With a little over a week before Election Day, Gov. Rick Snyder has kept his modest lead over Democratic challenger Mark Schauer among likely voters, who are giving the Republican incumbent high marks for his handling of Detroit's bankruptcy.
A statewide poll conducted for Detroit News-WDIV Local 4 last week found Snyder leads Schauer by about 6 percentage points, 45.2 percent to 39.5 percent, with 9 percent remaining undecided among those who plan to vote on Nov. 4.
The poll of 600 has a margin of error of plus-minus four percentage points and has warning signs for the Republican incumbent, said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Glengariff Group Inc.
Snyder is benefiting from an improved economic outlook among the electorate as well as perceptions that Schauer doesn't have a clear plan for running the state, Czuba said.
By a margin of 41 percent to 33 percent, voters surveyed said Snyder has a clearer plan for Michigan's future than Schauer, who has made his campaign a referendum on Snyder's pro-business record and agenda.
Schauer campaign spokeswoman Cathy Bacile Cunningham said the race remains competitive and will prove "close all the way through Election Day."
"Mark Schauer's Achilles heal is that voters aren't quite clear what he wants to accomplish," Czuba said. "That is always an obstacle for the challenger to achieve in the race."
Still, Czuba said there are "some red flags" for Snyder "that I would be very concerned about."
Schauer holds a 6-point lead over Snyder among voters 65 and older, whom he has appealed to over higher tax bills under Snyder after the governor reduced homestead property tax credits for seniors and began taxing younger retirees' pensions.
"He is weaker amongst seniors," Czuba said about Snyder.
Said Bacile Cunningham: "No matter how much money he spends, Rick Snyder can't hide his record of cutting education and raising taxes on seniors."
Schauer's campaign argues the majority of undecided voters will likely choose the former congressman from Battle Creek. In the poll, 30 percent of undecided voters in the governor's race were Democrats, 52 percent independents and 17 percent Republicans.
Snyder's camp disagrees.
"Schauer and his allies can keep up all of the negative attacks that they want, but at the end of the day the governor's message is resonating with voters," Snyder campaign spokeswoman Emily Benavides said.
Optimism buoys Snyder
Michigan's economic turnaround and increasing optimism about the future of Detroit appears to be playing in Snyder's favor, Czuba said.
By 49 percent to 35 percent, voters surveyed approve of Snyder's handling of Detroit bankruptcy issues, which culminated with a $195 million state contribution to help reduce cuts for pensioners and protect city-owned art from a fire sale. In Oakland, Macomb and suburban Wayne County, support for the governor's bankruptcy performance grows to 61 percent who approve and 28 percent who disapprove.
In Detroit, 35 percent of those surveyed said they approve of Snyder authorizing the bankruptcy and his handling of the historic Chapter 9 case reorganizing their city government.
About 68 percent said Detroit will be better off after the city emerges from bankruptcy, while 8 percent said things won't get better. Although it's a small sample, 85 percent of Detroiters surveyed said they believe life will improve in the Motor City after bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy judge said Monday he will announce his decision on the city's recovery plan Nov. 7.
Optimism about Detroit's future is above 63 percent across all partisan groups.
"If you had asked this question a year ago to anybody, who would have ever thought that optimism about Detroit would have unified Michigan?" Czuba said. "It's an extraordinary story that Michiganders have once again united behind their largest city."
Absentee ballot push
About 23 percent of poll respondents said they already have voted or plan to vote absentee. Schauer holds a 12-point lead among voters who have already sent their absentee ballot. Democrats have placed an added emphasis this year on encouraging absentee ballot casting.
As of Friday, nearly 355,000 absentee ballots were returned to local clerks, with about 48 percent of them being from voters with a history of voting in Democratic primaries and 42.5 percent coming from Republican voters, according to RevSix Data Systems, a Pontiac-based company that tracks absentee ballots for candidates.
"This is now a turnout game," Czuba said. "That's the central question mark of the race now — who really ends up going to the polls?"
An Oct. 2-4 Detroit News-WDIV poll showed Snyder leading Schauer by eight points among probable voters, while the Oct. 22-24 poll focused on those who plan on voting.
Matt Marsden, public affairs director for RevSix, said there has been a "slight uptick" in new absentee ballot requests to local clerks, which disclose the information through public records requests to his firm and the two major political parties.
Most absentee ballots go out to voters over age 60 who are on a permanent list to receive an application to vote by mail.
Voters being activated
But of the 169,630 ballots still in the possession of voters not on the permanent list, Marsden said, 76 percent of them have voted two or fewer times in general elections since 2006.
It suggests Democrats may be tapping into a segment of the electorate who voted in 2008 and 2012 for President Barack Obama, but has not participated in recent mid-term elections, Marsden said.
Among that pool of absentee voters, 36.5 percent are ages 50-64, which Marsden said is higher than normal and suggests Schauer could be making inroads with young retirees subject to the 4.25 percent income tax.
"There's a reason Democrats are using that particular issue in their advertising," Marsden said of the tax on pensions.
The poll included 39 percent of voters who identify as Democrats, 35 percent Republicans and 25 percent political independents.
Schauer's campaign questioned the credentials of pollster Czuba, who worked in Republican Gov. John Engler's administration and has polled for state agencies during Snyder's term in office. Czuba noted he's also polled for state agencies during Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's tenure, Democratic Senate Leader Gretchen Whitmer and the United Auto Workers.
"I've worked on both sides of the aisle," Czuba said. "They're blowing smoke on that one."