July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am


Gov's race shouldn't be this close

Gov. Rick Snyder has had a productive first term, but challenger Mark Schauer is showing more strength than expected at the polls. (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)

The most comfortable bet I would make in this election season is that Gov. Rick Snyder would win re-election, and easily.

For one thing, incumbent governors are almost never defeated in Michigan, even ones who fail in their first term — witness Jennifer Granholm’s handy victory in 2006.

Snyder can rightly claim success in his first four years. A state whose economy was at the bottom of every economic ranking when he took over is now among the fastest growing in the country, producing real jobs and attracting a wide range of new businesses.

After drifting basically leaderless for eight years through its worst economic crisis in generations, Michigan now has a governor with a clear agenda and the determination to meet Michigan’s challenges. The case for Snyder’s re-election would seem overwhelming.

And yet in the latest survey by Steve Mitchell, Michigan’s most respected pollster, the governor leads his Democratic foe by just 4 percentage points, 43 percent to 39 percent. That’s consistent with the trend line in this race — the Real Clear Politics average of polls has Snyder up 3.3 points.

That’s barely outside the margin of error for most of the surveys, so the contest could rightly be described as a toss-up.

The oddest thing is that a clear majority of voters actually recognize that Snyder is doing a good job. Mitchell’s poll gives him an admirable 56 percent job approval rating. Performance ratings generally track voter support, but not yet in this race.

Normally, you might credit the attractiveness of the opponent. But Snyder is running against Mark Schauer, the worst candidate the Democrats have stood in a gubernatorial race since Howard Wolpe in 1994. Geoffrey Fieger, at least, was interesting.

Schauer has a thin leadership resume and has yet to offer a strategy for Michigan. The 10-point “jobs plan” he produced this week contained not a single item that would boost employment, instead offering populist attacks on job creators.

It followed an earlier education plan that was equally devoid of details.

But despite 44 percent of voters still not recognizing Schauer’s name, according to a June poll, he is hanging hard on Snyder’s tail. You have to wonder where a better-known and more dynamic Democratic challenger — a Virg Bernero or Gretchen Whitmer — would be in this race.

Polls show Snyder losing the Democratic voters who backed him last time — credit right-to-work legislation . Snyder is also lagging among women voters — the few abortion bills he signed may be at work. And the governor really hasn’t yet begun his campaign in earnest.

But allowing Schauer to hang so close is risky for Snyder -- and potentially expensive. That narrow lead will catch the attention of national Democratic donors, particularly labor unions who would love to topple a governor who signed right to work. The Democratic Governor’s Association has reserved $6 million in TV time in Michigan for the fall, and if the race remains tight, they’re bound to use it. Snyder will have to raise and spend a lot more money than he should have.

Nothing explains the polls, except for a Michigan culture that still resists and resents change, even when it works.

Follow Nolan Finley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.