes it can register an additional 100,000 to 150,000 new voters between now and Michigan's Oct. 6 deadline, with up to 30,000 coming just from the Detroit area.

That raises another issue: depopulation. Detroit has been losing people faster than any other large U.S. city. That includes many black residents, likely Obama voters. More than 80,000 black Detroiters, almost 10% of the city's population, left between 2000 and 2006, the most recent figures available, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

The more dispersed Sen. Obama's Detroit support base is, the harder it will be to roll up the numbers he needs to offset Sen. McCain's areas of strength. And while television and radio ads can reach people who have migrated to the suburbs, the personal touch that helps propel voters to the polls on Election Day -- one-on-one visits from volunteers, for instance -- can be much harder to apply.

Obama campaign worker Autumn Johnson is learning how hard it is to find new voters. The Wayne State University graduate student is taking the summer off to organize in her parent's neighborhood on Detroit's rough West Side. More than 15,000 black residents have left the area in the past six years, according to Michigan United Way demographer Kurt Metzger, leaving it with a population of 92,000. Abandoned homes are visible on just about every block.

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Johnson canvassed barber shops and beauty parlors, part of the Obama campaign's "B-and-B Initiative." Pickings were slim.

At Kwanzaa Clippers on Puritan Street, Ms. Johnson found two men in chairs, but both had already registered to vote. At Linda's Perfect Cut Barber Shop nearby, she found just one person to hand a registration form to.

"I'm sorry," says Linda Harper, the 51-year-old owner. So many people have moved away, "some of my customers, I don't see them now for years, sometimes."

Some black politicians have pointed out that the Obama campaign could help itself in some urban neighborhoods by deploying what's called "street money" -- essentially, paying people to spend time cajoling folks into filling out registration forms and getting them properly filed. Payment of street money isn't illegal, but it has unsavory connotations. The Obama campaign has resisted the suggestion. "The campaign's motto is: 'This is a Volunteer Organization,' " says Ms. Chapman, the state's top organizer.

Sam Riddle, a fixture of Detroit's black political scene, scoffs at that. "Volunteer? People volunteer because they can afford to volunteer. Detroit is not Iowa. It takes street money," he says.

Mr. Riddle also says the Obama campaign is in danger of losing the election here. Race is the main reason for that, he says. Michigan is considered one of the most segregated states in the country, by virtue of the fact that its largest city, Detroit, trails only Gary, Ind., as the U.S.'s most segregated metropolitan area. Demographers say Detroit is nearly 90% segregated -- meaning, essentially, nine of 10 black residents would have to move to a white or Hispanic section of the city before racial patterns would balance out.

Pollster Mark Grebner, a Michigan Democrat, says that states where the major cities are heavily segregated (Cleveland, Ohio, is another example) tend to have bitter racial politics, and blacks and whites seldom vote along similar lines.

"Obama does not do well among whites in places with poisonous race relations," says Mr. Grebner. "Portland, Oregon, is exactly the kind of place where Obama does well among whites," whereas in Detroit, "Obama is not doing well among white people."

Bryan Capen, 36, voted for John Kerry in 2004, but last week, he turned up at a meeting of Citizens for McCain, a group Sen. McCain's campaign is using to woo Democrats and independents. "Democrats for McCain" bumper stickers were available.

Mr. Capen, a chiropractor now trying to make a living as a pianist, says he would have considered voting for Hillary Clinton this year, but not for Sen. Obama. He doesn't know enough about the Democratic nominee, "his history, his decisions," Mr. Capen says.

The recent woes of Detroit's black mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, haven't helped. The son of an African-American politician, U.S. Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, the mayor resigned this week as part of a plea bargain concerning multiple criminal charges for perjury, assault and obstruction of justice after trying to cover up a sexual liaison with a member of his staff. Mr. Kilpatrick didn't return calls seeking comment.

The long, drawn-out scandal had been a boon for Republicans in the state, thanks to a wave of unflattering stories that broke every time the mayor appeared in court. An online video highlighting Sen. Obama's speech praising Mr. Kilpatrick recently got lots of attention from Detroit newspaper columnists and talk radio.

Of Mr. Kilpatrick's troubles, Sen. McCain campaign coordinator John Yob says, "we're leaving it alone," adding "It's already out there." Figures from both parties agree that, even with his resignation, the scandal has created unflattering associations between the Democrats' nominee and Mr. Kilpatrick, whom Sen. Obama described as "a great mayor" during an NAACP event in Detroit last year, before the scandal broke.

L. Brooks Patterson, one of the state's leading Republican Party figures, says that Sen. McCain's depth of experience in the Senate and the military gives voters strong reasons to pick him over Sen. Obama. "Michigan voters want a good reason to vote for McCain so they will not be perceived as racist," Mr. Patterson says. "McCain has a lot of them."

Some people point to Michigan's 2006 vote on affirmative action as an indicator of how people might behave in the privacy of the voting booth. That year, voters strongly chose to eliminate preferences for minorities in hiring and college admissions by a 58%-42% margin. In blue-collar Macomb Country (where Democratic candidates won easily in 2006) the vote against affirmative action soared to nearly 70%.

Sen. Obama himself favors modifying affirmative action to emphasize class more than race. Still, the 2006 vote in Michigan serves as a warning to the Obama campaign in how voters' masked their feelings in pre-election polls. Steve Mitchell, who polled voters for pro-affirmative-action groups, found that support for eliminating affirmative action never topped 45% in the months before Election Day. But in the final seven days, his polling detected more and more voters changing their minds.

"As Election Day approached, voters had become more honest with themselves. They confronted how they actually felt," Mr. Mitchell says.

He draws a direct line between that outcome and this year's presidential race. "There are people today who think they can really vote for an African-American," Mr. Mitchell says, "but when they get into a ballot booth and no one is looking over their shoulders, they will decide they can't, and vote for John McCain."

Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman@wsj.com

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