Michigan Dems fail to attract more voters

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

 Johnson
  • A Democratic effort to get more voters to the polls failed to materialize in Tuesday's election.
  • Statewide turnout in Tuesday's election was less than in 2010 when Democrats got clobbered by GOP
  • "It's a political problem for our party," said Mark Brewer, former state Democratic Party chairman

Michigan Democrats banked their chances on unseating Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on trying to boost early absentee voting and participation at the polls on Tuesday — and it failed to materialize.

The overall statewide turnout in Tuesday's election was about 82,000 less than the 3.26 million voters who voted in 2010 — when Democrats got clobbered by Snyder and Republicans.

"Voter turnout was very low," said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, whose Democratic caucus shrunk after Republicans picked up four seats to gain a 63-47 advantage next year. "I think that's the main problem, and the president's unpopularity hurt most Democrats with independents and swing voters."

The depressed participation was especially evident in Detroit. About 10,000 fewer voters cast ballots Tuesday than the 176,700 cast in 2010, even though Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer spent a significant amount of time — including every weekend since Labor Day — stumping for votes in the city. There also are 33,418 fewer registered voters in Detroit than four years ago, a reflection of the city's continued population decline.

In his first election cycle as Michigan Democratic Party chairman, Lon Johnson placed an added emphasis on getting more party members to vote by deploying a new smart phone app for obtaining an absentee ballot and mailing 1 million voters postage-paid absentee ballot applications.

"That effort was not as robust as we were hoping," said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. "We've got a challenge to create more enthusiasm to get people interested and turn out on Election Day."

Political analysts and pollsters said Wednesday the Democrats' absentee ballot program may have only front-loaded their party's returns with reliable voters who normally go to the polls.

"They rearranged the deck chairs on the Titantic," said Richard Czuba, president of the Glengariff Group who polls for The Detroit News. "They didn't get new people. They just moved people to vote earlier."

Nearly 100,000 absentee ballots remained unreturned prior to Tuesday, with about 79 percent of those in Democratic-heavy Wayne County, according to ballot-tracking data compiled by RevSix Data Systems of Pontiac.

"It's one thing to increase the applications and get that number up. It's another thing to bring them home back again," said Matt Marsden, public affairs director at RevSix Data Systems.

Unofficial voting results show Snyder outperformed Schauer in absentee ballots in Wayne County by 2,429 votes, effectively neutralizing the Democrats' hope for an advantage before voting began Tuesday, Marsden said.

"I think Lon Johnson has some explaining to do," Czuba said.

Johnson pointed Wednesday to some positive numbers in the results for Democrats. They captured seven of eight seats on statewide education boards, an indicator of partisanship.

Snyder received 269,800 fewer votes than he did in 2010 against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, while Schauer captured 193,584 more votes than Bernero did, Johnson said.

"The Democrats and independents who voted for Snyder in 2010 shifted their vote this year to Schauer," Marsden said. "We didn't actually gain any voters."

Johnson and other Democrats acknowledged Snyder's victory also was likely aided by Democrats and independents who sided with a Republican incumbent whose campaign focused on the state and Detroit's economic turnaround.

"The fact that Democrats won seven of the eight ed board seats but lost the governor's race tells us that we could have lost Democrats on the persuasion front," Johnson said in an interview.

Bobby Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said his counterpart's strategy was wedded in "hype" that failed to generate results. "They turned out the regular voters who normally vote absentee or voted absentee this time," Schostak said.

The 42.8 percent statewide turnout was the lowest percentage of registered voters to participate in a mid-term election since 1990. Democrats historically perform better in presidential elections.

"It's a political problem for our party," said Mark Brewer, general counsel to Schauer's campaign and a former state Democratic Party chairman. "We've got to stop these dramatic swings in midterms."

clivengood@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Steve Pardo contributed.