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Published: 9/30/2000

Polls about Ohio and Michigan appear to be accurate

DETROIT - There's been a lot of muttering following a round of new polls showing 1) Vice President Gore with a significant lead over Texas Gov. George W. Bush in Michigan and 2) Mr. Bush clinging to a slight edge in Ohio.

Many commentators expressed considerable skepticism, and the view that one - or both - polls must be out of whack. How could two bordering Midwestern states, similar in so many ways, be so different?

Yet when it comes to voting for president, they are. Trouble is, too many of today's so-called pundits don't know their history. Everything I know suggests to me that both polls are apt to be right.

And while nobody - me included - knows who is going to win this election, here is a very safe prediction: The Democratic nominee will do better in Michigan than in Ohio.

To go further out on a limb: If this election stays relatively close, there is every reason to expect Michigan's 18 electoral votes to go for Mr. Gore and Ohio to give its 21 votes to the Texas governor. That's history and tradition talking, not idle speculation.

Though Michigan was once as safely Republican as Nebraska, since World War II it has leaned slightly more Democratic than Ohio. Not by a lot; we're talking, on average, 3 to 4 percentage points. But that's sometimes made a big difference.

Historically, the most dramatic example is 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon battled in one of the closest presidential elections in history. Mr. Kennedy had campaigned hard in Ohio, and expected to carry the state easily. But on election night, he lost Ohio by a decisive 273,000 votes.

By contrast, Michigan was too close to call until late the next morning, and Mr. Kennedy's eventual 51-49 victory was what caused the Secret Service to internally declare him the winner and send agents to protect the president-elect. (In those far-off times, candidates didn't merit federal protection until they actually won. That changed after Robert Kennedy's 1968 assassination.)

That pattern has held since. Ohio has consistently remained a bit more Republican. Both states, for example, voted for Bill Clinton both times.

Ohio actually was the state that put Mr. Clinton over the top in 1992, according to the News Election Service, which wasn't able to call the state until more than three hours after the polls closed. But his margin was narrow; 90,000 votes statewide, or less than 2 per cent more than President Bush.

But there was no suspense that night in Michigan, where it was clear the instant the polls closed that Mr. Clinton was headed for a smashing 316,000-vote victory.

There was one exception to this rule. Democrat Jimmy Carter barely won Ohio in 1976, squeaking by President Gerald Ford by 11,000 votes while Mr. Ford, who lost the election, easily won Michigan. There was an important difference in that election, however: Michigan was Mr. Ford's home state, and the folks rallied for the local boy.

What will all this mean this year? If the election were today, I'd predict the vice president will win Michigan by something like 49-44 per cent, and that the Texas governor will win Ohio and the even more reliably Republican Indiana.

That's not to say any number of factors might not change that, however, notably the presidential debates. What is clear is that it is hard to imagine George Bush winning the election without taking Ohio; no Republican has done so in more than a century. Nor is it likely that Al Gore can win without Michigan.

Which means both states are likely to see a lot of these candidates in the next five weeks, far more than perhaps any other states. Whether all this campaigning - and the additional millions spent on TV commercials - has much impact never has been clear, but the candidates are bound to keep doing it anyway.

Footnote: GOP vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney cracked a joke this week with an odd historic echo. Campaigning in the Detroit suburbs, Mr. Cheney said he might try to get Mr. Bush to visit the University of Michigan, because he had been brainwashed by President Ford, a proud alumnus who Mr. Cheney served as chief of staff.

That might not have been the best word choice. Gov. George Romney's 1968 presidential campaign was effectively destroyed after he said he had been brainwashed by the generals about Vietnam. Anyone for “effectively persuaded” instead?

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman.



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