Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
By Chad Selweski
The headlines from Election Night declared that Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette won big in a primary vote that featured record turnout.
Well, not so much.
The turnout of 29.7 percent statewide, which “shattered” previous numbers, only applies to a sorry track record of primary election participation over the past 40 years. Since 1978, turnout in Michigan’s August primaries prior to Tuesday ranged from 15.1 percent to 24.4 percent.
A participation rate on Tuesday of nearly 30 percent is impressive in that context, but let’s take a closer look.
Because the turnout figures reflect the separate Republican and Democratic primaries combined, the actual 2018 breakdown looks like this: Republicans who voted for governor consisted of 13.3 percent of Michigan’s registered voters. On the Democratic side, the proportion was 15.2 percent of all state voters.
Because Schuette and Whitmer both barely cracked the 50 percent mark in their respective primaries, Schuette on Tuesday actually captured approximately 6.8 percent of all registered voters while Whitmer won the support of about 7.9 percent.
That’s all based on Michigan voter rolls that show roughly 7.4 million registered voters across the state. The fact that both nominees’ percentages are so low in a “record” year for turnout reveals just how little true popularity was held by winners of past primaries.
Whitmer won the Dem primary with 52 percent of the vote, while the two leftist progressives trailed – Abdul El-Sayed at 30.3 percent, and Shri Thanedar, 17.7 percent. Clearly, the former state Senate Democratic leader’s first task is to bring the 48 percent who opposed her, many of whom maligned her during the campaign as an establishment “corporate” Democrat, into the fold.
Similarly, Schuette, the state Attorney General, garnered 50.7 percent support in the GOP primary while his main opponent, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, managed just 25.2 percent. Tea party favorite Patrick Colbeck grabbed 13.1 percent of the vote and darkhorse candidate Jim Hines was not far behind at 11 percent. Early indications are that Schuette may have some difficulty uniting the GOP while also trying to broaden his base.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line: Both contenders in 2018 have a long way to go before they can claim widespread support across the state in advance of the November general election.
Richard Czuba, a down-the-middle pollster who founded Glengariff Group, Inc., cautioned that a much broader electorate will largely decide the outcome in the fall. About 30 percent of general election participants will be independents who mostly sat out the primary (in part because the rules don’t allow split-ticket voting), according to Czuba.
“And they don’t like the president,” he added, referring to the difficulties posed by Schuette’s close ties to Donald Trump.
A new report published by the Pew Research Center shows that, “Compared with recent midterms, more voters (nationwide) … say their view of the president — positive or negative — will influence their vote for Congress.” Gubernatorial voting could follow suit.
Still, the biggest challenge for Schuette and Whitmer may be the haphazard process of sorting out who will actually show up at the polls in November. Even if voter enthusiasm among both parties is high, as polls suggest, a strong turnout in the fall means a Michigan turnout of a little above 50 percent.
So, in a close race the winner will capture about half of a half of the overall voters. To be sure, both campaigns will be seeking that elusive 25 percent victory mark.
One Last Thing
One footnote: Libertarian Party diehards have argued for decades that, if they were just given a fair chance, their far-right candidates would shine through. For the first time, the Libertarians this year qualified for a spot on the Michigan primary ballot, letting the voters decide their nominees rather than a small party convention.
Two gubernatorial candidates vied for the party’s nomination on Tuesday and someone named Bill Gelineau emerged as the winner.
But the outcome that should stick in the minds of Michigan voters going forward is this: The two candidates combined captured a bit less than one-one hundredth of a percent of the total votes cast on Tuesday.