Michigan’s history of racial tensions is tugging against its Democratic tendencies, giving Barack Obama fits in a state where almost everything else—a soaring unemployment rate, a shrinking auto industry and a depressed housing market—potentially benefits Democrats.
The first minority candidate with a serious shot at the presidency is not running as well as his Democratic predecessors among working-class whites in this pivotal Midwestern swing state, partly because of the color of his skin.
“I’ve got a lot of friends . . . (who) are like, ‘Oh, no’” when it comes to voting for a black presidential candidate, said John Martin, a 42-year-old Democrat from Macomb County’s Harrison Township who backs Obama. “They’re all working people, all in unions, plumbers and stuff like that. . . . A few of them have said they’re not even going to vote.”
Race is always an uneasy subtext in Michigan, which suffered through 1967 race riots in Detroit and still has a mixed relationship with its often-struggling largest city.
It’s an especially potent issue in southeast Michigan, where mostly black Detroit is surrounded by mostly white suburbs in western Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. The metropolitan area, among the nation’s most segregated, just went through a steamy text-messaging scandal that ended in Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigning in a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to two obstruction of justice charges and no contest to assault.
Although Detroit residents—more than 80 percent of them are black—are expected to turn out in record numbers for Obama, the black mayor’s troubles have created a cynicism among many suburban voters that could hurt Obama.
But Republicans think tying Obama to the racially polarizing mayor might help McCain, particularly in Detroit’s suburbs. A recent CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. poll showed McCain leading Obama by 14 percentage points among whites in Michigan. The Republican also had an 18-point lead in the Detroit suburbs, which split about evenly between Bush and Kerry in 2004.
Overall, the race is a dead heat in Michigan, the poll showed.
There’s also the issue of affirmative action. Two years ago, Michigan voters passed a ballot measure that banned using race or gender in university admissions or government hiring.
The measure got 58 percent of the vote statewide; it picked up 68 percent in Macomb County. The county went for Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992, for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996, for Gore in 2000 and for George W. Bush in 2004.
Oakland County, which includes the struggling city of Pontiac as well as some of the nation’s richest ZIP codes, voted for the first President Bush in 1992 and for Clinton, Gore and Kerry in subsequent elections.
That trend could continue this year, with Obama appealing favorably to the county’s socially progressive Republicans, especially women unhappy with Palin’s strong opposition to abortion.
A win in Macomb isn’t necessary for Obama to win the state. But Detroit has lost about 71,000 eligible voters since 1992, according to state demographer Kenneth Darga. Even with higher turnout, Obama could see fewer votes from the city.