By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: November 3, 2016 12:45 PM
Several critical developments are coming together in the final days of the presidential election that clearly have produced serious concern among Michigan Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign about ensuring she wins the state.
They *should* be concerned.
The biggest development, first reported here at Gongwer News Service for our subscribers, is that absentee ballot returns in overwhelmingly Democratic Detroit are well below where they were in 2012 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 2, 2016). I contacted several clerks in Michigan’s large cities Wednesday and most of them reported that they are on pace to match absentee ballot returns from 2012 with the current returns as of Wednesday at about two-thirds to three-quarters of the total absentee vote in 2012.
But Detroit as of Wednesday had seen absentee ballots returns equaling just 46 percent of the total 2012 absentee vote in the city, and the city clerk’s office is forecasting a decline of 10,000 absentee ballots compared to 2012, a fall of 12.5 percent.
Now, it’s possible that Detroit voters are taking more time with their ballots given the more than 60 candidates on the ballot for school board. It’s also possible more voters will decide to vote at precincts on Election Day, meaning while absentee ballots returns falls, total votes do not.
But it’s also possible that the falloff portends reduced voting at the precincts, in which case, according to my back-of-the-napkin math, Ms. Clinton could net something like 32,000 fewer votes out of the city than President Barack Obama did in 2012.
Earlier this year, I went through an exercise when Donald Trump was at a low point, yet putting considerable emphasis on Michigan, to see what it would take for him to win the state. Michigan has gone Democratic in six consecutive elections with the last two being huge wins for Mr. Obama.
One of those factors was the potential for a decline in the vote out of Detroit given the absence of Mr. Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, on the ballot. It does not appear Democrats are staring at as dire a falloff as I estimated would be needed to really put Mr. Trump into contention (20 percent), but the loss of 32,000 votes is serious.
Now, as I wrote in June, this all starts from a base assumption that Mr. Trump can at least match President George W. Bush’s 2004 performance in Michigan, the best of any Republican during this six-election stretch. John Kerry beat him in the state 165,437 votes.
The other factor I mentioned many months ago that is coming to pass is a massive win for Mr. Trump in Macomb County. He could very well get a 14 percentage point win there that would give him a 50,000-vote boost over Mr. Bush’s 2004 margin in the county over Mr. Kerry.
So at that point, Mr. Trump has now cut that 165,000 margin in half. It also appears that Green Party candidate Jill Stein will improve upon her 0.46 percentage of the vote in 2012, which produced 21,897 votes for her. Let’s give her 1.5 percent since her Real Clear Politics polling average is 2.3 percent and she will likely finish with less than that as voters fear “wasting” their vote. That would be a growth of 44,000 votes, enough to cut the Kerry margin over Bush to 39,000 votes.
Here’s a new factor. Libertarian Gary Johnson appears to be hurting Ms. Clinton more than Mr. Trump. Let’s pull away another half-percent of the vote from the Kerry-Bush margin based on how Ms. Clinton’s lead against Mr. Trump grows in a head-to-head race compared to a four-way race with Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein. That’s another 22,000 votes. Now we’re down to just a 17,000-vote gap, an amount equal to just 0.3 percent of the total presidential vote in 2012.
At that point, it’s up to Mr. Trump to run up the numbers beyond what Mr. Bush could do in 2004 in his core areas and not see falloff in other areas like Oakland, western Wayne and the university counties wipe out his gains elsewhere.
Democrats have a mathematical advantage in federal races in Michigan. And everyone not blinded by partisan glasses knows it. The Democrat can run up the numbers in Oakland and Wayne counties, and there’s simply not enough votes elsewhere to overcome that margin, even if the race turns out close like 2000 and 2004. But that’s all predicated on Democratic voters turning out.
Right now, there’s 115,000 absentee ballots that clerks have issued sitting on voters’ kitchen counters in Oakland and Wayne counties. The smaller counties expected to support Mr. Trump in big numbers have returned their absentee ballots by a much higher percentage than Oakland and Wayne have so far. And Ms. Clinton spending the last week on defense in the wake of the FBI announcing it was looking into newly discovered emails that could pertain to its investigation into her use as secretary of state of a private email server is not helping on the enthusiasm front.
It’s trite, but true: turnout is essential. If Democrats can simply get their voters in Detroit and elsewhere to turn in their absentee ballots, Michigan’s likely out of reach for Mr. Trump, even if he improves considerably upon Mitt Romney’s 9.5 percentage point loss in 2012 to Mr. Obama.
There’s a reason Ms. Clinton is coming to Detroit on Friday for a get-out-the-vote rally, former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced stop in the city to talk turnout strategy and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is visiting the city. Michigan Democrats emailed their members and supporters this morning with a clear, urgent plea: “If you requested an absentee ballot, you should mail it today” (emphasis theirs).
Ms. Clinton is still the favorite to carry the state because Democrats still control their own fate. If they get their voters out, they win.
But Ms. Clinton’s hold on the state is far less sure than anyone but the most devoted Trump supporters would have said just three weeks ago.