Detroit, Michigan–In 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency because West Virginia, a reliably Democratic state went his way. In 2004, President Bush could secure a big win in the electoral-college by picking off Michigan, another blue state that John Kerry must win to have any chance at the presidency.
A Detroit News poll conducted October 20-21 has President Bush leading Kerry by a narrow margin of 47 percent to 43 percent. Michigan hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1988 and for good reason. The state, home to the United Auto Workers (UAW), is a hotbed of union activism. Detroit, the major urban population center in the state, is overwhelmingly African American and turns out heavily for the Democratic ticket in presidential years. These dynamics mean that to win Michigan, Bush must roll up big margins in suburban Detroit, namely in affluent Oakland County and socially conservative, blue-collar Macomb County.
There are several issues that provide President Bush with the opportunity to do just that. Macomb County is where the term :”Reagan Democrat” originated. It is home to a large population of Polish Catholics, many of whom depend on the auto industry for their livelihoods. As an east-coast liberal, Kerry has spent much of his Senate career pandering to left-wing environmentalists who despise the cars and trucks made in Michigan. In 2002, Kerry proposed legislation to raise fuel-economy standards by 50 percent. His legislation was so draconian that the UAW and Michigan Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow worked with Republicans to kill it on the Senate floor.
Kerry’s fuel regulations would have benefited foreign automakers at the expense of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Detroit’s Big Three pay expensive wages and benefits to UAW workers and retirees and can not cover its labor costs by selling fuel-efficient sedans. The Big Three need the profits from more expensive and lower mileage SUVs, pickups, and minivans (light trucks) to meet its obligations to UAW workers and retirees. Toyota and Honda, which employ non-union workers, are not burdened by high labor costs and would thrive under Kerry’s fuel regulations.
Kerry’s auto regulations would have driven up the cost of SUVs and other light truck models to the point where many middle-class families would have been forced into the sedan market dominated by the Japanese auto companies. The economic pain of this result would have rippled through Michigan’s entire economy as auto suppliers, dealers, and countless other employers would have been pinched by Kerry’s radical environmentalism.
Kerry’s support for job-killing auto regulations complicates his goal of capitalizing on the loss of manufacturing jobs in Michigan to secure the state’s 17 electoral votes. A study on Kerry’s proposal estimated that it would have cost 450,000 jobs, many of which would have been lost in Michigan. Fuel economy is an arcane issue in the rest of the nation. But in Michigan it’s a kitchen-table concern that UAW workers understand. They know that if you slap extreme regulations on the SUVs and trucks they make that their jobs could be at risk.
Kerry made another Michigan mistake by belittling the Coalition President Bush put together to depose Saddam Hussein. Macomb County has one of the largest Polish populations in the country. The fact that Kerry was disrespectful of Poland’s contributions to the war effort will hurt him dearly with Polish voters.
Kerry also alienated Catholics, another critical voting group in Michigan, with his statements on abortion during the debates. His opposition to the ban on partial-birth abortion and parental-consent requirements is a sure fire loser with ethnic Catholics in Michigan and is a major reason President Bush is winning the Catholic vote in the Detroit News poll by a margin of 51 percent to 39 percent.
Lastly, there is a ballot initiative in Michigan to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and it is enormously popular with voters. The Detroit News poll shows it winning easily, with a 67 percent to 24 percent margin. Kerry refusal to support the traditional definition of marriage will be detrimental to his campaign in Michigan as social conservatives will be galvanized to turnout on November 2.
These dynamics could well culminate in a perfect storm that could sweep President Bush to victory in Michigan. Kerry is a liberal who has been an outspoken critic of Michigan’s most important job-producing industry. He’s a liberal who has alienated a key ethnic voting bloc in explaining his tortured position on Iraq. And he’s a liberal who is opposed to defending the traditional definition of marriage in a state where the vast majority of voters are against gay marriage.
The fact that there is not a gubernatorial or senatorial campaign to energize the base Democratic vote in Michigan further complicates the situation for Kerry. The junior senator from Massachusetts will have to win the state on his own merits and his missteps have provided President Bush with a real opening in the Wolverine state. The Bush campaign would be wise to spend time and resources in Michigan in the waning days of the campaign.
–Trent Wisecup heads up the Detroit office of DC Navigators, a Washington-based public-affairs firm. He has worked in Michigan politics for more than a decade as a former advisor to Congressman Joe Knollenberg and former U.S. Senator Spence Abraham.