Susan J. Demas: What’s Going on in Michigan?

This guest piece ran in Political Wire.

Can Donald Trump win Michigan? Sure. And it’s certainly a better possibility now than it was 11 days ago. That’s when I last wrote about the state of play in the Mitten State and declared he’d all but lost.

So what’s changed? Most polls have tightened following FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress, both Trump and Hillary Clinton are now on TV here, both have multiple visits scheduled in the last week, and they’ve also unleashed a slew of surrogates. There’s been no shortage of doomsday predictions for the Democratic nominee, particularly on social media.

I would note that Michigan finally getting invited to the presidential prom is an ideal result for insiders. We in the media get an exciting race to cover (and ad revenue), Republicans get to chest-beat, and Democrats get to bedwet (yes, this is the favorite pastime of many in this state. More on that in a bit).

The overwhelming assumption by reporters is that Clinton is in deep trouble here. She took a blue state for granted and now Trump is going to cannily steal it. This is swallowing the Republican line whole –– but it’s tempting to do so. That would be a great story. It would show that Clinton’s crack data operation isn’t invincible and Trump can execute strategy.

It also portends the electoral future, when Democrats are likely to start hemorrhaging graying Rust Belt states and pick up Sunbelt states with large Latino populations. (Indeed, Clinton is still making a play for Arizona this year).

And maybe that is exactly what’s going on. But flip the coin over. Trump is barnstorming through 10 states in his final days (at last count). He’s trailing in most –– which doesn’t reflect a definitive path to victory. Going for Michigan may not be a masterstroke, but more of a last-ditch effort. Meanwhile, Clinton is swinging through a handful of big states, mostly those with limited early voting options, like Michigan. She also can rely on a much stronger GOTV operation here than Trump can.

It’s undeniable that Clinton is hitting the Mitten State state hard, scheduling two visits and dispatching Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to close the deal. Democrats are jumpy. Michigan isn’t in the bag. But there are some big incentives for Clinton to lavish the state with last-minute attention.

Everyone recalls that she narrowly lost the Democratic primary in March, which was one of the biggest stunners of the election. If she came up short in Michigan again on Tuesday, pundits would immediately declare she’d pulled a Martha Coakley here (as in the Dem politician who managed to lose two very winnable Massachusetts races in 2010 and 2014). And even if Clinton still wins the presidency, you can guarantee that analysts will obsess about her Michigan loss and what it says about her arrogance and lack of political skill. That would drive Clintonworld nuts.

It would also be devastating for Michigan Democrats, who have languished in a completely GOP-controlled state for six years and desperately need some wins.

But sure, I’m less confident in a Clinton win than I was a couple weeks ago. This has provided a teachable moment in punditry. It’s always useful to reevaluate both your assumptions and the evidence before you. That’s what famed forecaster Stu Rothenberg did this week, after sticking his neck out in August to predict Clinton would be the 45th president of the United States. This is what credible political analysts have to do. And I’ve been wrong before.

So I went back to basics. I talked to voters and seasoned politicos. I did some additional number-crunching. And I still believe Clinton is the heavy favorite, probably winning Michigan between 3 and 7 points on Tuesday. I’ll go through why in a moment.

But first, here’s why I was initially cynical that Michigan was truly competitive. It goes well beyond the fact that no Republican presidential nominee has carried Michigan in 28 years. It’s based on my experience as a beat reporter covering the last two cycles, which have been dream Democratic scenarios.

In early October 2008, John McCain abruptly withdrew from Michigan, essentially ceding the state to Obama. The phone calls from prominent Democrats started immediately. No one was euphoric. “It’s a Jedi mind trick,” groused one lawmaker. When McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, “went rogue” and announced she didn’t want to give up on Michigan, Democrats bombarded me with “I told you so” rants. After a couple of weeks, when it was undeniable that Team McCain had really skedaddled, the Dems morphed into the next Eeyore phase. This time they moaned about overconfidence and the almost certain Bradley effect dooming Obama.

He won the state by 16 points.

Then in 2012, Democrats were convinced Michigan native Mitt Romney had a great chance of winning his home state. After Obama’s first disastrous debate in September, a Democratic leader frantically texted me that all was lost. She was utterly inconsolable and remained so even after the president’s subsequent rebound. Last-minute polls, including a disreputable one showing Romney ahead in Michigan, provided additional freakout fodder for a slew of Dems.

Obama won the state by 9.5 points.

This year, it’s been the usual suspects who have been agitating about Clinton’s chances in Michigan. Few of them are intimately involved with the campaign, which remains confident in its data operation and strong ground game. So it was easy for me to dismiss the dire talk that began in late October.

But there’s no doubt that the Clinton campaign is devoting a lot of time and resources into closing the deal here. It’s also true she can afford that. Her overall position in the election remains strong. She’s still fighting for Arizona, which pundits have always considered a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, Republicans are always confident about Michigan (save for the last few weeks of 2008, when it would have been an obvious emperor-has-no-clothes scenario). They’re always going to win. They always open an office in Detroit and are going to make major headway in the state’s largest city that usually goes 90% (or more) for Democrats.

This year was no different, especially with Trump bragging that Michigan was a top target. Even when public polling showed Clinton up by double digits in mid-October, Republicans were publicly insisting Trump would win. Why? He drew big crowds and the polls were rigged. Heck, plenty of Republicans were privately telling me that.

But after the Comey bombshell, the polls mysteriously became de-rigged. State Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), who’s in charge of the GOP’s state House campaign, declared this week at a Mike Pence rally: “Who would have ever thought a week ago that Michigan would be in play?” Well, actually, Nesbitt and all Republican officials said that at a media forum I helped host in Lansing back on Oct. 19.

For Republicans, it’s always a horserace in Michigan until it actually is –– and then they basically admit it was all a bluff before.

It’s helpful to know the lay of the land in Michigan. But as an analyst, you can’t let history blind you to what’s going on now. So over the last week, I talked to voters while traveling the state. There were a few reticent Republicans who said they might end up going for Trump now, but most remained unenthused.

Only a few infrequent Democratic and undecided voters seemed fazed by the Comey letter and said they were less likely to vote. None of them said they were turning to Trump. And over the weekend, several Democrats have told me they’re more fired up to vote for Clinton now because they believe a faction in the FBI is trying to sway the election.

I talked to long-time Dem politicos who said that their real fear has been softening numbers, especially with younger and African-American voters. Unlike other battleground states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado –– and recently added Arizona and New Mexico –– Michigan can’t count on a sizable, fired-up Latino populace (especially low-propensity voters that polling has missed) to come through. And Michigan doesn’t have widespread, in-person early voting, as is also the case in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, two other states she’s stumping in. So the Clinton campaign has to rally a big Election Day turnout to win.

That’s why Bill Clinton just swung into town to plot GOTV with Detroit pastors and leaders. When Hillary Clinton looked to schedule an event Michigan on Friday, it wasn’t even a question of where she would go. It had to be Detroit. Barack Obama is scheduled to fire up the college crowd in Ann Arbor on Monday. That’s playing defense.

But Clinton is also playing offense here, something that’s been overlooked by the national media who aren’t as familiar with the electorate here. Her Monday trip is slated for Grand Rapids, the GOP heart of Michigan with a strong evangelical base. Trump has struggled there all cycle. Bernie Sanders just made a west Michigan stop in Kalamazoo and then headed to up north to red Traverse City.

On the other hand, the Trump campaign is hitting every corner of Michigan and aggressively pushing the message that they’re making gains everywhere. But in the waning days of a campaign, targeting your voters in key areas is the ballgame.

I also spoke with several Republicans who don’t snow me with the “It’s always sunny in Michigan” party line. Those Rs were suddenly elated. Sure, if enough Dems are too depressed to vote (think off-year elections like 2010 and 2014) and Team Trump lives up to its hype by turning out “shy” voters, they could really win this thing. But their giddiness really wasn’t about the top of the ticket. Time is ticking to close the gap and many aren’t thrilled with Trump’s slapdash campaign schedule in the final days.

The real prize is down-ballot. All three branches are Republican-controlled in Michigan. But the state House was in jeopardy, which was roiling big donors. The closer Trump gets, however, the fewer seats Republicans have to worry about. At this point, Republicans think it’s all but certain that they keep the majority, so they can finish implementing their conservative agenda. If Trump nearly catches Clinton, that has the added bonus of psyching out Dems for 2018, a year they had been optimistic about. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited, but he leaves an unpopular legacy of botching the Flint water crisis.

And finally, I looked at the numbers –– polls, early voting and Election Day turnout projections. Finding good data is a challenge in Michigan for many reasons.

First of all, it’s true that much of our public polling is problematic. Few outfits do live-operator surveys. And everyone blew the March 8 Democratic primary, primarily because their turnout models were way off. General election polling has been more reliable in the recent past. But to be honest, I trust internals and non-public surveys from good pollsters more. And these show a 4 to 6 point Clinton victory, which would be a base election. It also wouldn’t be a big surprise, after everything, if the end result looks more like 2012, when Obama defeated Romney, 54%-45%.

However, Clinton’s margin could dip into the danger zone, particularly if Detroit Dems stay home. That’s the John Kerry situation when he only edged George W. Bush out by 3 points in 2004. If infrequent Trump voters flood the polls –– think Macomb County outside Detroit and northern Michigan –– that could all add up to a Trump triumph. But the odds of that remain low.

Then there are the early vote numbers, which have inspired many Dems to panic and some observers to do questionable math. As I noted, there’s no in-person early voting (or no-reason absentee voting). So early votes are a smaller percentage of total vote in Michigan. We also don’t have party registration here, unlike the majority of states, so it’s a trickier to estimate where early votes are going. Both parties send out absentee ballots to their likely voters, which provides a guide, but any estimates involve both art and science.

Republicans have traditionally had a strong absentee-ballot game, with their nominees winning AVs by double digits in 2008 and 2012 –– yes, during years of overwhelming Obama victories. This year, the Dems have a 3-point advantage so far, according to Dennis Darnoi, a Republican strategist and top data guru in Michigan.

So why are Democrats freaking out? When all is said and done, it’s fair to expect Republicans will come out ahead, per usual. The Detroit early vote numbers are way down. And some of the Dem-looking numbers in Macomb are a mirage — white men in the northern part of the county will go for Trump. At the same time, GOP-looking numbers in neighboring Oakland County probably aren’t as strong, since women, especially those around Romney’s Bloomfield Hills stomping grounds, are likely plunking for Clinton. And naturally, clerk offices across the state may be inundated on Monday with last-minute ballots.

Given all these variables, no one can credibly make sweeping predictions about the election here based on absentee-vote numbers.

The bottom line is this: Trump could win if everything goes right for him and everything goes wrong for Clinton. That’s the miracle-or-meteor scenario I mentioned in an earlier column.

But right now, you’d still rather be Clinton, not Trump, in Michigan — night sweats and all.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.