Whitmer maintains strong lead over Schuette in new poll of Michigan governor's race

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette, shake hands before their second debate, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018 in Detroit.

Lansing — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer continues to hold a strong lead over Republican Bill Schuette as the top candidates to be Michigan’s next governor begin their final sprints toward the Nov. 6 finish line.

Whitmer leads Schuette by 12 percentage points, according to an Oct. 25-27 poll of 600 likely voters conducted for The Detroit News and WDIV that showed little change in the race over the past month despite two debates and a cacophony of television attack ads.

Nearly 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for Whitmer, compared with 37.5 percent for Schuette and 4 percent for third-party candidates. Nine percent of respondents were undecided.

The Glengariff Group Inc. poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Whitmer also led by 12 points in the last poll the firm conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Schuette has struggled to gain ground because his favorability ratings remain “under water,” said pollster Richard Czuba. While 92 percent of respondents knew Schuette's name, 42.5 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the attorney general from Midland, compared with 30 percent favorable.

“The race cannot tighten unless he can bring Gretchen Whitmer’s name ID under water with him or he raises his back above water,” Czuba said about Schuette. “There’s been no movement in how voters perceive him.”

Whitmer’s unfavorable numbers rose slightly from 27 percent to 30 percent, but 39 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of her. Almost 9 in 10 voters surveyed said they knew who she is.

Only 20 percent of voters said they watched at least one of the two televised debates between the leading gubernatorial candidates, but the poll suggests Whitmer benefited most from the exposure. 

Of the 122 respondents who watched, 30 said the debates moved their vote toward Whitmer, 14 said they moved their vote to Schuette, and 78 said the debates had no influence on their vote.

Whitmer’s lead was particularly strong among voters who said they had already cast absentee ballots, 56 percent to 40 percent, a 16-point margin for the East Lansing Democrat and former state Senate minority leader.

Whitmer held an 11-point lead among crucial independent voters and an 18-point lead among women. She is polling the strongest in Metro Detroit, a major population center where she held a 25-point lead among all respondents and a 29-point lead among women. Schuette had a narrow 1-point edge in the rest of the state.

Southeast Michigan is “where Michigan elections are decided,” Czuba said, and it’s “just an enormous problem for the Republican ticket right now.”

Energized voter participation

Polls reflect a snapshot and time and do not predict election outcomes.

The Glengariff survey was conducted by live operators. Sixty-five percent of respondents were on landlines and 35 percent were on cellphones. Forty-five percent said they typically vote Democratic, compared with 38.5 percent Republican and 15 percent independent.

While Michigan turnout often fades in non-presidential years, especially for Democrats, motivation this cycle appears unusually high for voters across the political spectrum. On a scale of 1 to 10, poll respondents gave themselves an average voter motivation score of 9.4.

Republicans typically vote in higher numbers in midterm elections, and Schuette could outperform polls if that again proves true on Nov. 6.

“There is a strong surge in Democratic voting on absentee ballots,” Czuba said, “but the question remains, are they simply moving Election Day voters to absentee voters? The question now is, can Democrats get these voters who are motivated to actually get to the polls?”

As of Friday, 1.07 million voters had requested absentee ballots and had returned at least 587,565, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

Those rates were down slightly from the 2016 presidential election but up significantly from the 2014 midterm, when 688,677 voters had requested ballots and returned 353,911 by the same point in the election cycle.

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Trump factor

Midterm elections often function as a referendum on the sitting president or his party, and the new Glengariff poll did not show any major shift from an early October survey showing relative unpopularity for President Donald Trump.

Fifty-one percent of voters in the new poll said they think the nation is on the “wrong track,” the same percentage as in early October. About 56.5 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, compared with 38 percent favorable, and 51 percent said they disapprove of his job performance.

Thirty-five percent of voters said they would vote against Trump this fall even though he is not on the ballot, compared with 25 percent who said they would vote to support Trump. Another 38 percent said the president will have nothing to do with their ballot this fall.

On a generic ballot test, where voters were asked if they would vote for an unspecified Republican or a Democrat if the election were held that day, Democrats had a 10.5-point edge.

Democrats led the generic ballot test among women by nearly 16 points, compared with a 5-point lead among men. And independents preferred the Democratic candidate by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

Voters weigh in

Barbara Hollyer-Kemp, an 80-year-old from Luther Village in Lake County, said she’s never missed an election and is excited about the chance to vote for a woman at the top of the ticket.

“I think it’s important that we have women in politics because they understand a whole lot better how the dollar is spent,” she said. “I don’t care for Bill Schuette. I have never liked his politics.”

Hollyer-Kemp said she makes it a point to hear directly from the candidates themselves, not just TV ads or characterizations, and “I like Whitmer. She seems like she’s going to be great.”

Donna Theibert, a 71-year-old Atrim County Republican who works as East Jordan Township clerk, said recent elections for her have come down to which candidate she likes less. This year, that’s Whitmer because of attack ads from the Democratic Governors Association and her campaign.

“I don’t like how they blamed the Flint water (crisis) on Bill Schuette,” Theibert said. “I don’t believe that’s true. The bottom line for me is I want to know what you’re going to do it, who you’re going to do it, and not see you put down another person.”

As for the president, Theibert said she doesn’t like “a lot of what he’s said, but I do like the job he’s been doing.”

Trump is a major motivating factor for Dorothea Porter of Lansing, a 69-year-old who described herself as an independent voter who has voted for female candidates from both parties.

She said she supports Whitmer and “pretty much voted all Democratic this year” in hopes the minority party will also retake the U.S. House or U.S. Senate as a check on Trump.

“I think this is a critical year,” said Porter, who works part-time and suffers from lupus, an autoimmune disorder. “I was one of the people that said Trump can’t possibly win. I have been depressed for two years, and this election could do me in if we don’t make some changes.”

Nicholas Newman, a 22-year-old cellphone sales representative from Saginaw, said he aligns with Democrats on more issues and likes Whitmer’s pledges to put more money into public schools and protect health care coverage.

Newsman said he tends to support more “grassroots” candidates but thinks Whitmer’s experience in the state Legislature will help her “get something done.”

Wendell Merritt of Detroit, 65, said he supports Trump and what he’s done in the White House but thinks Democratic opposition has prevented him from doing everything he promised.

He plans to vote for Schuette, primarily as “a matter of elimination” because he does not like Whitmer.

“I don’t like her position on abortion and transgender and homosexuality,” Merritt said, referencing Whitmer’s pro-choice position and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “I can’t vote for her.”

Final days

With the election eight days away, Schuette and Whitmer on Monday were preparing for their final campaign pushes. High-profile supporters have helped both candidates with get out the vote efforts, including a Friday campaign stop by Democratic former President Barack Obama and a Monday visit by Republican Vice President Mike Pence.

“Gretchen Whitmer continues to have all of the momentum in this race because she’s the only candidate for governor who will protect the people of our state," campaign spokeswoman Eileen Belden said.

Schuette said Monday he remains confident in his chances, noting that Michigan polls showed Trump trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election, when he became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1988.

“A funny thing happened on the way to the White House,” Schuette said prior to the Pence rally in Grand Rapids. “People vote, and people get to vote here in Michigan in eight days as well. We’re going to win.”

Schuette cited other recent polls showing a closer margin.

“This is narrowed, and it’s Michigan,” he said. "I don’t care whether your name is John Engler, or Donald Trump or Bill Schuette. We close at the end, and I’m the comeback kid.”


Governor's race

Who the 600 Michigan likely voters preferred for governor:

Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat: 49.8 percent

Bill Schuette, Republican: 37.5 percent

Bill Gelineau, Libertarian: 1.5 percent

Jennifer Kurkland, Green: 1 percent

Todd Schleiger, U.S. Taxpayers 0.5 percent

Keith Butkovich, Natural Law: 0.7 percent

Don't know: 9 percent

Note: The Oct. 25-27 poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Source: Glengariff Group