Poll: Whitmer leads Schuette by comfortable edge in Michigan governor's race

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Bill Schuette.

Lansing — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer holds a comfortable lead over Republican Bill Schuette in the Michigan governor's race and is doing a better job attracting critical independent voters, according to a new statewide poll conducted last week.  

The survey of 600 likely Michigan voters conducted for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV shows support for Whitmer was especially strong among female, college-educated, Metro Detroit and senior voters. Roughly nine weeks out from the Nov. 6 election, more respondents said they had heard of Schuette than Whitmer, but fewer said they liked the two-term attorney general.

Whitmer had a nearly 14-percentage-point lead in the Sept. 5-7 survey, which has a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

The poll showed 49.8 percent said they would vote for Whitmer if the election were held that day, compared with 36.1 percent for Schuette. Another 4 percent of voters said they would pick a third-party candidate, including 2.3 percent who would back Libertarian Bill Gelineau, and 10 percent were undecided.

Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing, had a 13.8-percentage-point advantage among self-described independents, a coveted voting bloc that can help swing close elections. Independents viewed Schuette unfavorably by a 2-1 margin.  

“Michigan governors get elected by independents in Southeast Michigan, and right now, Bill Schuette has got to do something very quickly to change the way independents view him,” said Richard Czuba of Lansing-based Glengariff Group Inc., which conducted the survey.

“We’re seeing across the state that independents are harshly viewing Bill Schuette, and you can’t win (a competitive race) if independents don’t like you in Michigan.”

Polls reflect a snapshot of voter sentiment at a specific time and do not predict election outcomes. Roughly 43 percent self-identified as Democrats, 37 percent as Republicans and 20 percent as independents.

The poll showed Michigan voters across the political spectrum are highly motivated to vote in the Nov. 6 general election, perhaps historically so, after setting a modern turnout record in the Aug. 7 primary. Respondents averaged a score of 9.4 on a scale of 10.

Of the 88 percent of respondents who knew Schuette’s name, 41 percent said they held an unfavorable opinion of the Midland Republican, 26 percent had a favorable opinion and 21 percent had no opinion.

Roughly 81 percent of voters said they’d heard of Whitmer. Of those, 39 percent held a favorable opinion of the East Lansing Democrat, 19 percent unfavorable and 22.5 percent no opinion.

Of the 600 likely voters, 64 percent were reached on a landline phone and 36 percent on a cellphone.

Whitmer's advantages

Whitmer’s survey lead suggests that if the election had been held last week, she could have beat Schuette even if every undecided voter broke his way.

She held a 6.5-point advantage among men but a 20.7-point lead among women. Whitmer led Schuette among all age groups but polled strongest among voters 65 years or older, who favored her by 28 percentage points.

Regionally, Whitmer and Schuette tied among out-state voters. But she held a 27-point lead among voters in Metro Detroit, including a 20-point advantage among men and a 33-point lead among women.

Schuette led among male voters who had only a high school education, but Whitmer did better among men with some post-secondary education, college-educated men and women of all education levels.

Schuette “came out of the primary limping,” Czuba said, referencing attacks from critics like GOP rival Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. The 64-year-old attorney general trumpeted his endorsement from Republican President Donald Trump, who has a 57 percent unfavorable rating in the state he narrowly won in 2016.

Whether Schuette decides to pivot away from Trump after the primary to broaden his appeal in the general election was a key question in the race, Czuba said, “and here we are a month later and the answer is no.”

Appealing to independents

For Amy Elliott, the chance for a living wage, where a 40-hour work week provides enough to feed a family and go to an occasional movie, has her leaning toward a vote for Whitmer, who supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Whitmer’s insistence on better roads also resonated with the 41-year-old Howell woman, who considers herself an independent.

“The things that she is saying lead me to think she’ll do more for the common folk, the middle class,” Elliott said. “Whether she holds true to what she’s saying or whether it ends up being a slogan, only time will tell.”

The way Ann Vida sees it, a vote for Whitmer is more about a vote against Schuette than it is about support for the Democratic candidate.

The 64-year-old woman from Johannesburg, in northern Michigan's Otsego County, considers herself an independent but leans Democratic largely when it comes to the potential for affordable health care.  She said she is not endeared by Schuette’s support for Trump.

“I have a feeling that Bill Schuette, that he’ll rubber stamp whatever Trump wants to do, and I don’t want a governor like that,” she said.

Rodger Erickson, a 54-year-old from Troy who works in a family business, plans to vote for Schuette this fall because he said he fears victorious Democrats could undermine the president’s agenda.

“I don’t know a whole lot about (Schuette) beyond him being a Republican and Trump is backing him,” said Erickson, who supports the president’s push for fewer regulations. “That’s basically the whole she-bang.”

Campaign comparisons

Schuette and Republican allies have run a slew of television ads trying to link Whitmer to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, but nearly eight years after she left office amid dismal approval ratings, voters now appear to be divided over Granholm.

Of the 95 percent who knew her, 41.1 percent had a favorable opinion of Granholm and 41 percent unfavorable.

Running mates chosen by Whitmer and Schuette last month do not appear to have had a major impact on the race. More than 69 percent of voters said they’d never heard of Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Garlin Gilchrist of Detroit, and nearly 67 percent said they did not know Republican nominee Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a former state lawmaker from Alto.

“I would expect voters will see an onslaught of negative ads against Whitmer,” Czuba predicted. “They’ve got to bring her favorables down and raise her unfavorables to a level equal to Schuette’s.”

Whitmer campaign spokeswoman Nicole Simmons said the poll "just confirms  what we've been hearing on the campaign trail, which is that Michiganders want a leader who can actually get things done."

She is " the only candidate who has a real plan to solve problems for Michigan families like fixing the roads, cleaning up our drinking water, and getting rid of" the so-called pension tax on retirement income, Simmons said. 

Schuette campaign spokesman Chris Gustafson downplayed the Glegariff poll results by saying "the same folks said two years ago that Michigan would elect Hillary Clinton president." 

"The fact is this will be a battle for the next two months as Michigan voters learn about Gretchen Whitmer’s extreme agenda to take Michigan down a high-tax, shrinking-paycheck agenda that will put their families at risk," he said.

Ready for change?

While a Democrat is leading in the race to replace him, term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's approval ratings are on the rise. After sinking during the heights of the Flint water crisis, Snyder's rating is now near even, with 46 percent of voters saying they approve of his job performance and 46.6 percent disapproving, according to the poll. 

More than 50 percent of independent voters said they approved of Snyder's job performance, but he remains relatively unpopular. Of the 99 percent of respondents who said they'd heard of him, 39.8 percent had a favorable opinion of Snyder, compared to 46.2 percent unfavorable. 

"When a governor leaves office after eight years in Michigan, they generally don't leave popular," Czuba said, referencing former Govs. Granholm and John Engler. "But Snyder is rising and his numbers are pretty OK."

Snyder endorsed Calley in the GOP primary but has not endorsed Schuette in the general election, repeatedly telling reporters he is focused on his own goals for his final months in office rather than partisan politics. 

Asked to think back to 2010, 55.9 percent of voters said they believe Michigan is now in a better place than it was eight years ago, while 18.6 percent think things are worse and 22.5 percent believe things are about the same. 

More voters think Michigan is on the right track (46 percent) than the wrong track (40 percent), and they are happier with the direction of the state than the country.

Asked in an open-ended question about what is the most important issue facing their community, 16.8 percent of voters said jobs and the economy, 12.8 percent said roads and bridges, 8.2 percent said crime and drugs and 6.2 percent said poor leadership or divided government. 


Detroit News Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.


Whitmer leads Schuette

Gretchen Whitmer 49.8%

Bill Schuette 36.1%

Thirty party candidate 4.1%

Undecided 10%

Schuette's favorability

Favorable 26.2%

Unfavorable 41.3%

No opinion 20.9%

Never heard of 10.9%

Don't know 0.8%

Note: Numbers may not total 100 percent because of rounding. Poll of 600 likely Michigan voters had margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Source: Glengariff Group