Polling Reality Check: Is Michigan in Play for Romney?

Barring economic catastrophe, Obama will probably win the Wolverine State, but it's smart for Romney to keep the heat up.

Barring economic catastrophe, Obama will probably win the Wolverine State, but it's smart for Romney to keep the heat up.


Is Michigan home, sweet home for Mitt Romney after all?

A series of recent polls have indicated the race in the Wolverine State is tight, a surprise in a state that seemed like a solid bet for President Obama. A poll from Mitchell Research even showed Romney with a one-point edge. What's going on? If you're the betting type, you should still keep your money on Obama. But here's a quick rundown of the major factors in play now and why the race looks tight.

  1. Consider the Polls: The Mitchell poll is a robopoll -- it's conducted by calling up respondents and asking them to push buttons. Such polls aren't as reliable as standard surveys and seem to generally favor Republicans, because they require a landline and non-landline users are more likely to vote Democratic. (Mitchell is also a Republican firm.) For the same reason, it's wise to be skeptical of a robopoll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling that showed Obama with a whopping 14-point advantage, a huge outlier from other recent results. Looking at RealClearPolitics' inventory of recent polls, Obama maintains a lead -- though not a huge one -- consistently. That overall pattern is probably an accurate reflection of reality.
  2. History, Writ Large: Michigan hasn't been a favorable state for Republicans for some time. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988. That state has two Democratic senators, though one, Debbie Stabenow, is up for reelection this year. On the other hand, Republicans did take over the governorship in 2010.
  3. History, Writ Small: Then there's the matter of Romney's history in the state. His father was governor in the 1960s and he was born and raised there, and it's true that presidential candidates have an advantage in their home states. But is Michigan really Romney's home state? His paean to the trees and lakes notwithstanding, he's had little connection to Michigan ever since, and for a time it looked like he might even lose the state to Rick Santorum in the Republican primary. Voters don't seem to regard him the way they would a native son who'd stayed around.
  4. Bailout Politics: Another disadvantage for Romney is his somewhat confused stance on the auto bailout. He has hemmed and hawed, but Romney's November 2008 New York Times op-ed, titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," is a serious weakness, and Democrats delight in bringing it up whenever possible. There hasn't been much state-level polling on the bailout recently, but in February six in 10 Michigan voters said they gave Obama a good or great deal of credit for the survival of the auto industry.
  5. Unemployment: If the state economy were tanking, that would be good news for Romney and bad news for Obama. As is, it seems to be muddling along. Obama can take heart in the fact that the jobless rate in Michigan has fallen nearly 6 percent since a peak in August 2009. On the other hand, it remains above the national average, and ticked up slightly in both of the last two months and now sits at 8.6 percent.

    On the other hand, none of that may matter much at all. Political scientist John Sides points out that voters seem to respond more to the condition of the national economy than what's going on in their own state.

  6. Spending: Neither presidential campaign has spent any money on ads in Michigan since May 1. But the Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that major independent groups -- such as the Romney-backing super PAC Restore Our Future, Karl Rove's American Crossroads GPS, and the Koch Brothers-backed American Energy Alliance -- spent about $6.4 million through from January 1 to June 30.

Back in June, Romney said, "Michigan's a state I can win. If I win in Michigan, then I become the president, and that would mean a lot to me personally." The signs suggest that's still unlikely. On top of the tough terrain, Obama hasn't starting spending there and Romney is already trailing -- although a serious national downturn would put Michigan (and quite a few other states) much more easily in his reach. Of course, as long as the polls stay close, he'll happily keep the heat up on Obama and force the president to play defense.