In Michigan, It's The Turnout, Stupid (Developing Story)

Lansing, Michigan– “Marlene, just making sure you voted. McCain’s making it tight. Every vote counts, you know. OK. Thanks.”

That was Norm Shinkle, Republican chairman of Ingham County (Lansing), Michigan, on his cellphone this afternoon as we waited for lunch at T.G.I.Friday’s here. Party chieftain Shinkle, an unabashed Mitt Romney supporter, was using every available minute to turn out voters sympathetic to his candidate in today’s presidential primary. As we were served, Shinkle buttonholed our waiter, a young man named Josh who has just reached the minimum voting age of 18. “Mitt Romney is the only Republican who can beat Hillary Clinton and you don’t want her to be President, do you?” the county chairman implores young Josh. Josh agrees with him but finally says he hasn’t registered to vote yet and Michigan law requires one to be registered at least thirty days before particpating at the polls.

With a couple of hours left in the nationally-watched balloting in Michigan that may be pivotal to the Republican presidential contest, this is what it call comes down to: turnout. The candidate who turns out the voters he knows he can count on wins. The lower the turnout, the more powerful the wallop packed by voters who historically vote in Democratic primaries but are now bored by a contest that major candidates have conceded to Hillary Clinton and free to “cross over.” Aware of this, State Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer took to the airwaves yesterday to remind Democrats that if they support Barack Obama or John Edwards they can still vote “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary.

At mid-day, signs were strong that the turnout was going to be low–perhaps as low as the estimated 16% of eligible voters that participated in the 2000 primary, when John McCain scored a dramatic triumph over George W. Bush with a big help from Democratic crossovers.

“It’s a lower-than-normal turnout,” Meridian Township Clerk Mary Helmbrecht told me at 1:00 PM. “I went to Precincts 4, 5, and 6 this morning and I saw exactly one voter at each voting center,” she said. Helmbrecht pointed out that, in her town of about 30,000 eligible voters, 2200 requested absentee ballots and “we expect, over all, 4500-to-6000 votes here.” (That’s 15%-to-20% of the eligible voters).

Norm Shinkle does not believe that the motivation is there for a massive crossover vote that will put McCain over Romney. Noting that many of the Democrats who crossed over for McCain did so to embarass then-Gov. and Bushman John Engler, Shinkle said: “If they do come over, they will do so for Ron Paul because of his anti-war stand or Rudy Giuliani because of his liberal social positions. It will not be a critical factor in the race between the top two candidates.”

So is he confidently predicting a Romney win tonight, I asked? Predictably, Shinkle replied: “It all depends on the turnout.”

Huckabee’s Parting Shots
With just over two hours before the polls close and the ballots begin to be counted in Michigan’s Republican Presidential primary January 15th, Mike Huckabee closed his campaign with an eye on South Carolina’s GOP balloting Saturday (January 19th).  But it was clear that, whether he anticipated it or not, the former Arkansas governor was going to be a force in Michigan.  Although all polls showed the race a tight battle between John McCain and Mitt Romney, they also showed that a strong third place showing would be Huckabee’s–although he spent little money, did not have a headquarters here until earlier in the month, and was relying on an almost-exclusively volunteer organization.
At a telephone press conference Huckabee conducted on Friday, I asked what he thought of the reports that Rev. LeMar Lemmons of Detroit, an African-American pastor and supporter of Democrat Barack Obama for President, was organizing a cross-over vote among his fellow Motor City Democrats for Huckabee with the sole purpose of aggravating “the Establishment”–whom Lemmons described as Romney and McCain.
“I’ve not met with him and I don’t know him,” Huckabee told me, “The first I heard of him was yesterday.  But if he is going to vote for me, I am less concerned about why he is than that he is.”
Huckabee went on to say that if Lemmons looked closely at him, he might very well find he likes what he is voting for–the Detroit man’s own motivations notwithstanding–and might conclude that “our campaign embodies an authentic Republicanism that doesn’t alienate people.”
“I hope he’s successful in getting Democrats to come over to me,” added Huckabee.
Huck on Fred
In response to a query from NBC-TV correspondent Kelly O’Donnell–hoarse from laryngitis acquired on the campaign trail–about rival Fred Thompson and whether he would change the dynamic in the race after this strong performance in their last TV debate, Huckabee replied:  “I don’t see him as being much of a factor.”
Recalling Thompson’s eight years as U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Huckabee said he didn’t remember him saying “one thing about a Thompson border security bill, a Thompson bill on the sanctity of life,” or any Thompson legislation on a major issue.
As for the Tennessean’s frequent invocation of the name of Ronald Reagan, Huckabee noted that Thompson “backed Gerald Ford for President in 1976 and Howard Baker in 1980”–recalling challengers to Reagan in his early presidential races.  While “I appreciate his conversion,” Huckabee added, “some of us backed Reagan in his early years without having to come to him through other candidates.”          


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