Detroiters back Obama, but will they go to the polls?


DETROIT -- No one doubts that Detroiters will vote overwhelmingly to re-elect President Obama in November.

But how many will show up at the polls? Among those who are worried is Mayor Dave Bing.

"Everybody talks a good game about how important it is, and how people fought and died to give us the right to vote, and then when it comes time for them to do it, they become lethargic," the mayor told me last week before he left for the Democratic National Convention.

Four years ago, a higher percentage than normal of the Motor City's mostly black residents turned out to vote. Some suspect the city's list of registered voters included names of people who had died or moved but that hadn't yet been purged.

Still, well over half of the total turned out -- and gave Mr. Obama an astonishing 97 percent of the vote. GOP nominee John McCain got a mere 8,881 votes in the city, fewer than in many tiny suburbs.

Four years ago, however, Mr. Obama's Detroit margin of about 300,000 votes didn't matter. He won the state by almost three times as many, after Mr. McCain angered fellow Republicans by closing down his campaign in Michigan in mid-October. That led to a statewide Democratic landslide second only to Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964, and helped Democrats pick up a seat in the U.S. House and scores of lesser offices.

Nobody expects that will happen again. Most polls show the President with a narrow lead in Michigan, which could be endangered if Detroiters turn apathetic. "The big concern we have is that the enthusiasm has waned quite a bit," Mr. Bing said.

In a way, this was because of unfair expectations, the mayor said: "It was unrealistic when [Mr.] Obama first got into office, thinking he was going to be able to change things overnight. He inherited a horrendous situation, but has done a lot of good things."

Detroit's embattled mayor praised the administration not only for saving the U.S. auto industry, but also for enlightened and flexible policy in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has helped fund the demolition of nearly 10,000 dangerous or dilapidated houses in the city since Mr. Bing took office.

Michigan was once a volatile swing state, hotly contested in most national elections. During the three presidential elections of the 1980s, the statewide vote almost exactly mirrored the national average. But since then, it has become gradually more Democratic.

Michigan gave solid majorities to Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, before voting for Mr. Obama by a whopping 57 to 41 percent.

At the same time, the state has been losing clout. The nation's population has shifted to the south and west. In 1980, Michigan had 21 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president. This election, that number has fallen to 16.

Detroit's percentage of the statewide vote has dropped even more dramatically. The Motor City once cast nearly a third of all Michigan ballots in a presidential race. Now, it is barely 6 percent.

But Detroit's importance has been oddly magnified by the nearly unanimous way its vote is now cast.

In 1960, when Detroit still recorded 750,000 votes, John Kennedy came out of the city with a plurality of 311,000. This November, there will be, at most, barely 300,000 ballots cast in Detroit.

But because those votes are now virtually all Democratic, the city remains important in the presidential election -- if the city's largely impoverished citizens show up at the polls.

Mayor Bing said he hoped Vice President Joe Biden, his fellow Syracuse alumnus, comes here often "to get the people excited, because in order to win Michigan, we'll need a much larger turnout than we normally get from Detroiters."

He paused. "The big issue is getting people excited about how important it is to get out the vote, because if you don't vote, you are voting for the other guy," he said. That "other guy" he wants so badly to defeat is the only Detroit native ever to be nominated for president on a major-party ticket: Mitt Romney.

Whether anyone -- even the President -- can again inspire as many voters as Mr. Obama did in 2008 remains to be seen.

A bellwether, Michigan isn't. Some so-called swing states -- Missouri most of all -- pride themselves on almost always voting with the winner. In close elections, however, and some that weren't so close, Michigan has been about as likely to support the also-ran.

Had it been up to Michiganians, the nation over the past century would have elected presidents Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Al Gore, and John Kerry. A century ago, Michigan was one of six states to vote for Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party.

Four years ago, however, Michigan got the winner right. And Missouri picked the loser for only the second time in history, voting for Mr. McCain.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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