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Finley: Can Schuette craft Trump surprise?

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Facing dismal poll numbers with less than two months till election day, Bill Schuette can take solace in the knowledge that Donald Trump was in nearly the same daunting place in Michigan at this time in 2016.

A summary of The Detroit News post-Labor Day poll that year showed Hillary Clinton ahead of her Republican rival by a margin of 41-36 percent, and when asked which candidate was most qualified to be president, voters gave Clinton a 57-39 percent edge. Just 1-in-4 women said they'd vote for Trump.

The pollster's conclusion: "Unless the tenor of Donald Trump's campaign changes dramatically or a major event alters circumstances, Republicans are facing an historic defeat in Michigan."

Of course Trump defied that prediction, narrowly winning Michigan and the presidency.

So don't write Schuette's political obituary just yet, despite the recent Detroit News/WDIV poll that puts him  nearly 14 percentage points behind his Democratic rival Gretchen Whitmer. That survey also registers Schuette's favorability rating at 26.2 percent, against an unfavorability rating of 41.3 percent.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and Vice President Mike Pence stand together after a GOP unity rally at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

Trump proved political prognosticating to be a fraught enterprise in such a volatile era. Schuette may be tempted to chuck this survey in the trash and trust those same Trump voters to hoist him to an against-the-odds victory as well. 

But the dynamics have changed in Michigan over the past two years, and the gubernatorial race isn't a mirror image of the 2016 presidential contest.

For starters, Whitmer doesn't carry Clinton's baggage. A lot of voters detested the Democratic standard-bearer so much that they held their noses and voted for Trump, even after telling pollsters they wouldn't.

Whitmer's favorability/unfavorability numbers are at 41-26 percent — nearly the reverse of Schuette's.

Democrats stayed home en masse in Michigan in 2016. That's not going to happen this time. Voter motivation is at historic highs across every group.

The dynamics of the country have also shifted, thanks partly to the #metoo movement. Female candidates are scoring wins across the country, including in Michigan's August primary. The hyper-sensitive environment makes attacking women running for office a risky tactic. 

And then there's the Trump factor. Schuette rode the Trump endorsement to a landslide primary win. But those were Republican voters. The general election voters who took a chance on Trump in 2016 know him much better today, and familiarity has bred contempt. Trump’s approval rating in the state is at just 37 percent.

Disdain for Trump is rubbing off on his fellow Republicans, and boosting Democrats. Women voters in Metro Detroit prefer the generic Democratic candidate by a margin of 33 percent, portending bad news for GOP congressional and legislative contenders. 

Independents, who went big for Trump in 2016, prefer Whitmer by a 13.8 percent margin. 

While Trump was seen as a non-politician change agent, Schuette's been around too long to make that claim. He's a Republican seeking to replace another Republican in a state that has rarely allowed a party to succeed itself in the governor's office.

Again, things looked this dire for Trump two years ago. I was among the pundits declaring the race over in September and resigning myself to a Hillary Clinton presidency. 

If we learned anything from the 2016 race, it's that voters don't always cast their ballot in November the way they tell pollsters they will in September. 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.