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Republicans have a problem when talking about Michigan's economy

How much of a role will the state of Michigan’s economy play in deciding your vote in November? Last week, the presidential candidates acted as if it might be a big deal as they both made stops in Michigan to deliver speeches on jobs and the economy. 

Michigan, and Detroit, in particular, remain economically emblematic. But there are two stories to tell and the candidates each packed a different one for the trip. 

The candidates brought very different impressions of how things are going here since the Great Recession, the bailout of the auto industry and manufacturing in general, and the Detroit bankruptcy.

Republican nominee Donald Trump declared the American dream has “long ago vanished” in cities like Detroit.

“It was like he was in a different place,” retorted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and: “He is missing so much about what makes Michigan great!”

Now, Trump was not all gloom and doom, and Clinton certainly acknowledged there are challenges and things that need to be fixed. But it’s fair to say that Trump’s impressions of Michigan are darker and more pessimistic than Clinton’s rosier view.

Which isn’t necessarily good for Michigan Republicans who want to make the case they’ve been good stewards of the economy during their rein in Lansing.

But, the question is, in this weird election cycle, is the economy even a big deal as the national campaigns seem to revolve around debates on character, temperament, trust, and competence?

The economy could be a bigger issue in down ballot races for the state House -- but only if the candidates succeed in distinguishing themselves from the top of the ticket.

But credit and blame for what’s happening in the economy can be difficult to sort out because we have divided government. In Washington, Democrats control the White House. But Republicans control Congress, while in Michigan, Republicans run the whole show.

Meantime, voters in Michigan seem to think things are moving in the right direction. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed in early August by the polling firm EPIC-MRA said the economy is improving.

And they’re right, says the highly respected Michigan State University economics professor Charlie Ballard.

“Our unemployment rate came from about 14 down to about 5,” says Ballard. “We have moved up in the rankings of per capita income from 38th among the 50 states to 33rd. All of those things are real, and they’re steps in the right direction.”

Now, as Professor Ballard points out, 33rd in per capita income still isn’t all that great, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“Overall, it’s a pretty good picture, but I’d like to see a whole lot more.”

Candidates will use this data to make the case that things are good or not so good, depending on how it fits with their campaign messaging.

Democrats will say it’s the Obama recovery, little or no thanks to Republicans, and they will also try to shackle GOP candidates to the problems that have dogged Governor Rick Snyder through his second term. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to make Governor Snyder’s job performance (and his low job approval) an issue in state House races.

In fact, what Governor Snyder and Republicans are saying about how Michigan’s doing sounds a lot more like Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump -- that Michigan’s on the upswing even if there’s still more to do.

That’s the messaging conundrum Republicans face. They want and need to make the case in these state House races that they’ve managed things well. But they’re doing that as the top of the ticket preaches change and disruption.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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