Moving from the Old to New Politics: Macomb to Oakland


Stanley B. Greenberg, Al Quinlan, James Carville, Andrew H. Baumann

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner / Democracy Corps

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Executive Summary

In the summer of 2008, Barack Obama held a slim national lead over John McCain but his position was by no means secure. After a bruising primary battle, the Democratic base was fractured as many white, blue-collar Democrats - critical voters in Rust Belt swing states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania - held back from the new nominee. But Obama’s appeal, combined with other trends, presented him with an opportunity to add new voters in America’s suburbs. If Obama and his allies were to fulfill their potential they needed to bring traditional Democrats back into the fold while continuing to expand their appeal to new suburban voters. Last Tuesday, Obama did just that.

To better understand these dynamics, Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner conducted post-election studies of Macomb and Oakland Counties, two bellwether counties in Michigan that respectively represent the Democrats’ traditional blue-collar base and new white-collar voters. These surveys follow on the heels of extensive research Democracy Corps and GQR has conducted in Macomb earlier in the cycle. For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a “national political barometer,” as National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein described them during the Democratic convention. Going into the convention, Obama was lagging among these voters and trailing in Macomb by 7 points. But he managed to turn that around, consolidate his base and take the county by 8 points on Election Day. 

Meanwhile, next door Oakland Country played an even bigger role in Obama’s election, changing from an evenly-matched battleground that John Kerry barely carried in 2004, to a Republican killing field that Obama carried by nearly 100,000 votes and that saw Democratic gains up and down the ticket. These extraordinary changes happening in places like Oakland are central to what is, perhaps, an emerging national Democratic ascendancy. 

In this special post-election survey analysis, Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan, James Carville and Andrew Baumann take a look at the transformation in Oakland and Macomb, dissecting the dynamics of Obama’s victory there. The analysis ultimately suggests that If Democrats can successfully bridge the old Reagan Democrats of Macomb and the new suburban progressives of Oakland, while continuing to grow the other elements of their coalition, they could remain on top for many years to come.

Key Findings

  • On Election Day Obama carried Macomb by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent. This improvement was driven almost entirely by his consolidation of the Democratic base. Obama merely split independents in Macomb, but after earning just 71 percent of the Democratic vote in July, he won 95 percent on Election Day, the same percentage McCain won among his much smaller Republican base.
  • Taking a deeper look at the data reveals that Obama’s large personal gains were largely made possible because he accomplished the three main tasks we identified in our July report: 1) reassuring that he would be a president for all Americans, 2) crossing a threshold on security and 3) connecting to voters’ economic anger.
  • As in Macomb, Obama was successful in consolidating Democrats in Oakland (winning 93 percent), but he was able to improve on his margin in Macomb by besting McCain among the county’s independent voters by 12 points, 55 percent to 43 percent.
  • Oakland voters rated Obama highly on almost every attribute we tested, giving the Democratic nominee very similar ratings to those received in Macomb on Election Day. On the most important attributes; including “shares your values,” “on your side,” “will keep America strong” and “has what it takes to be president;” Obama scored at or near the 60 percent level and he received even higher marks on being seen as patriotic and being able to unite the country.

Methodology

Based on Democracy Corps polls conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner of 750 voters in Macomb County, Michigan and 600 voters in Oakland County, Michigan, November 4-5, 2008. Also based on Democracy Corps surveys of 750 likely voters in Macomb County conducted July 14-22 and September 21-24, 2008 and 6 focus groups conducted with Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters from Macomb who were not then voting for Obama in June and July, 2008.