Michigan’s rookie Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is rated in the “surviving” category with seven other just-elected governors, according to Lou Jacobson, writing in GOVERNING magazine.
Jacobson writes about Whitmer as well as the history of Michigan politics and government in the about-to-be-released 2020 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.
The Almanac has long been considered “The Bible of American Politics.” The Almanac covers all 50 U.S. governors. In GOVERNING, Jacobson rates 11 freshmen governors as “thriving” and only one — Alaska’s Republican CEO — as “struggling.”
Here’s how the Almanac describes Whitmer’s performance so far:
“Whitmer seems to enjoy the job and has been consistent in trumpeting her main campaign promise — “Fix the Damn Roads” — which was to hike the gas tax to pay for a $2.5 billion transportation package annually for the next decade.
“Meanwhile, despite early veto threats, Whitmer signed an auto insurance rate reform bill that eluded resolution for years. It earned unanimous Republican support while splitting Democratic legislators. The downside risk for Whitmer is that if differences over the gas tax persist, it could push the state to the brink of a government shutdown.”
Beyond Whitmer’s job performance, here’s a sneak preview of the Almanac’s “state overview” of Michigan’s political climate:
Michigan, though politically competitive in state-level races, hadn’t voted Republican for president since 1988–until 2016, when Donald Trump won it by three-tenths of 1 percent. It was one of the three states, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that enabled him to win the presidency by a healthy Electoral College margin, buoyed by a surge in blue-collar voters in declining industrial areas and apparent indifference from the Hillary Clinton campaign. But the state swung back in the 2018 midterm elections, flipping the governorship, the attorney general and the secretary of state–a shift that underlined how crucial the state will be in the 2020 presidential election.
Nearly 200 years ago, when the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wanted to visit the American frontier, he boarded a boat and steamed across Lake Erie to visit the Michigan Territory. Tocqueville was not the first Frenchman to travel there. In the 17th century, French explorers and missionaries sailed the Great Lakes and slapped their version of Indian names on the landscape, which is why Michigan’s ch is pronounced like sh and why Mackinac is pronounced with a silent final c. (But Michiganders don’t carry it to extremes: Detroit ends with a robust English oit.) Michigan was not effectively occupied by the United States until 1796 and was bypassed in the initial westward rush into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In 1831, Tocqueville was still able to travel through virgin woods occupied by Indian tribes. But later in that decade, Michigan was settled in a rush by Yankee migrants from upstate New York and New England, who cut down trees and built farms and orderly towns complete with schools and colleges. Politically, Michigan was full of Yankee reformers who hated slavery, manned the Underground Railroad, promoted temperance and in 1855 gave Michigan a constitution that banned (as its successors have done to this day) capital punishment. Michigan was one of the birthplaces of the Republican Party, which held its first official meeting in Jackson in 1854, and up through the 1920s, Michigan was one of the most Republican states in the nation.
After the Civil War, Michigan developed an industrial economy. Its Lower Peninsula was mostly covered with trees, and lumber was the first boom industry on which Michigan relied too much. (Even today, half the state’s land area remains forested, supporting a popular hunting culture, though one that’s declining as baby boomers age.) Forests were clear-cut or swept by blazes such as the 1881 fire that burned out half of Michigan’s “Thumb.” In the late 1800s, huge copper deposits were discovered on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts from the Upper Peninsula into icy Lake Superior. (The state includes 40,000 square miles of the Great Lakes, making almost half of Michigan water.) Immigrants from Italy and Finland, Cornwall and Croatia found work in the mines. Then came the auto industry. A combination of accident and shrewdness–the prickly genius of Henry Ford and the willingness of local bankers to finance auto startups–ensured that America’s fastest-growing industry for the first 30 years of the 20th century was centered in Michigan. Detroit became a boomtown — the nation’s fastest-growing major metropolitan area after Los Angeles, which was then much smaller. The three-county Detroit metro area zoomed from a population of 426,000 in 1900 to 2.2 million in 1930, more than half the 4.3 million it has today. The auto industry drew labor from outside Michigan, from southern Ontario, and from the farms of Ohio and Indiana. It attracted Poles and Italians, Hungarians and Belgians, Greeks and Jews. During World War II and the two following decades, it attracted whites from the Kentucky and Tennessee mountains and blacks from the cotton country of Alabama and Mississippi.
This influx of a polyglot proletariat eventually changed Michigan’s politics. The catalyst was the Great Depression of the 1930s and company managers’ desire to use machines efficiently, treating employees as extensions of machines and with great distrust. That culminated in the 1937 sit-down strikes organized by the new United Auto Workers. Management and labor fought, sometimes literally, for pieces of what both sides feared was a shrinking pie. The UAW won and organized most of the companies after Democratic Gov. Frank Murphy refused to send in troops to break the illegal strikes. In the years that followed, autoworkers became more militant, and more militantly Democratic. Michigan politics became a kind of class warfare, conducted with a bitterness that split families and neighbors. The unions mostly won, because demographics benefited the Democrats: Autoworkers and post-1900 immigrants were larger in number and produced more children than did outstate Yankees or management. After Walter Reuther’s election as UAW president in 1946, voters elected young, liberal G. Mennen Williams as governor in 1948. By 1954, Democrats, closely tied to the UAW, seemed to have become the natural majority in the state.
As growth continued, economic issues turned less bitter. By the early 1960s, class warfare had dissipated; in 1964, Henry Ford II joined Reuther in backing Democrat Lyndon Johnson for president. Republican George Romney, the former American Motors president elected governor in 1962, and his successor, William Milliken, accepted the social welfare policies endorsed by the UAW leadership and the Democrats. The state government was one of the nation’s most vigorous, and not just for the poor and the unemployed. It supported one of the nation’s most distinguished and extensive higher-education systems, built state parks and recreation areas, and pioneered efforts to end racial discrimination.
Michigan grew faster than the nation as a whole from 1910 to 1970, and successive censuses and reapportionments increased its House delegation from 12 to 19. But in the four decades from 1970 to 2010, Michigan grew less than one-quarter as fast as the nation, and its House delegation fell back to 14 in 2012, with a decline of one more seat projected after 2022. Since 2010, the state’s population has grown by only 1.2 percent. A key turning point may have been the changes in the domestic auto industry. After the UAW’s strike against General Motors in 1970, the union won its central demand: “30 and out,” retirement after 30 years on the assembly line. That, in turn, led to demands for costlier retiree health benefits on top of those negotiated for active workers. The assumption was that the Big Three–General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler–would continue to dominate the U.S. auto market as they had for decades and would be able to afford top-shelf benefits. The reality turned out to be different. Foreign competitors began producing better and cheaper cars that were more responsive to changes in gas prices and consumer preferences, first in Europe and Japan and then in nonunion plants in the United States. Auto sales plummeted during the oil shock and recession of 1979-82, and Chrysler was saved from bankruptcy by a federal bailout, while GM and Ford foundered.
The auto industry became more high-tech, with fewer unionized workers and higher skill requirements. Just-in-time production methods encouraged subcontractors to stay in Michigan near big assembly plants, and the state boasted the nation’s highest per capita concentration of engineers. Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and the northern and western Detroit suburbs fared well. The great exception was the city of Detroit, whose population fell from 1.8 million in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010. Starting with the 1967 rioting, crime rates in Detroit remained intolerably high for 25 years, and much of the city simply vanished–houses were abandoned or burned down, commercial frontage had nearly 100 percent vacancy rates, and the downtown was a beleaguered fortress surrounded by vacant square miles. Detroit’s crumbling architecture helped give birth to a subgenre of photography called “ruin porn.” Detroit began rebounding in the 1990s. Crime and welfare rolls were down, new sports stadiums and even some new housing were built downtown, and old theaters were refurbished. But the decade that began in 2000 halted Michigan’s economic progress. The Big Three, desperate to generate cash to pay huge costs for workers’ and retirees’ benefits, squeezed their subcontractors into bankruptcy, and GM and Chrysler followed in 2009; Ford managed to stay afloat only by mortgaging almost all its assets in 2007. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat elected in 2002 and 2006, encouraged redevelopment, arranged for tax breaks for new facilities for the automakers and provided tax breaks to filmmakers.
While Detroit and Flint remained two of the nation’s most impoverished cities–the latter afflicted with a manmade water-contamination problem–Michigan did recover along with the rest of the nation. The Big Three resumed making profits, and GM and Chrysler began buying back government-owned stock. Detroit spent several years in the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the history of North America, but in April 2018–following a “grand bargain” with the state’s GOP leadership and several years of budget surpluses — the final financial restrictions were lifted, leaving the city entirely free of such oversight for the first time since the 1970s. In 2017, the Detroit area welcomed its first new vehicle assembly plant in a quarter century, to build off-road vehicles for the Indian company Mahindra Group; this followed local automotive-sector investments by other Indian and Chinese companies. Western Michigan, meanwhile, has been experiencing a quiet prosperity, with Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon increasing their economic output past pre-recession levels, thanks to a more diversified manufacturing base and lower wages.
Still, the scars on the manufacturing industry were lasting: Although the state’s manufacturing workforce rose by 44 percent between the depths of the recession and late 2018, it still ended up at only 70 percent of the level it was in 2000, due in part to robotics. Other worries on the horizon include Trump administration tariffs, which raised the price of steel, and innovations such as hybrid cars and autonomous vehicles, which Michigan’s automotive sector has been slow to embrace.
Michigan’s population would be smaller without a steady influx of immigrants; the foreign-born now constitute nearly 7 percent of the population, more than half of whom are citizens eligible to vote. Michigan leads the nation in residents with Arab ancestry, thanks to a nearly continuous influx since the late 1800s. Arabs now account for an estimated 2 percent of Michigan’s population, centered on Dearborn and other neighborhoods in the Detroit metro area; the Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian and Yemeni communities are well-established. In 2018, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian, was elected to a Detroit-based House seat. Michigan has historically ranked high nationally in refugee resettlements, although the number plunged after Trump became president, mirroring the trend in other states.
Politically, Michigan was heavily Republican from the 1850s through the 1920s, then developed a partisan equipoise during the 1930s and has mostly maintained it since. A typical result in the class-warfare era was John F. Kennedy’s 51%-49% victory in 1960–Kennedy carried metro Detroit, 62%-38%, while Richard Nixon carried outstate Michigan, 60%-39%. The Grand Rapids area, with its large Dutch-American population and many Christian conservatives, is usually the most Republican part of the state, though the city of Grand Rapids is more liberal; the area is home to the DeVos family, which founded the multi-level marketing behemoth Amway, became major Republican donors and promoted conservative policies, notably school choice, the signature issue of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Industrial Flint, Saginaw and the Bay City corridor, with their blue-collar heritage and recent economic struggles, have generally voted heavily Democratic, as have the more highly educated areas around Lansing, the state capital, and Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. The Upper Peninsula, historically Democratic, followed the patterns of rural America, turning increasingly red.
In the relatively prosperous 1990s, Michigan leaned toward Republicans in statewide contests; in the tougher 2000s, the state moved toward the Democrats. In 2010 and 2014, Republican businessman Rick Snyder won the governorship as a self-styled “one tough nerd.” Just four years after Obama won the state by nine points, Trump won by less than 11,000 votes out of the almost 4.8 million cast. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein each won more votes than the difference between Trump and Clinton–173,000 for Johnson and almost 51,000 for Stein. The most crucial shift was in Macomb County, the ancestral home of “Reagan Democrats,” which Obama had won by four points but which Trump won by 11; Trump’s margin of victory in Macomb was north of 48,000 votes.
Then, in 2018, the state that sealed Trump’s victory snapped back. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the gubernatorial race by nine percentage points, winning roughly twice as many counties as Clinton had. Whitmer built on Clinton’s vote share in traditionally Democratic counties, while also flipping Kent County (Grand Rapids), Eaton County (suburban Lansing), Bay County (Bay City), Saginaw County (Saginaw) and, perhaps most importantly, Macomb, by three points. Whitmer nearly matched Clinton’s statewide vote total, while her Republican opponent, outgoing Attorney General Bill Schuette, underperformed Trump by 420,000. The Democrats swept the key statewide offices and seized two congressional seats, though the party’s gains in the state House and Senate weren’t enough to flip the heavily gerrymandered legislature–a result that might be affected by the easy passage of a redistricting reform ballot measure.”
This year’s Almanac contains the same sort of analysis for the other 49 states and all their governors, freshmen or otherwise. It also offers in-depth profiles of every governor, Senator, and House member; vital statistics on Congress data tables; campaign finance data for all Senators and House members; analysis of voter turnout in each state and Congressional races in the 2018 elections; lists of statewide elected officials in each state; and updated voter registration data.
TO PREORDER THE ALMANAC, VISIT WWW.ALMANACOFAMERICANPOLITICS.COM