Another Close Michigan Race

By Jim Ellis

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

May 18, 2021 — As it is becoming clear that retiring Detroit Police Chief James Craig (R) is preparing to challenge Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) next year, Target Insyght, polling for the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), tested the potential general election pairing in a recent study. The results portend another tight Wolverine State campaign.

The TI poll (May 9-11; 800 registered Michigan voters, live interview) finds Gov. Whitmer leading Chief Craig by a six-point, 48-42 percent, spread. More importantly, the survey identified key areas of weakness for the governor, ones that could potentially allow a GOP contender to construct a reasonable path to victory. Chief Craig has not yet announced his candidacy but is expected to do so once he officially retires from the police force on June 1.

Where Chief Craig may have a significant advantage in such a race is his potential ability to draw more votes from the African American community particularly in heavily Democratic Detroit.

While President Biden averaged 79.1 percent of the vote in Congressional Districts 13 and 14 that encompass the city, the Target Insyght poll finds Gov. Whitmer pulling only 64 percent among black voters, while the outgoing police chief attracts 36 percent. In Detroit, 78.3 percent of the population is African American according to the latest publicly available Census Bureau estimates (July 2019).

Gov. Whitmer’s bigger weakness, however, lies in the area of jobs and rebuilding the state’s economy. According to this issue segmentation, voters would favor Chief Craig over Gov. Whitmer by a whopping 63-30 percent margin.

John James, the African American Republican who has run highly competitive campaigns in the last two consecutive Michigan Senate races, was also tested but he doesn’t perform as well as Chief Craig in a general election pairing. While the governor tops Chief Craig by six points, as mentioned above, James trails by 10 percentage points, 49-39 percent.

In the Republican primary, however, it is James who would have a clear advantage. If he and Chief Craig oppose each other for the 2022 GOP gubernatorial nomination, the former man would begin the race with a 36-21 percent advantage in the primary according to this particular survey.

In November, James came within a 50-48 percent margin of Sen. Gary Peters (D), while raising and spending over $46 million for the race (Sen. Peters topped $49 million). Two years earlier, James surprised the political world by coming within a 52-46 percent margin of topping Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) with little outside help but raising almost $12 million on his own in a heavily Democratic 2018 election cycle.

So far, James has shown little indication that he is planning to enter the 2022 governor’s campaign. The other point to consider is that most pollsters have under-estimated Republican strength in the state.

Setting aside the two pollsters who have been statistically more accurate in forecasting Republican strength in various states, the Trafalgar Group and Insider Advantage, the four other pollsters who surveyed the 2020 Michigan presidential contest in the closing days found Joe Biden holding an average of 7.8 percent over then-President Trump.

Trafalgar and IA found an average even score between the two men, with the latter firm correctly projecting the two-point Biden edge.

In the ’20 Senate race, five pollsters published closing surveys that found Sen. Peters holding an average 5.4 percent advantage over James, while the final total yielded the incumbent a victory of less than two percentage points. Neither Trafalgar nor Insider Advantage tested the Senate race.

Four years earlier, six closing pollsters, again eliminating the Trafalgar Group (Insider Advantage did not poll Michigan), found 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by an average of five percentage points. She ended up losing the state by 0.3 percent.

In the 2018 Senate race, this time including Trafalgar because their result was consistent with the others, the five closing polls found Sen. Stabenow holding an average 10-point advantage, while the actual spread yielded a six-point margin.

Understanding the recent Michigan polling history, the 2022 governor’s race could potentially be even closer than this early Target Insyght survey reveals.

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