There are a lot of weird twists and turns in the rapidly approaching Michigan primary. To try to get a feel for what’s going on, National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway spoke with Bill Ballenger Friday, who’s been editing the respected Inside Michigan Politics newsletter for more than 20 years and is one of the most respected political commentators in the state.
NRO: What’s your general take on Michigan primary? Particularly the three-way race on the Republican side? How are things shaping up?
BILL BALLENGER: Well, I think Huck may do better here than a lot of people believe, and of course if he finishes ahead of one or both of his two major rivals, Romney or McCain, he’ll deal them a really devastating blow. Maybe he’ll knock Romney out of the race, or so weaken him that he’ll be a walking dead man if he decides to stay in with his money to Super Tuesday.
I give a slight edge to McCain right now. Obviously McCain and Romney are going to pull out all the stops. And we’ll just have to see what happens. A lot could depend on crossover voting, and it’s a very curious situation.
It’s not exactly like 2000, when you had virtually no Democratic election at all. Lyndon Larouche was on the ballot, but the Democrats had proclaimed that their primary was meaningless and they were going to have caucuses to select delegates. This year, this is the way they’re going to select delegates and this is their primary, but only Hillary is on the ballot with Kucinich, Chris Dodd, who has withdrawn from the race, and Mike Gravel.
So you know, people are speculating what the Dem voters and/or independents who might otherwise vote in the Democratic primary will do. Do they stay home in disgust because they don’t have a choice? Do they vote on the Democratic side? The governor and the Michigan Democratic party had a press conference a couple of days ago to encourage people to do that. It’s unclear what they’re trying to do — motivate people to get out and vote rather than not vote, or maybe discourage them from crossing over. They want to see them vote in the Dem primary, but the only thing people can do is vote for Hillary or one of these other [insignificant] candidates.
This may be only question — there is a line for “uncommitted.” There’s kind of an underground campaign going on for people who support Obama and Edwards to vote for “uncommitted” with the hope that if HRC wins by an embarrassingly low margin, barely edging out “uncommitted,” that’s going to dull whatever bluster would come from any victory she might proclaim after the election. The third option is to do what they did in 2000 — this thing is as useless, so let’s vote in the Republican primary. People think they’ll vote for McCain like they did in 2000. If you’d only counted Republican votes in 2000, Bush would have won.
NRO: Why is Huck doing well? Is it the evangelical vote on the western side of the state?
BALLENGER: It’s the bounce. He was already showing up well in polls in Michigan a month ago. I commissioned one myself, and others were taken at that time or shortly thereafter, right up to the other day. Every one of them shows him right up there, either leading or just behind Romney, ahead of McCain depending on who turns out. I think he’s got that much bounce out of what he’s done so far, plus he’s now coming into the state. Today he’s speaking to Detroit Economic Club. He’s going to go to a big rally up I-75, about 70 miles north of Detroit. He’s going to cross over to Grand Rapids tomorrow. Has some TV ads. Then he goes to back to South Carolina. But at least he’s making somewhat of an effort here. He could surprise some people.
NRO: Getting back to this effort to get Democrats to vote “uncommitted,” I’m reading the rightmichigan.com blog and they say “The campaign to carry the State for ‘Uncommitted’ kicked off in Detroit yesterday with a Statewide launch as early as today. And when I say kicked off, I mean that in the sense of a full-on offensive. We’re talking radio ads, earned media, appearances by powerful Michigan Democrats . . . the works.” Is this a real threat to Hillary?
BALLENGER: I’m not going to dispute that they’re doing that. There is an effort and they’re going to make an effort in black churches in Detroit this weekend to get people to vote for Obama by voting “uncommitted. The question is, how big will that “uncommitted” vote be? Will it be embarrassingly large? So that let’s say HRC wins 48-47 over “uncommitted,” with the balance going to Kucinich and other candidates? We don’t know. We just don’t know. There’s no way to document it — no way to figure out whether it’s going to be successful or not.