Michigan: 2020 Bellwether?

by Elizabeth Pratt

The midterm elections on November 6th offer an opportunity for change in Michigan. The state suffered from the Flint water crisis in 2015, which led to decreased trust in the current state government. A poor education system and concerns about gerrymandering, which has made many Michigan elections uncompetitive, are other instances of the failure of the Michigan government to put the needs of their people before partisan concerns, not just under Governor Snyder, but for many years under different leadership.

All of these issues will come to play in the midterm elections in Michigan, a “purple” state that normally votes for democrats in national elections but republicans in local and state elections. Since the state normally votes blue on the national level, its support of President Trump in the 2016 elections surprised many. It is unclear if this signals a shift in support of republicans on the national level in Michigan, or if this was simply an instance of the state moving between the right and the left on the political spectrum. The 2018 midterm elections will help determine in the shorter run if Michigan is truly changing to either a consistently blue or a red state, or if it will continue to oscillate between parties.

Although the Michigan legislature is not too polarized, according to the Institute for Social Research and Public Policy at Michigan State University, short term limits make people running for election beholden to special interests. This phenomenon happens because the representatives are either worried about getting re-elected or because they are concerned about securing a job after their short term ends. When elected officials are reliant on the support of special interest groups, they tend to make more partisan decisions than not because the interest groups often have partisan demands.

Professors and students alike at the University of Michigan seem to be concerned about the increasing political polarity of the country and how this manifests itself in local and state elections.

“It’s a very challenging, divided time, we’re very polarized as a country,” Professor Ken Kollman, a political science professor, said. “It’s a time when there’s a lot of distrust across partisan [lines].”

Edie Goldenberg, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, believes people are struggling to converse with one another because of polarization. “[Political parties] have come to view each other as the enemy…and that’s not a very constructive circumstance.”   

University of Michigan student Dylan Berger thinks party contention means nothing is getting done on the legislative agenda. “Our country is suffering for it,” he warned. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I think everyone has a stake on making that [political contention] better.”

This division along political lines is specifically concerning as Election Day looms. People are curious about whether the midterm elections will show a commitment toward cooperation between parties, or will exemplify an increasing separation toward political extremes on either side of the ideological spectrum. If Michigan voters choose a gubernatorial candidate who is more likely to work across political party divides, this would signify a prioritization of cooperation. Already, more polarizing primary candidates for the Michigan gubernatorial race in the Democratic party has weeded out more radical candidates, while the Republican party has perhaps chosen a less moderate candidate.

In Michigan, some Republicans have created a coalition to support the democratic candidate for governor, Gretchen Whitmer, because they believe she will work across political lines. The creation of the coalition is significant because it is comprised of prominent former republican lawmakers, administration officials, and business leaders from the state of Michigan. These individuals believe Whitmer will offer pragmatic solutions to problems in Michigan, will tolerate and honor differences best among the population of Michigan, and will work across partisan lines to get things accomplished. The coalition proves there are still some in America who will put aside party identification to pass legislation and make change in their state.

Michiganders also voted for Whitmer over two more left-wing candidates in the primaries, like Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar, showing how extremes in this state are being abandoned for more moderate candidates—candidates who are more likely to work better with their political opposites. As a more progressive candidate, El-Sayed believed in implementing universal healthcare in Michigan, whereas Whitmer believes in making healthcare more affordable for all. While both approaches are progressive, El-Sayed’s was more radical than Whitmer.

It is possible voters choose more moderate candidates because people believe moderate candidates have a better chance of defeating the opposition, but that is because they appeal to more people at the moment in Michigan than do the extremes. And the more people a candidate appeals to, the more likely they are to pass legislation that benefits that majority of people.

There is also division within each political party. “I wouldn’t say the Democrats are uniting. I would say…they’re uniting around the goal to win and the goal to resist Trump. They’re divided on what their message should be,” said Professor Kollman. The trend is exemplified by the wide variety of progressivity on the democratic side in Michigan.

Exchanges between the front-runners for the party in Michigan’s primaries revealed rifts in the Michigan Republican Party. Schuette and Calley, who both worked under Republican Governor Rick Snyder, attacked one another on the campaign trail. The Calley campaign alleged that Schuette abused his position in public office to benefit himself personally and politically, while the  Schuette campaign suggested that Calley evaded work on the public’s dime to secure a masters degree at Harvard. These public criticisms shows that even republicans who worked together in the same administration can turn against each other on the campaign trail in order to secure a victory.

In other words, victory comes before party unity and it is is every person for himself or herself. If candidates care about re-election more than party unity, then we would expect that working with members of the opposing party would definitely not be prioritized. However, criticism of the opponent is characteristic in all elections, whether they be primaries or elections, so one cannot directly assume that since Calley and Schuette degraded each other on the campaign trail, then the Republican party is not united in Michigan.

Michigan, a state that has gone blue in the past six presidential elections and only slightly prefered the Republican candidate in the 2016 election, is an important state to watch in the upcoming election. The state government, however, is held by the Republican Party. Because Michigan does not vote consistently for one party, the outcome of the midterm elections here could offer insight into the political leanings of people in an important swing state which helped President Trump win in 2016.

Since Michigan does not usually vote for the same party in local and state elections as they do in presidential elections, this could conversely mean what happens in this state’s midterm elections has no significant bearing on whether the state will go red or blue in the 2020 presidential elections. The fact that the state had straight ticket voting until the ban was confirmed in late 2018 makes it even more surprising that people do not vote strictly along party lines between elections. Straight ticket voting makes it easier to vote for one party instead of voting individually for each office, which logically would suggest people vote based on party because it is easier.

On the other hand, because Michigan oscillates between support of the Democratic and Republican parties in each election, the outcome of the midterm election here could foreshadow slight but powerful political shiftings that could take place throughout the the country among moderate voters—those up for grabs by either political party. The certainty of these trends could not be identified for many years to come, because the shift toward one party may not last in the long run.

Berger believes that what happens Michigan will help determine what happens in 2020. Berger stated that if President Trump is to win in 2020, he needs Michigan’s support because of Michigan’s situation as a swing state that was crucial in securing Trump’s victory in 2016.

The success or failure of the candidates President endorsed could also suggest the ties between the outcomes of state and national elections. This is specifically the case because Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running for governor, has been endorsed by President Trump. If Schuette does not win in Michigan, it could be a sign that the swing state no longer supports President Trump and will not vote for him in 2020. However, it could simply be a sign that the attorney general is not popular in Michigan, regardless of his ties to President Trump.

Local candidates have centered their campaign messages on either supporting or promising to stand up to President Trump, according to pollster Steve Mitchell in an article by Beth LeBlanc of the Detroit News. “[Republican candidates] have to embrace the Trump agenda because they are inextricably linked to Trump in the voters’ mind.” The connection between the national figurehead of a party and the party’s local officials could mean people typically think of a candidate’s party first and foremost, and their policy second. The connection seems valid because of the media focus on presidential elections and national news over local elections and news.

An endorsement from President Trump could indicate victory in the primaries, but could also make the midterm elections more difficult. Bill Schuette was endorsed by President Trump, which rocketed him ahead of Brian Calley, a Republican candidate for governor in the Michigan primaries.

University of Michigan senior Tara Jayaram thinks differently. She believes that local candidates are voted for less based on their party affiliation and more on name recognition throughout the community. Jayaram gives her mom as an example of this phenomenon.

“[She] always tends to vote Democrat…but she is friends with…the local furniture-maker, who is definitely a Republican. He ran for local office and she just knows him and so she voted for him.”

“Each state is a circumstance unto itself,” Professor Goldenberg explained. However, Michigan could be a special case because it has had both Republican and Democratic governors and is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. The degree to which a state is gerrymandered can now be determined by the “efficiency gap”, which measures how many votes are thrown away when a district is drawn to benefit a specific party. The votes that are thrown away could have been used to make a district more competitive if the district lines were drawn in a different way.

The Republican government was the last to redraw districts in Michigan, and so the districts are drawn in favor of the Republican party, Professor Goldenberg stated. This could explain why there is a sometimes a difference between Michigan’s local and national party preferences.

The power to redraw district lines is another reason why the midterm elections could be an indicator of what will happen in the next general elections. “If a Democrat wins, it will have implications for the districts that are drawn for the state legislature and for Congress,” explained Professor Goldenberg.

In other words, whichever party is in power in Michigan following the 2018 elections will have the ability to redraw district lines, which will affect the partisan makeup of the country on a national scale. However, the new districts could better represent Michigan’s electorate. There is a ballot measure that would put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission instead of the state legislature in order to reduce partisan gerrymandering.

The Michigan primary was held Aug. 7. Results confirmed that Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette will be running for governor, while a democratic Senate seat is up for contest as well as five potentially competitive House seats. NBC News and Marist polls predict that both Whitmer and Senator Debbie Stabenow will secure victory in the 2018 election, exemplifying how Democrats could potentially win big in the Midwest—an area that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016.

Brian Calley seemed to believe the Republican Party was united behind President Trump. He said in his concession speech that “the reality is, this is President Trump’s Republican Party. His chosen candidates win Republican primaries.”

Professor Kollman concurred. “The degree to which Republican candidates are afraid to come out as anti-Trump is a reflection of the fact that…[around] eight or nine out of ten republican voters think Trump’s doing well.”  

Professor Goldenberg, on the other hand, does not believe that it is. “People keep saying…it’s the Trump Party now, which is a party that a lot of traditional Republicans don’t recognize.”

If the Republican Party is not the “Trump Party”, as Goldenberg stated, then it is possible that no matter the outcome, midterm losses for the Republican Party will not suggest that the separate “Trump Party” will lose in 2020.

Students are exploiting many options to educate themselves on the candidates and issues before entering the polling booth.

Graduate student Logan Woods suggested that people look at Michigan’s sample ballots–which have links to candidates’ websites in Michigan–and Vote411.org, both of which are great non-partisan resources for voters. Goldenberg cited the League of Women Voters as another valuable resource for voters leading up to the midterm elections in November.

Berger was not shy to suggest that people turn to the candidates for their information. “They are incredibly open…it’s midterm season and they are traveling around the entire state meeting and talking to people. They’re very accessible–go there and talk to them.” For those who are not able to do this, candidates typically have websites that detail their position on issues.

Jayaram uses her bipartisan friends as resources on candidates. “I think I’ve learned a lot more through listening to them talk with each other and weigh pros and cons and combat each other on issues that I have through reading people’s stances on [issues].”

Jayaram’s openness to opposing political views is something we can all learn from. It is our responsibility, as citizens of the United States of America, to fulfill our civic duty and to converse with those who have different political views than ourselves. The divisive political climate will not change if people are not open to discussion and understanding. Therefore we all must approach the midterm elections as a time of change—not of political party in power, no matter how important that might be to different individuals, but to change the climate of politics into one of collaboration and communication.

Elizabeth Pratt is a senior at the University of Michigan studying history and English.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The image above is courtesy of Michigan Public Radio.

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