Will Detroit Elect the Next President?

June 3, 2008
If the bulletin is to be believed, Senator Barack Obama has effectively sealed the deal, lining up enough of the superdelegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. And not a moment too soon, as his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, will be kicking his own campaign into high gear this week. Even before he wrested the crown from Hillary Clinton, Obama had made several visits to Michigan, including stops on the Chrysler assembly line, shown above. It’s no surprise that the Illinois senator is looking to establish a presence in the automotive heartland. For one thing, he angered many Michigan voters by withdrawing his name from the state’s primary ballot, and then accepted party plans to block Michigan delegates from being counted at the upcoming Democratic convention, punishment for the state’s decision to hold an unauthorized, early primary vote.

As the Democrats' nominee, Obama cannot afford to alienate Michigan’s constituency. While the state has, on occasion, given its Electoral College votes to the loser in a presidential race, it is still a critical voter block, and one that, in a tight year like 2008 appears to be, could hold the fate of November’s election.

Skipping the primary was only part of Obama’s problem. He was chastised for a speech, given in the early days of his campaign, at the Detroit Economic Club, which appeared to hold Detroit’s Big Three at fault for their own problems. Now, a Democrat is always going to face an uphill battle in terms of winning the votes--and campaign contributions--of Detroit’s managerial class. As General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz admitted to me, some years back, the Republicans in the White House, notably George Bush, haven’t been all that good to the Big Three, but there’s a “knee jerk” resistance to voting for the Democrats, he conceded.

As to the state’s blue-collar workers, they’ve traditionally been staunch Democrats, guided by labor organizations like the United Auto Workers Union. But the UAW has lost much of its power in recent decades, as was first made apparent when line working “Reagan Democrats” steered the state into the Republican camp in favor of the Gipper back in 1980. Across the country, Hillary Clinton has done a much better job of connecting with those voters than Barack Obama, at least through primary season. It’s anyone’s guess--and Obama’s big challenge--to see whether organized labor can steer its members back to the Democrats this coming fall.

Traditionally, the party would also get a helping hand from the City of Detroit. Normally, a Democratic stronghold, one could imagine an even stronger level of support for the first African-American presidential nominee from a major party. But with Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, facing numerous felony charges, things could be more difficult than normal.

That’s not to say Senator McCain will have it easy. There are serious doubts about his ability to manage the nation’s economic crisis, among other things, and his unwavering support for the Iraq War could present serious problems, as well. Support for big tax cuts could endear him to the moneyed managers, but alienate struggling hourly workers who have been losing their jobs by the tens of thousands--or trading wages and benefits for uncertain levels of job security.

Who can make a better case for tomorrow? That will likely determine who will win Michigan. And if the broader race shapes up the way it now seems likely, the troubled Midwest state could very well play a determining factor come Election Day.

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