Most approve of Whitmer's handling of pandemic, Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll finds

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Despite opposition rallies at the Capitol, legal challenges and recall efforts, a majority of Michigan voters approve of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s job performance and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Detroit News-WDIV-TV poll.

The first-term Democratic governor's approval rating has risen more than 15 percentage points from January. The first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Michigan in March. The uptick in popularity could help former Vice President Joe Biden as he seeks to win the state where President Donald Trump prevailed by 10,704 votes in 2016, experts said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

In a poll of 600 likely voters by the Glengariff Group, 59% said they approve of Whitmer’s job performance, including a large share of the independent and Black voters who will be key to any Democratic win in November. The poll surveyed voters in all regions of the state Sept. 1-3, with half reached by cell phone. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Another 38% of voters disapproved of the governor's performance.

In January, only 43% approved of the job Whitmer was doing and 36% disapproved.

Whitmer’s jump in job approval rating appears to have stemmed from her response to the pandemic. Nearly 61% of Michigan voters approve of Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak compared with 36% who disapprove, according to the poll.

The high ratings of her performance are all the more remarkable considering that only 52% of voters surveyed said they had a favorable impression of Whitmer.

The survey also finds a majority of voters oppose repealing a 1945 law that gives the governor the authority to unilaterally declare an emergency and issue executive orders that this year have included closing businesses, dictating where and how residents can shop as well as deciding where they can exercise.

The results come after the 49-year-old governor was a finalist to be Biden's running mate and spoke during the Democratic National Convention in August.

On Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two pivotal cases questioning Whitmer's powers under a 1945 state law to continue an emergency declaration and dozens of executive orders without the cooperation of the Legislature.

Among independents, 62% approve of Whitmer's performance, according to the poll. Among Black voters, 97% support her. 

“I think people are underestimating the impact she will have on this election in Michigan,” said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Glengariff Group. 

“She has great credibility both with Black voters and independent voters, and she can be a very effective messenger for Joe Biden in this presidential race.” 

Whitmer’s approval numbers seemed to spike during the pandemic as she dueled with Trump about the lack of a national plan, testing supplies and personal protective gear. 

“Any Democratic nominee would be committing malpractice if they ignore a governor of Michigan with 60% job approval,” Czuba said. 

While Whitmer’s favorability might be useful in the 2020 election, it remains to be seen whether the governor can hold on to independents into her own reelection campaign in 2022. But her national profile in 2020 might help. 

“She’s going to be able to tap into networks that aren’t necessarily afforded to everybody,” Czuba said. 

COVID-19 response

Joshua Ladewig, a 40-year-old teacher from Big Rapids, was among the individuals polled who strongly approved of Whitmer’s performance, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It became evident that she really understood her role when she took steps to save the people of Michigan from COVID-19 when the president was simply floundering and doing nothing,” Ladewig said. “When he failed to act, she took action.”

But Ladewig said he felt the governor, given more time and resources, should have broken down the regions for reopening into smaller ones so that low-case areas like Big Rapids were uncoupled from higher-risk regions like Grand Rapids. It likely would have won her more support in rural areas, he said. 

Whitmer’s COVID-19 approval numbers follow closely to her overall approval numbers, which are stronger in Metro Detroit than outstate. Nearly 68% of Detroit-area voters approved of Whitmer’s performance compared with 49% of outstate voters.

Whitmer’s performance in southeast Michigan could influence local House races, where Democrats are hoping to flip three seats in Oakland County. But outside of Metro Detroit, the situation isn't as promising. 

“The Democrats and Gov. Whitmer have enormous challenges in outstate Michigan that were not as affected by the virus,” Czuba said. 

It’s that disconnect that caused Ray Balkum of Iron Mountain to voice his strong disapproval of Whitmer when contacted by pollsters. 

Most of the virus outbreaks, especially early on, were in Detroit, Balkum said, and that's a long way from the Upper Peninsula. 

“I had no problem with her before,” Balkum said. “It’s just the way she shut things down and keeps things shut down that I don’t like.”

“That’s just one little corner of Michigan,” he said of Detroit. “It’s not outstate Michigan. It’s definitely not the U.P.”

Still, Balkum estimated Whitmer’s popularity with folks in the Detroit area would be advantageous to Biden’s chances in Michigan. 

“That’s the majority of the votes, I guess,” he said. “It’s like our votes don’t count up here. You talk to most people in the U.P., and they’re going to vote for Trump.”

Emergency powers repeal

That Metro Detroit-outstate divide extended to an initiative seeking to do away with a 1945 law under which Whitmer has been issuing her COVID-19 executive orders. 

Overall, 52% of those polled opposed efforts to repeal the law and end Whitmer's emergency powers while 42% supported the Unlock Michigan petition, according to the poll. Among those opposing the repeal: 19% of those who identified as leaning GOP and 14% of those who identified as strong GOP voters. 

Independents supported keeping the law intact 48% to 44%. 

The biggest divide occurred among Metro Detroit voters, 62% of whom supported keeping the law, and outstate voters, 52% of whom supported the repeal of the law.

For Detroiter Janeen Morgan, Whitmer's actions seemed to be in keeping with what the situation demanded, especially during peak case and death numbers in March and April. Most businesses except those considered essential were shuttered, and other restrictions were ordered to try to stem the spread of the virus.

"Even though it was hard, it still worked. You have to do something to control it," said Morgan, who was working as a caregiver at the time before shifting to customer service in the health care industry. 

"If the power was taken away from her, she wouldn’t have been able to have the same effect," she said.

But for 78-year-old Sharon King, the repeal effort received an unequivocal thumbs-up.

King has been prevented from seeing family at her Pontiac assisted living home since February, and whenever she asks why, she's told it's because of the governor. Friends in the home "gave up" when they realized their quarantine was indefinite, she said.

"At this point, I would sign the petition," King said. "And a lot of people here would. We’re darn tired of it. We feel like we’ve been singled out.”

Unlock Michigan, the group seeking to repeal the law, collected more than 400,000 signatures between July 7 and Labor Day in its effort to collect the 340,047 valid signatures needed. The group plans to submit the signatures to the Board of State Canvassers after reaching 500,000. 

If the group reaches the required number of valid signatures, the measure goes to the legislature. If passed by both chambers, it becomes law. If the legislature does not pass, it goes to the ballot seeking voter approval.

The initiative is maintaining a "tremendous amount of energy," Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek said, but the group could do a better job explaining what the initiative does and its implications beyond the current governor or the coronavirus pandemic.