The Barracuda and the Wolverines

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What will Sarah Palin mean for McCain in Michigan? While I share the view that in the end the VP choice doesn’t mean much we might as well join in the speculation parade. I chose Michigan because I know it well from my work there on a bunch of statewide campaigns back in my consulting days.

Much of the battle for Michigan is fought in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Macomb county, just north of the city is white, blue-collar and populist. Lots of NRA Democrats, skilled trades, and UAW retirees. The Dodge City complex in Warren pounds out the gas guzzling pick-up trucks most Obama voters would like to see off the road. In 2004, George Bush carried Macomb by 6,000 votes. This year, Obama is a tough sell in conservative Macomb. McCain will well; I think he will carry Macomb by 10,000 to 12,000 votes. Palin will be a big hit here; she’s NRA, pro-life, unpretentious and very middle class. She may be worth another 2,000 votes.

West of Macomb is more populous and more upscale Oakland county. In 2004, Kerry won Oakland by 2,700 votes. To win Michigan, McCain needs to win it now, hopefully by at least 5,500 votes. The key is Oakland’s upscale, independent voters. Palin’s stand on social issues will hurt here. She’ll make the pro-life GOP base in Oakland much happier, but McCain already has a lukewarm but sufficient hold on those votes. Back in July, I saw a credible private poll showing Obama winning Oakland by a stunning 11 points. McCain has to reverse much of that and Sarah Palin will prove more burden than ally.

“Wait”, you say, “what about the “PUMA” Hillary voters? Sarah Palin is a woman! She’ll attract them in Oakland county and across the country!” Insane. God help McCain if anybody in his High Command actually thinks pro-choice Hillary voters from the DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY ELECTORATE are going to switch parties to vote for a pro-life Christian conservative Republican? This year? With a +10 generic Democratic vote?” Maybe Ann Lewis, maybe. That’s about it. Meg Whitman might have been that play, but Gov. Sarah Palin is from the land of Huckabee, not NARAL.

Wayne county contains shrinking Detroit, where Obama will still set turnout records. Western Wayne county is suburban, but Democratic. Kerry won that area by around 56,000 votes (he carried the city of Detroit by 286,000). Hockey mom Palin may chip a few voters here and there, but like Macomb most of McCain’s gains here will be driven mostly by voter dislike of Obama. I’ll guess McCain/Palin trims Kerry’s old Western Wayne county number by a big 8,000 votes. I think turnout in Detroit for Obama will beat that and then some.

Out state Michigan is mostly Republican. It is a mix of moderate good government Republicans, Christian social issue voters and blue collar Buchanan conservatives of both parties, plus a few purely Democratic enclaves and college towns. Palin will be a hit in conservative west Michigan. But again, I think McCain already had those votes. Maybe he’ll get even a few more now. In the rest of the state, Palin’s rural friendly vibe be a net plus, but not a huge one.

The truth is we will need a lot more campaign to occur before we really know what overall impact Sarah Palin will have. Palin does have a interesting story and star-power of a sort. (Such irony there, McCain campaign. You’ve invented a new… celebrity!) Still, my best guess for now is that the likely impact in Michigan just mirrors the big picture. Sarah Palin is a pick aimed at the GOP base. She doesn’t reach out far beyond that, other than helping put a helpful spotlight on McCain’s maverick identity. She will help McCain get a little more in Michigan’s blue-collar burbs, western GOP base areas and the rural north which should help offset Obama’s surge in Detroit. In the end, however, Michigan will still come down to the wire, in Oakland county. Among the moderate white independent swing voters there, I don’t see Gov. Palin as a game-changer on the ground.