Traverse City Record-Eagle


September 9, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Will Detroit turn out?

No one doubts that Detroiters will vote overwhelmingly to re-elect President Barack Obama.

But will they show up at the polls?

Among those who are worried is Mayor Dave Bing. "Everybody talks a good game about how important it is, and how people fought and died to give us the right to vote, and then when it comes time for them to do it, they become lethargic," the mayor told me last week, before leaving for the Democratic National Convention.

Four years ago, a higher percentage than normal of the Motor City's mostly black residents did turn out. Though some suspect the city's list of registered voters contained names of the dead and physically departed that hadn't yet been purged, well over half of the total turned out — and gave Obama an astonishing 97 percent of the vote. GOP nominee John McCain got a mere 8,881 votes in the city, fewer than in many tiny suburbs.

Four years ago, however, Obama's Detroit margin of about 300,000 votes didn't matter, since he won the state by almost three times as much, after McCain angered fellow Republicans by closing down his campaign in Michigan in mid-October.

That led to a statewide Michigan Democratic landslide second only to Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964 — and helped Democrats pick up a seat in Congress and scores of lesser offices.

Nobody expects that will happen again. Most polls show the President with a narrow lead — one that could be endangered if Detroiters turn apathetic. "The big concern we have is that the enthusiasm has waned quite a bit," Bing said.

In a way, the mayor agreed, this was because of unfair expectations. "It was unrealistic when Obama first got into office, thinking he was going to be able to change things overnight."

"He inherited a horrendous situation, but has done a lot of good things," Detroit's embattled mayor said. He praised the administration for not only saving the auto industry, but for an enlightened and flexible policy on the part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has helped fund the demolition of nearly 10,000 dangerous or dilapidated houses in the city since Bing took office.

Michigan was once a volatile "swing state," hotly contested in most national elections. During the three presidential elections of the 1980s, the statewide voted almost exactly mirrored the national average. But since then, it has become gradually more Democratic.

Michigan gave solid majorities to Al Gore and John Kerry, before voting for Obama by a whopping 57 to 41 percent.

But at the same time, the state has been losing clout as the nation's population has shifted to the south and west. In 1980, Michigan had 21 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president. This election, that has fallen to 16.

Detroit's percentage of the statewide vote has dropped even more dramatically. The Motor City once cast nearly a third of all Michigan ballots in a presidential race. Now, it is barely 6 percent.

But Detroit's importance has been oddly magnified by the nearly unanimous way its vote is now cast.

In 1960, when the city still recorded 750,000 voters, John F. Kennedy came out of the city with a plurality of 311,000. This November, there will be, at most, barely 300,000 ballots cast.

But since those votes are now virtually all Democratic, the city remains important. That is, if the city's now largely impoverished citizens show up at the polls. Mayor Bing said he hoped Vice President Joe Biden, his fellow Syracuse alum, comes here often, "to get the people excited, because in order to win Michigan we'll need a much larger turnout than we normally get from Detroiters." He paused. "The big issue is getting people excited about how important it is to get out the vote, because if you don't vote, you are voting for the other guy," he said. (Ironically, that "other guy" he wants so badly to defeat is the only Detroit native ever to be nominated for president on a major party ticket, one Mitt Romney.) Whether anyone can again inspire as many voters as Mr. Obama did last time, even the president himself, remains to be seen.

n Bellwether, Michigan isn't: Some so-called swing states — Missouri, most of all — pride themselves on almost always voting with the winner. In close elections, however — and some that weren't so close — Michigan has been about as likely to support the also ran.

Had it been up to Michiganders, the nation over the last century would have elected Presidents Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Al Gore and John Kerry.

And exactly a century ago, Michigan was one of six states to vote for Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party. Four years ago, however, Michigan got the winner right. And Missouri picked the loser for only the second time in history, voting for John McCain.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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