How McCain Fumbled Away Michigan

The polls give Barack Obama a double-digit lead in Michigan, but you wouldn't know that from the intense canvassing his workers conducted in suburban Detroit over the weekend. Two Obama workers approached the sprawling split-level ranch home of Larry Lobur in Madison Heights, a working-class suburb dotted with McCain signs. Lobur has never voted Democratic. But when canvasser Ginger Roehr asked him if Obama had his support, Lobur snapped: "I know I'm not voting for McCain." Michigan's sour economy forced Lobur to close his construction business, laying off 20 workers. The barrel-chested 46-year-old now works on his own and fears McCain is too old and Sarah Palin too inexperienced to turn things around. "He's overready and Palin's not ready," says Lobur, who credits McCain's VP pick with pushing him over to Obama, to the dismay of his Republican family members. "Just this morning," he says, "we were arguing over the Internet."

Michigan was supposed to be a battleground state. But instead, John McCain ran aground here in a way few would have predicted back on Labor Day. Coming out of the GOP convention, McCain and Palin arrived in the land of the Reagan Democrats, a few miles from Lobur's house, to the adoring cheers of 7,000 supporters. In a reliably blue state in the last four elections, McCain was running neck and neck with Obama for Michigan's 17 electoral votes.

And why not? Michiganders, who have a history of ticket-splitting, loved the maverick. They proved it back in 2000 when they chose him over George W. Bush in the GOP primary. Obama, on the other hand, was viewed with suspicion. He was the outsider who came to Detroit in 2007 and upbraided the hometown automakers for building guzzlers. Then he made Detroit the whipping boy of his stump speech—except in the Michigan primary, which he skipped because of Democratic Party infighting. Hillary was the choice of Michigan's sizable blue-collar crowd. And if they couldn't have her, McCain looked good. That's why he visited Michigan roughly once a week during the summer and trailed Obama by a single point in the polls by Labor Day. "The Democrats were about to push the panic button in Michigan," says veteran political consultant Bill Ballenger.

Then Wall Street crashed, taking McCain's campaign in Michigan down with it. His move to suspend his campaign and fly to Washington played even worse in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate and a collapsing auto industry. "When the Wall Street bubble burst, McCain became unhinged," says Ballenger. And once on the topic of the economy, McCain made gaffes, like trying to explain to an auto-factory crowd why he supported free trade. That's a hard sell to union members who blame free-trade agreements like NAFTA for the loss of their jobs. Soon McCain started slipping in the polls, and before long he was free-falling, dropping 13 points in Michigan by the end of September.

On Oct. 2—the day of the vice presidential debate—McCain pulled out of the state. But he did not go quietly. His strategists trumpeted his surrender in a conference call with reporters, where they revealed that ads would cease and campaign workers would be redeployed to more fertile battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Senior adviser Greg Strimple said Michigan "is the worst state of all the states in play. It's an obvious one … to come off the list."

McCain's stunning move to burn his bridges behind him left the Michigan GOP in tatters. With barely any money coming in from the Republican National Committee, the Michigan Republicans took to the road last week to try to drum up support for races that now hang in the balance. At stake are at least two congressional seats now held by Republicans and as many as 10 seats in the state House of Representatives. "I can't think of a worse political decision I've ever seen," Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis said of McCain's move to telegraph his pullout. "It totally demoralized our troops. Within days, 50 percent of our volunteers just disappeared."

Even McCain's running mate was caught off guard. "I want to get back to Michigan, and I want to try," Palin told Fox News on the day the pullout was announced. "I fired off a quick e-mail and said, 'Oh, come on, you know, do we have to? Do we have to call it there?'" Palin's surprise—she says she learned of the Michigan pullout by reading it in the papers—only added to the aura of chaos surrounding the decision.

Normally, a candidate backs off with little fanfare, leaving his options open to return if the polls change. Obama, for example, has gone in and out of Georgia. In Michigan, the Republicans have successful employed head fakes to draw in their Democratic challengers. In 2004, Bush made a visit to Michigan in the final week of the campaign, though he was trailing in the polls. John Kerry responded, spending precious time and resources to shore up Michigan on the eve of the election. Kerry took Michigan 51 percent to 48 percent, but lost Ohio and the election. "One of the reasons Kerry lost Ohio was because he had to come back to Michigan," says Anuzis. "In the last two elections, Michigan played a critical role not by winning, but by distracting and keeping the Democrats on the defensive."

This time, though, the Republicans lack the money and manpower to pull off such strategic moves. Obama still has nearly 200 paid staffers on the ground in Michigan, twice as many as Kerry had at this point four years ago (though down from nearly 400 staffers before McCain pulled out). The Democratic National Cpmmittee also continues to pour money into Michigan, while the GOP virtually turned off the spigot once McCain left. As of Oct. 15, the Dems had $3.5 million to funnel into federal races in Michigan, while the Republicans had just $860,000, campaign finance records show. Obama hasn't stumped in Michigan since Oct. 3, but he continues to open new campaign offices and press his advantage. "No matter what the other side decided to do," says Obama spokesman Brent Colburn, "Michigan is still important to us."

But Obama was helped by more than just McCain's missteps. He also got a boost from the departure of Detroit's controversial mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in September after copping to two felonies for lying in a sex-and-texting scandal as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors. Obama had avoided campaigning in Detroit for fear of being photographed with Kilpatrick. (Obama asked the mayor to stay away from the Democratic convention this summer, which was not a problem since Kilpatrick's travel was restricted by the electronic tether on his ankle.) Some GOP operatives attempted to link the two men, who are both African-American, with ads that ran in Macomb County showing them hugging before a 2007 speech in Detroit. But with Kilpatrick heading off to jail, those ads never gained traction and Obama now actually leads McCain in mostly white, working-class Macomb County.

Still, some political analysts believe McCain misunderstood the unpredictability of race in Michigan politics. Ever since the 1967 riots, Detroit has divided along racial lines, with a mostly black, impoverished city surrounded by mostly white, prosperous suburbs. Tensions bubble beneath the surface, though they are not always shared with pollsters. In 2006, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal outlawing affirmative action, even though polls leading up to Election Day predicted the proposal would fail. "The issue of race is still a lodestone in the state of Michigan that the Democratic Party has to bear," says Sam Riddle, a veteran political operative who is African-American. "To some, Obama is the end result of affirmative action, and therefore he becomes the target of opponents of affirmative action."

That makes Michigan a wild card that can defy the prognosticators. That's why candidates as disparate as George Wallace, Jesse Jackson and McCain himself have prevailed in primaries in the Great Lakes State. McCain and Palin claim to be out to prove the pundits wrong. They might have had a good opportunity in Michigan. "It's ironic that the maverick himself didn't understand the maverick nature of Michigan," says Riddle. "McCain clearly pulled out of a state where he had a chance to pull an upset." That prospect has left Republicans feeling blue in Michigan.

Join the Discussion