By Carol Weissert, associate professor of political science, Michigan
State University (Posted February 23, 2000)
In February 2000, once again Michigan voters threw a monkey wrench into the plans of the party leaders, continuing a record of bipartisan orneriness that dates back to 1912 when voters supported Theodore Roosevelt as a Bull Moose candidate.
In spite of being overspent and out-organized, Arizona Senator John McCain pulled off a 51-43 percent victory over Texas Governor George W. Bush in a race that saw turnout nearly twice what it was in the 1998 primary -- 1.3 million.
McCain can lay claim to 52 of the state's 58 delegates, winning 10 at-large delegates and 14 of the state's 16 congressional districts. Bush won staunchly conservative Kent County (Grand Rapids) -- but barely, by only 1,162 votes out of over 100,000 cast in the county.
Bush could claim victory, however, in that he garnered the support of most of the state's Republicans, although exit polls differed as the extent of this support. One poll by Mitchell Research found that Republicans backed Bush two-to-one over McCain. A rival polling firm, EPIC/MRA, reported that Bush was backed by fewer than 60 percent of the overall Republican vote, 58 to 37 percent.
What both agree is that Independents and Democrats made up the majority of the primary voters -- nearly 53 percent -- and that they strongly supported McCain. According to Detroit News exit polls, McCain garnered support from 66 percent of the Independents and 86 percent of the Democrats.
The election was notable for several other reasons:
1) The primary was virtually ignored by most of the national media until the results of the South Carolina primary were in, around 70 hours before the polls opened on Tuesday Feb. 22. Even within the state, things were relatively quiet. While political ads were fairly common on television in the weeks prior to the primary (especially those of Governor Bush), there were very, very few yard signs and other outward displays of the upcoming election in the state. However, it is important to keep in mind that Governor John Engler, an early supporter of Governor Bush, had organized the state early and well. Virtually every Republican office holder was supporting Bush, and the telephone canvassers and others were in place for the final days of the campaign.
2) There is some evidence from polling in Michigan that most voters made up their minds weeks ago and were not swayed by the South Carolina vote. Clearly the short period of time following the South Carolina primary was not enough for the Bush forces to change their campaign with bragging rights for the recent victory there.
3) Michigan is very different from South Carolina and New Hampshire. Christian Fundamentalists are not a major part of the electorate here and the population is highly diverse, the economy very industrialized, and the state is one of the largest in the country. There is also a history in the state of competition between the parties and an interest in political issues that makes it different from South Carolina.
4) There were several "wild-cards" in the days preceding the elections. Telephone tapes were distributed to Catholic and Protestant Fundamentalists voters in the state by supporters of both sides. And in the most bizarre move, Geoffrey Fieger, best known as Jack Kevorkian's lawyer but also the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, came out with a mean-spirited ad characterizing Governor Bush and Governor Engler as "dumb and dumber." One Detroit Democratic state legislator urged voters there to vote to "send Engler a message"-retribution for recent measures supported by the governor that were viewed as harmful to Detroit.
Governor Engler -- who had once promised that Michigan would serve as a firewall for Bush and who set a personal record for appearances on national television in the two days prior to the primary -- was chagrined at the results but far from defeated. "I'm still 10-0 in elections in which I was on the ballot," he said, "I don't think that changed." Governor Engler is term-limited and is serving his third and final term as governor.
For long-time observers of Michigan politics, the results are not entirely surprising. Four years ago, Pat Buchanan won 37 percent of the Michigan primary vote. On the Democratic side, George Wallace won the 1972 primary and Rev. Jesse Jackson upset Michael Dukakis to win the 1988 Democratic race here. In an ironic historical entry, Governor Bush's father, George, won the 1980 Republican primary in Michigan, and later claimed that the win in this state earned him a spot on the presidential ticket later that year.