Lansing — Democrat gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer leads Republican Bill Schuette by seven percentage points in a hypothetical general election match-up, according to a poll of 600 likely Michigan voters.
Whitmer’s edge comes from support among women and political independents even though the former Senate minority leader continues to struggle with name identification a year into her statewide campaign. Despite her status as a frontrunner for this fall’s Democratic nomination, fewer than 28 percent of the state’s voters know who she is, according to the Glengariff Group Inc. poll provided to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV.
Yet Whitmer is polling ahead of Schuette, the attorney general and Republican primary favorite who is known by 64 percent of voters. In a potential head-to-head match-up, the former Ingham County prosecutor from East Lansing holds a 40 percent to 33 percent lead over Schuette, according to the Jan. 16-19 survey.
Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, who is also competing for the Democratic nomination, trailed Schuette 37.5 percent to 33.5 percent in a separate hypothetical head-to-head, a 4-percentage point gap that mirrors the poll’s margin of error.
“I think the undercurrent there, more than anything, is that this may be a moment for female candidates,” said pollster Richard Czuba, noting Whitmer’s early strength among voters who also gave poor marks to Republican President Donald Trump.
“It’s because female voters, particularly those suburban college-educated female voters, are strongly looking to make a statement in this environment,” Czuba said. “I think it’s going to play out beyond the governor’s race.”
Whitmer leads Schuette 42 percent to 29 percent among women, a 13-point gap with 28 percent undecided, according to the poll. She leads Schuette 32 percent to 21 percent among self-described independent voters, an 11-point advantage with 43 percent undecided.
The margins narrow or reverse for El-Sayed. He leads Schuette 35 percent to 33 percent among women — which is within the survey’s margin of error — but Schuette led independent voters 30 percent to 17 percent.
“When you put in a male candidate’s name, suddenly those independents flip,” Czuba said. “The fact that there is a 25-point shift in the race from Gretchen Whitmer to Abdul El-Sayed is striking.”
The poll did not test Democratic or Republican matchups in the Aug. 7 primary that will see Whitmer compete with El-Sayed, Ann Arbor Democrat Shri Thanedar and other less-well-financed candidates. Other opponents for Schuette in the Republican race include Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township.
Stabenow leads GOP foes
In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Debbie Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat, holds substantial leads against two top Republican challengers, according to the poll.
With the Nov. 6 general election still more than nine months away, the third-term senator leads Republican Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler 51 percent to 30 percent in a hypothetical match-up, with 18 percent of voters saying they are undecided. Pensler has invested $5 million of his own money so far in the primary campaign.
Stabenow holds a 51 percent to 30 percent lead over John James, a businessman and military veteran from Farmington Hills who is also seeking the GOP nomination, with 18 percent undecided.
“One of the great pastimes of the Republican Party is to underestimate Debbie Stabenow,” Czuba said, noting she is initially topping the 50 percent polling threshold that is considered a “holy grail” for incumbents to get re-elected.
Stabenow’s post in the public spotlight gives her a large advantage in early name identification. More than 91 percent of likely voters say they know her, compared to 13.5 percent for Pensler and 13.2 percent for James.
Among the likely voters surveyed, 42.2 percent self-identified as Democrats, 31.1 percent as Republicans and 24.2 percent as Independents. Czuba said the Democratic lean in the sample reflects a high level of motivation to vote by residents in the political center and left of center, which he called the highest he’s seen in 35 years.
The poll comes one week after Whitmer’s campaign downplayed a report that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams and Pastor Wendell Anthony were courting Democratic alternatives to Whitmer and had asked U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township to run for governor, an overture he rejected.
Susan Demas, owner and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said she is surprised El-Sayed’s name identification is almost as strong as Whitmer’s but said the head-to-head results confirm Democrat hopes their candidates will have “the wind at their back for 2018” if current trends continue.
“If you’re only known by roughly a quarter of voters and you’ve got a seven-point lead against Bill Schuette, who is one of absolutely the toughest Republican politicians to beat in this state, I think you’re doing pretty well at this point,” Demas said. “To some degree it shows Democrats (like Duggan) are being a little over-zealously nervous.”
Whitmer campaign spokeswoman Annie Ellison said the poll results show Michigan residents “want a change from the failed leadership of the status quo in Lansing,” which has been led by Republicans the past seven years.
“Whitmer is energized by the excitement she sees across the state for her movement to grow our economy, prepare our kids to succeed, fix our roads and fight for quality health care,” Ellison said.
Asked about the polling match-up with Whitmer, Schuette campaign spokeswoman Bridget Bush said her boss is “focused on making Michigan the growth, paycheck and jobs state.”
“While polls will pile up during the election season, the attorney general will stay focused on addressing the economic issues that matter most to Michigan families,” Bush said.
The survey was the first public poll to test El-Sayed’s potential strength in the general election. And while the 33-year-old medical doctor did not fare as well against Schuette as Whitmer, spokesman Adam Joseph said polls often fail to capture the enthusiasm of young people and communities of color.
“There is no doubt that Abdul is the best candidate to beat Bill Schuette because he’s generating excitement and enthusiasm among the base who are sick of Trump and his friends,” Joseph said.
Schuette strong with GOP voters
Schuette, who has held elected or appointed office for most of the past three decades, is the most well-known candidate in either primary. Among “strong” Republican voters, 61 percent said they knew Schuette, compared to 42 percent for Calley and 18 percent for Colbeck.
All Democratic hopefuls are struggling to with low name recognition. Even among “strong” Democratic voters, only 35 percent knew Whitmer’s name, compared with 34 percent for El-Sayed and 33 percent for Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, who is already spending on television ads to boost his campaign.
Whitmer’s 28 percent name identification among all likely voters is still a “big issue,” said political pundit and former Republican lawmaker Bill Ballenger. But he noted that a primary win would elevate her name ID significantly.
“Her main objective now has to be to win the primary,” Ballenger said. “If Trump is no more popular in the fall than he is now, what the Democrats are hoping for is likely to be true: The voters will elect Howdy Doody compared to a Republican. But we don’t know that’s necessarily going to be the case.”
Schuette has higher favorability ratings among GOP voters than his primary competitors, but he does not poll as well with Democrats and independents, according to the survey. Among all voters, 21 percent have a favorable opinion of Schuette, 19 percent have an unfavorable opinion, 25 percent are undecided and 33 percent have never heard of him.
For Whitmer, 12 percent of likely statewide voters have a favorable opinion of her, 5 percent gave have an unfavorable view, 11 percent had no opinion and 67 percent said they’d never heard of her.
“This is a long campaign season, and Schuette’s a good politician,” said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. “Assuming he gets the nomination, (Schuette’s campaign) will try to drive up Whitmer’s negatives and deal with their own.”
Governor race matchups
What a Jan. 16-19 poll of likely Michigan voters found about potential gubernatorial general election match-ups:
Whitmer vs. Schuette
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer 40.3%
Republican Bill Schuette 33.3%
Don’t know 26.4%
El-Sayed vs. Schuette
Republican Bill Schuette 37.5%
Democrat Abdul El-Sayed 33.5%
Don’t Know 29%
Note: Margin of error is plus-minus 4 percentage points.
Source: Glengariff Group Inc.