Macomb County is indeed home to the Reagan Democrats whose defection helped crash
the national Democratic Party after the 1960s and whose partial return since Bill Clinton has
made the county a battleground and enabled Democrats to carry Michigan in the last four
elections. This year, Macomb – 90 percent white, half Catholic, 40 percent union families, one
third over 60 and with Barack Obama underperforming among its Democrats – is certain to play a key role in the presidential drama. The media will follow the presidential candidates who will no doubt troop down to Macomb County Community College in Warren, Michigan to show why they deserve the support of the Reagan Democrats.
In 1960, Macomb was the most Democratic suburban county in the country as John F.
Kennedy won handily there, garnering 63 percent of the vote. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson
increased the Democratic vote share even further, winning 75 percent of Macomb voters. But
over the next 20 years, these voters turned on the Democrats, culminating with Ronald Reagan
taking 66 percent of the vote in 1984.
In the five presidential cycles to follow Reagan, the county has turned into a presidential
battleground. Clinton, in 1996 against Dole, was the first Democrat since 1968 to carry it, though only with 50 percent of the vote. Since then, the two presidential contests have been fought to a draw, with Al Gore taking it by 2 points and John Kerry losing it by 1.1
Today, Barack Obama trails John McCain in Macomb by 7 points (46 to 39 percent),
with 8 percent for Ralph Nader and 2 percent for Bob Barr. He is underperforming with
Democrats, getting 71 percent of their support here compared to 85 percent nationally. There
really is a reason for the candidates and reporters to go to Macomb.
But it is important to recall that Clinton lost here by 5 points in 1992 and still carried the
state easily and that Obama faces nothing like the 20-point or 30-point wipe out in Macomb that contributed to Mondale and Dukakis losing Michigan handily. And a lot has changed in
Macomb and Michigan, both in voting patterns and racial attitudes, that allows this race in
Macomb to tighten and to make it possible for Obama to win Michigan without carrying
After all, Obama is running 7 points ahead in our statewide poll conducted at the same
time. Obama obviously will be able to count on immense enthusiasm and turnout among African Americans, but there is more going on than that – including Obama’s over-performance in the growing suburban parts of the state, including Oakland County, where he is running a net 5 points above party identification and 9 points ahead of John McCain. Among young voters under 30 years, Obama defeats McCain 58 to 36 percent but Obama’s success with younger voters is even broader. He leads McCain among all voters under 40 years by 48 to 41 percent across Michigan and matches that margin in Macomb.
Clearly, the rules of the game are a little different this year.