Having lived in Michigan all my life, I’ve never experienced a summer like this before, with temperatures consistently in the mid-90s for the past two months. It’s disgusting. But it is fitting, for there is an air of lethargy in Michigan, a distinct lack of enthusiasm. A marked contrast to the comparatively lively 2008 election season, when there was a buzz and an atmosphere of curiosity, even excitement. This was typified by a curious Democratic primary, the date of which the party moved up, and the result of which was thereby diminished. The primary was won by Hillary Clinton, which was ultimately of little consequence as the party later coalesced around Barack Obama. But there was a feeling that this might be a watershed. It was an open election, after all. Who knew what could happen?
This campaign has so far been very different. For various reasons, it is not particularly surprising that according to the RealClearPolitics poll average for June (the most recent data available), the race here has Obama leading Romney by a mere 1.8%. Admittedly, in Lansing, at the very least, public support for Romney has been decidedly lackluster, bordering on invisible. His case with Michiganders was also not helped by the publicizing of his New York Times op-ed, "Let Detroit go Bankrupt" from 2008, opposing the auto industry bailouts. Indeed, when Romney visited Lansing Community College in May, the most common reaction I received at mention of his appearance was a dismissive eye roll. In fact, the only real public displays of support that I have seen for either candidate have been Obama bumper stickers, though this can hardly be considered a real confidence booster for either camp. That said, the state is hardly homogeneous in its support for Obama, and there is certainly support for Romney. The problem for Romney comes from the fact that the more populous areas and/or college towns, such as Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Lansing, lean toward Obama, while the more rural districts tend toward Romney. These population concentrations could potentially give Obama a slight edge. And all of this is more or less representative of the general attitudes in the state. The most common reaction to Obama, or even to a discussion of the election has been: “I support him, but…” The impression is that while people like Obama, he has at least one significant thing, varying from person to person, that is off-putting, and that if there were perhaps a more charismatic Republican candidate than Mitt Romney, Obama would be in real trouble here.
This is not to say there are not areas of support and enthusiasm for Romney; apart from the older conservative set, there is also a set of young conservatives supporting Romney, as evidenced by Olivia Jenison, Chapter Chair of Students for Romney at Grand Valley State University. “My work mostly consists of recruiting students and getting them involved in events in the Grand Rapids area,” she told me, “and there have been numerous rallies at University of Michigan.” Students for Romney, which is officially affiliated with the Romney campaign, attends events such as the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference in Washington, D.C., as well as attending and hosting other events at the state and national level.
For many here in Michigan, it seems that the 2012 election will likely be as much a referendum on the 2010 midterm elections as on Obama’s first term, due to what some have seen as controversial new laws passed by the then-newly elected governor and State House majority. This is also because there is a sense that many people are not hugely excited for either Obama or Romney in this election, and that since the state and local government affects the populace much more tangibly, those elections are a bigger concern.
The atmosphere in Michigan seems to have been remarkably unaffected thus far by advertising, despite the fact that, according to a local TV station, nearly 25% of their paid advertising is political. Though this is more of a one-off point than anything else, it supports the same bottom line as the rest of the situation: it’s just too early to tell what will happen in Michigan. At this time in 2008, McCain and Obama were still on an even footing here, but two months later, McCain had pulled out of Michigan altogether. Until Romney is confirmed as the nominee at the Republican National Convention and the campaign really hits full stride, it will be nigh on impossible to gauge what will happen November. Only one thing is certain: the enthusiasm and excitement levels in Michigan for this election can’t really go anywhere but up, and both camps are hoping for that eventual upswing to go their way.