GUEST POST: Michigan Democrats Get More Votes, Lose Anyway


Below I am crossposting a piece written by Walt Sorg and published at his blog The Michigan Curmudgeon. Walt has held senior positions in all three branches of Michigan state government, serving under Speaker Bobby Crim and Governor Jim Blanchard as well as at the State Bar of Michigan. He began his 48-year tenure in or around Michigan government as a young journalist covering George Romney, Senator Phil Hart and state House Speaker Bill Ryan.

Before we get into Walt’s essay, I wanted to emphasize something he wrote that echoes my feelings with regard the blame game that’s happening in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election. Walt posted some excellent analysis in his Friday Michigan Polilinks post this morning under the heading “It wasn’t Lon Johnson’s fault”:

More than a few people, especially former Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer, are taking aim at Lon Johnson and his efforts to gin up Democratic turnout compared to 2010. They note that the turnout was down about 100,000 from 2010 and use that as proof that Johnson failed.

Well, initial evidence indicates that he actually did increase Democratic turnout … just not as much as he had hoped … and that the biggest shortfall was in Detroit (a city where a lot of people, beginning with the two daily newspapers, credit Rick Snyder with saving their bacon).

First, the numbers.

You measure party affiliation (the base vote) using the votes for State Board of Education. That is because all just about anyone know about these candidates is their party affiliation.

In 2010, the two GOP candidates received 2.861-million votes, the two Democrats received 2.501-million votes.

In 2014, the score was reversed. The two Democrats received 2.674-million (an increase of 173,000); the two Republicans just 2.431-million (a plunge of 430,000).

So the reason the 2014 total vote was down from 2010 appears to be a smaller Republican turnout. That reality is also reflected in the vote for Governor, with Rick Snyder receiving 275,000 fewer votes than in 2010 (and Mark Schauer improving by 182,000 over Virg Bernero).

The big problem remains Detroit, where 31% voted in both 2010 and 2014.

But to hang all this on Lon Johnson is wrong.

There are a lot of reasons Democrats lost big on Tuesday: newspaper endorsements for Snyder, a money disadvantage for all candidates, gerrymandering which allowed the GOP to win seats without winning more votes.

But you can’t blame it all on Lon Johnson. The numbers demonstrate he made some progress. Not enough, but movement in the right direction.

We can go even further with the numbers. This map was first posted at Bridge. If you click on a county, it gives you the GOP and Democratic vote tallies from 2010 and 2014:

The dark red counties are those where Snyder captured more than 60 percent of the vote; light red are where Snyder won by a lesser margin.

The dark blue counties are those where Schauer captured more than 60 percent of the vote; light blue are where Schauer won by a lesser margin.

I clicked every one of the 83 Michigan counties and, in all but three (Houghton, Ontonagon, and Menominee in the U.P.), the number of votes for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate increased from 2010 to 2014. And in every single Michigan county, Rick Snyder got fewer votes in 2014 than he did in 2010.

Every. Single. One.

Yes, Democrats didn’t increase the number of their supporters enough to win. But they made it a real race and Lon Johnson and his team get at least some of the credit for that.

Here’s Walt’s commentary on the corrosive impact of gerrymandering on Michigan and on democracy itself.

Michigan Democrats Get More Votes, Lose Anyway

A Strange Election

As Lon Johnson points out in an email to Democrats, we won’t know WHO voted for awhile. But we know how they voted, and the reasons for the debacle are becoming clearer. Democrats got the votes, but Republicans gamed the system so they could win without the votes.


The 2011 rewrite of state legislative and congressional boundaries paid huge dividends, again, for the folks that wrote the maps. Democrats actually got plenty of votes, but Republicans made sure that most of them had no impact.

In the 14 congressional races, Democrats received more votes than Republicans:

Democrats: 1,515,716 (49.15%)
Republicans: 1,463,854 (47.47%)

Democrats got more votes, but Republicans were victorious (again) in 9 of the 14 races. They accomplished that by stuffing as many Democrats into as few districts as possible. The average margin of victory for winning Dems was 86,410; the average GOP win margin was 42,243.

(All of these numbers are from the current Secretary of State report and will likely change a little with the official canvass.)

In the races for the state House, Democrats got more votes, Republicans INCREASED their margin:

Democrats: 1,536,812 (50.98%)
Republicans: 1,474,983 (48.93%)

The Republican maps turned a 61,829 margin FOR DEMOCRATS into a 63-47 “majority” for Republicans.

The average Republican victory: 6,389 votes. The average Democratic victory: 10,092.

In the races for the state Senate, the discrepancy is even more egregious:

Republicans received slightly more votes than Democrats, but turned a slim total-vote victory into a super-majority:

Democrats: 1,483,927 (49.23%)
Republicans: 1,527,343 (50.67%)

The Republican maps transforms that slim 43,416 statewide vote margin (1.4%) into a 27-11 advantage (71%) in the state Senate (one GOP victory, a 61-vote win, could be overturned on recount).

The average Republican victory: 15,107 votes. The average Democratic victory: 33,133 votes.

Ticket Splitters

Michigan has been known for ticket splitting since the days of George Romney, and 2014 provided a dramatic example.

Typically the top of the ticket (in this case, Governor) provides the coattails for electing all the candidates to the state education jobs (State Board of Education, UM Regents, MSU Trustees and WSU Governors). That’s because the education board candidates are generally totally unknown.

This year, it didn’t happen.

While Rick Snyder was narrowly defeating Mark Schauer, Democrats swept 7 of the 8 education positions. With two exceptions the candidates were very unknown and didn’t campaign much, meaning their victories were attributable to their party label. (Typically politicians use the SBE numbers to define the political base in the state because of this fact.)

The two exceptions to the unknown/no-campaigning rule were the two MSU winners.

Democrat George Perles, who received the most votes of any education board candidate, is very well known from his days as MSU football coach and Athletic Director; returning Republican MSU Trustee Melanie Foster narrowly defeated Democrat Faylene Owen by utilizing longstanding MSU alumni ties, and a lot of yard signs. And Foster was probably helped by Green Party candidate Terry Link, a popular Lansing progressive activist who received nearly 60,000 votes, nearly twice the number that separated Foster from Owen.

The numbers indicate that Democrats and left-leaning independents turned out in larger numbers than the other guys.

Mark Schauer simply wasn’t able to “make the sale” to enough independents. NBC’s exit poll showed Snyder carrying independents 61-34%.

(The NBC exit poll shows Snyder’s core voters were wealthy older white males with above-average incomes. He even claimed a 53-46% edge among seniors despite the hated pension tax.)

The endorsement of Rick Snyder from respected former Governor William Milliken, combined with greater name recognition and a bigger TV ad budget, may have been the difference in Snyder’s 4% margin of victory.

It’s hard to figure in the impact of Gary Peters’ huge victory over Terri Lynn Land. Her campaign and candidacy were so inept that Peters’ landslide victory was inevitable.

Bill Schuette: Money Plus a Smart Campaign

Michigan’s horrific right-wing ideologue managed an easy reelection through three factors:

Mark Totten didn’t have the money to make his case with the voters

  • Schuette had tons of money
  • Totten had very little money
  • Schuette started out with a huge name ID advantage
  • Schuette ran a very smart media campaign

Schuette outspent Totten by more than $1-million, the difference being “dark money” from a shell organization created by Lansing attorney and longtime Schuette ally Richard McLellan. The “Michigan Advocacy Trust” ran TV ads which the Michigan Truth Squad called out-and-out lies, and ran them a lot.

Schuette also ignored the real priorities of his first term (repealing Obamacare, fighting marriage equality, attacking medical marijuana vendors) and focused on warm-and-fuzzy issues which were tangential to his office. (Even Bill Schuette gets something right once in awhile.) With Schuette’s huge name ID advantage and Totten’s underfunded campaign, it was smart strategy.

Even so, Schuette only won by 7.9%. The low-knowledge ticket splitters saved his bacon.

Michigan Supreme Court

The pre-game advantage for the GOP: the constitutional right of the Governor to appoint justices to fill vacancies. Rick Snyder appointed two justices to fill vacancies, so they were able to start the campaign with the huge advantage of the title “Justice of the Supreme Court” appearing on the ballot.

From that point on lots of money, most of it “dark money,” carried the day.

The two Snyder appointees were, to no one’s surprise, victorious.

But the corporate interests who loved their “non-partisan” Republican judges didn’t take any chances. The Michigan Republican Party spent more than $2.3-million on the race. Virtually all of the money undoubtedly was corporate (a.k.a. from the DeVos family).

The other winner was a man who has benefited from decades of saturation TV advertising by his father: Richard Bernstein, law partner and son of 1-800-Call-Sam. He supplemented his name ID advantage with a major injection of his own money (more than $600,000).

(For the record, The Curmudgeon is a huge fan of Bernstein. The “Blind Justice” is smart, dedicated to public service, and an incredibly nice person.)

So How Do Democrats Win?

Good question. Lon Johnson has made a good start as party chair, showing significant gains from the 2010 debacle. In an email to party members, Johnson noted that

  • Gary Peters is the only non-incumbent Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate.
  • Democratic candidates for Congress in Michigan received more votes than did the Republican Congressional candidates – despite a national republican wave. This was not the case in 2010.
  • There were 88,000 fewer votes cast in 2014 than in 2010 – yet our nominee for Governor did significantly better in terms of vote. Snyder received 275,000 fewer votes, and Schauer received 182,000 more than our 2010 nominee. This was despite Governor Snyder having the advantages of incumbency, resources and a Republican wave year.
  • Absentee vote was substantially up from 2010 – we won’t know, fully, for a few more days by how many total or from whom. But as of Saturday 11/1/14, according to the Secretary of State there were 680,000 AV ballots cast and received by clerks – compared to 574,000 by the Saturday before the election in 2010.

The first priority has to be redistricting reform. Voters should choose their politicians. Right now, politicians choose their voters. Analysts say the current state Senate map is so skewed Democrats would need to win 60% of the statewide vote to have even a chance at taking the majority. Republicans, of course, will fight to the end to maintain their legalized election-fixing maps.

The other priority is motivating everyone to vote. About 60% of eligible voters sat on their asses (again) in this election. The sad irony is that they are the people who will be hurt most by the GOP’s trickle-down, screw-the-working-people policies.

Michigan is a blue state, but Republicans know how to cheat

No Republican candidate for U.S. Senate has won in Michigan since 1994 (one-term Senator Spencer Abraham). The last Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan was St. Ronnie of Hollywood 30 years ago.

But Republicans have been skillful at manipulating the rules to allow them to run things even though it is the minority party. They likely will extend their election rigging during the upcoming “lame duck” session by changing the way Michigan awards its electoral votes for President. The GOP plan would give a candidate one vote for each congressional district carried, plus two votes for carrying the state. Had this plan been in effect in 2012, Barack Obama’s 500,000-vote victory would have given Mitt Romney a 9-7 victory in the Electoral College, because the Republican-drawn congressional maps guarantee Republican victories (see the vote totals above).

Republicans don’t want to see all 16 Michigan electoral votes in the Democratic column in 2016. The only way they can prevent it is by changing the rules to rig the outcome.

And don’t be surprised to see GOP-style voter suppression laws for Michigan comparable to what has been used in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. Because to Republicans, it is all about winning by any means possible.

[Image credit: BadgeMonkey via Flickr.]