With just a week to go before Election Day, recent polls show Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan carving out a small but stable lead over Democratic challenger Mark Schauer. But the race isn't over yet, and a handful of outlying polls — including a very recent New York Times/CBS/YouGov survey — also show Schauer with a slim lead.
"I would say [Snyder] has a solid lead," said Michael Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan. "Based upon the polls, I would be very surprised to see Schauer win the election. It's not inconceivable, but it definitely looks like the polls lean in Snyder's direction."
The race could be of national import, given the tenor of Snyder's first four years in office. The Republican governor made national news in late 2012 when he successfully passed three "right-to-work" laws in Michigan, turning the birthplace of the powerful United Auto Workers union into hostile territory for the labor movement almost overnight. At around the same time, he also signed into law tough restrictions on abortion and the Emergency Manager bill that paved the way for the state's takeover of Detroit. While Snyder maintains a reputation as a moderate Republican in many circles, those moves incensed Michigan progressives and the national labor movement.
The ensuing race was probably a little tougher than Snyder had been hoping. Over the summer, a string of polls suggested that Schauer was, in the words of one local press outlet, "breathing down the governor's neck." In mid-September, the governor responded by adjusting his campaign message to better reflect voter wariness regarding the state of Michigan's economy. Once described as "the comeback state" in Snyder campaign literature, Michigan became "on the road to recovery."
Schauer, meanwhile, hammered away at the incumbent by saying Snyder's policies were mainly intended to "work for the wealthy and big corporations." He stoked the fervor of unions by talking about Snyder's right-to-work laws, and told msnbc that he would end Michigan's Emergency Manager system. Yet even with organized labor's support, Schauer has been unable to overcome the incumbent governor's cash advantage.
The bigger issue confronting Schauer has been one that Democrats across the country have struggled with this election cycle: The enthusiasm gap between the parties. Partisan Republicans are simply more motivated to go out and vote this year, said Heaney.
"It's just a simple story of Republicans being angry with the state of the political situation," he said. Although Snyder's politics are to the right of the typical Michigan voter's, he doesn't necessarily inspire the same outrage among Michigan Democrats that politically active Republicans nationwide feel toward President Obama.
That may in part be because a majority of Michigan voters are feeling fairly optimistic about the condition of the state's economy. A poll from earlier this month showed that 51% of voters believed the state was "on the right track." That's barely a majority, but it's also a 10-year high according to pollsters. At 7.2%, Michigan's unemployment rate remains above the national average, but it has been declining steadily since the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis and auto industry collapse.
Some of the biggest news outlets in the state have lined up behind Snyder, largely as a result of the state's economic performance. The editorial board of the Detroit Free Press described its own endorsement as a "close call," but ultimately sided with the sitting governor, citing their belief in his ability to "build on the state's germinal economic momentum." (The Free Press also endorsed Snyder in 2010.)
"Governor Snyder has all of the momentum going into Election Day. Newspapers across the state have endorsed the Governor due to his positive message of nearly 300,000 new private sector jobs, the lowest unemployment rate in six years, an increased investment in education, and the creation of the bipartisan coalition for Detroit's Grand Bargain," said Emily Benavides, the communications director for the Snyder campaign, in an emailed statement. "Michigan is on the Road to Recovery and Governor Snyder is leading the way."
Cathy Bacile Cunningham of the Schauer campaign, meanwhile, said via email that the Democratic challenger had the moment and was "firing on all cylinders."
"We are confident that when all the votes are counted on Election Day, Mark will have won a hard-fought victory," she said.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that not at all recent polls suggest a Snyder victory and that the Free Press has endorsed Snyder in the past.