Poll: Whitmer beating Schuette on issues in Michigan governor race

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

Lansing — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer continues to lead Republican Bill Schuette in the race to be Michigan’s next governor, according to a new statewide poll showing voters prefer her plans on issues like roads, education and health care.

The survey of 600 likely voters, conducted for The Detroit News and WDIV roughly five weeks out from the Nov. 6 election, suggests Schuette has gained little ground on Whitmer in the past month. The attorney general remains relatively unpopular, much like GOP President Donald Trump, who has endorsed him.

Whitmer leads Schuette by 12 percentage points, according to the Sept. 20-Oct. 2 Glengariff Group Inc. poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. 

The Lansing-based firm pegged her lead at 14 points in early September. 

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Schuette has shown no signs of panic, "but I'm puzzled as to what the basis of his optimism might be at this point," said analyst Bill Ballenger, a Republican former state legislator. "His campaign ads are pounding away at the same thing, and it's just not producing any forward momentum for him." 

Among respondents in the new poll, 47 percent said they'd back Whitmer if the election had been held that day, compared with 35 percent for Schuette. Third-party candidates combined to garner support from 5 percent of the likely voters, while 13 percent were undecided.

Despite Whitmer’s strength at the top of the ticket, the poll shows Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel’s lead over Republican Tom Leonard has narrowed to 7 points, down from 13 points a month ago.

The change can be attributed to a slight loss of support for Nessel, a small gain for Leonard and more interest in third-party candidates.

In the secretary of state race, Democrat Jocelyn Benson led Republican Mary Treder Lang by 13 points.

Polls reflect a snapshot in time and do not predict election outcomes. Sixty-five percent of participants in the live-operator poll were reached on landlines, while 35 percent were contacted via cell phone.

On the issues

The poll asked likely voters which gubernatorial candidate they thought had a better plan to address four key issues. Whitmer led in all four areas. 

The former Senate minority leader, who has campaigned on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” held a 12-point lead over Schuette on that issue.  The East Lansing Democrat, who this week proposed raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21 years, had a 16.5-point edge over Schuette on health care and a 16-point edge on education.

Schuette has made jobs and the economy a mainstay of his campaign, touting a “paycheck agenda” that includes calls to reduce the individual income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent.

But roughly 37 percent of respondents said Whitmer had a better plan for the economy, compared with 35 percent for Schuette, a statistically insignificant difference that fell within the poll’s margin of error.

The economy is “usually a Republican issue,” said Glengariff pollster Richard Czuba. "The survey showed 64 percent of voters think the national economy is on the right track, and yet Bill Schuette and his party are getting no credit because (the unpopularity of) Donald Trump is overwhelming the issues.”

National dynamics are playing out in races up and down the ticket, Czuba said, but Nessel's lead in the attorney general's race appears to be shrinking amid a new wave of attack ads from the Michigan Republican Party. 

The poll shows Nessel garnering support from 39 percent of respondents, compared with 32 percent for Leonard and 6 percent for other candidates with 24 percent undecided.

Independent candidate Chris Graveline, who made the ballot after fighting the state's signature requirement, polled at less than 1 percent, while Libertarian candidate Lisa Lane Gioia of West Bloomfield received 4 percent backing.

In the battle for secretary of state, 41 percent of respondents supported Benson, compared with 29 percent for Treder Lang and 7 percent for third-party candidates, with 23 percent of respondents undecided. 

Schuette's unfavorability

The poll showed both Whitmer and Schuette now have nearly universal name identification, with more than 97 percent of likely voters saying they recognized the name each candidate. But Whitmer continues to appear more popular. 

Roughly 29 percent of respondents who knew him said they had a favorable opinion of Schuette, compared with 41 percent who said they had an unfavorable opinion of the state's sitting attorney general. 

For Whitmer, 38 percent of likely voters had a favorable opinion compared with 27 percent unfavorable. Her unfavorable number rose 8 percentage points since September amid a stream of attacks.

"Negative ads drive up negatives, that's what they do," Czuba said. "In the past month, they've worked in a moderate way to drive up her negatives some, but her positives are still high."

Whitmer's lead over Schuette was larger — 13.5 points — among respondents who said they "definitely" plan to vote Nov. 6. She led by 8.6 points among independent voters,15 points among women and 8 points among men.

A particularly alarming sign for Schuette, Czuba said, is that he and Whitmer are statistically tied among likely male voters outside of Metro Detroit, a demographic that is usually the "bread and butter of the Republican Party." 

Campaigns trade jabs

While it's not reflected in the new Glengariff numbers, Schuette spokesman John Sellek said the campaign has seen "public and internal numbers that show the race is closing, and we fully expect that to continue toward a close victory on election day."

Reiterating recent accusations that have flown between the two two campaigns, Sellek said Whitmer "is not telling the truth about her record on the Larry Nassar prosecution or on Bill's longtime support of protecting patients with pre-existing conditions."

Whitmer has denied claims she refused to prosecute Nassar, the former Michigan State University sports doctor, on sexual assault charges while serving as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016. She's hammered Schuette for fighting to upend the Affordable Care Act even while arguing he supports some of its more popular features. 

Schuette has "spent this entire campaign trying to run from his record of fighting to take health care away from 680,000 people, but voters aren't buying it," said Whitmer spokeswoman Nicole Simmons, referencing the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program. 

While his office repeatedly fought the federal health care law that provided funding to expand Medicaid eligibility, Schuette said last month Healthy Michigan is now the law of the land and "isn't going anywhere."

Simmons called the new poll numbers encouraging but said Whitmer's campaign is not "taking our foot off the gas" and will continue trying to talk to every voter it can before the polls close at 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.

"Michiganders want a leader who can actually get things done," she said. "Gretchen Whitmer has remained focused on solving problems like fixing the roads, cleaning up our drinking water, and getting rid of the Retirement Tax" on pension income.


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