Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Republicans served up ‘red wave’ Kool-Aid. Pundits drank it up.

November 14, 2022 4:23 am

Susan J. Demas graphic of Tudor Dixon using Andrew Roth photo

The election was four weeks out. Every sign pointed to Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon careening toward an epic loss.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was, by all indications, running a smart campaign that connected with voters on kitchen-table issues, which does, as she often pointed out, include abortion rights. Her authentic bond with her running mate, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, and the rest of the ticket shined through on the trail. Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn were tasked with hammering the point that democracy, sanity and voting rights were at stake (the GOP nominated a slate of outré election deniers).

Trailing Whitmer by a whopping 17 points in the last Detroit News poll, Dixon was being swamped on the airwaves by the Democrat and allies who cast her as an anti-abortion extremist (which had the advantage of being true). I had yet to talk to a single independent voter who was more fired up by Dixon’s attacks on drag queens and trans kids playing sports than about Roe v. Wade being overturned this summer.

But then an Oct. 11 story appeared in the Detroit News trumpeting that it was a “pivotal week” in the race, with Dixon announcing she’ll “prove them all wrong.” 

That piqued my interest. Would the former right-wing commentator finally pivot off niche anti-LGBTQ+ issues and focus on the economy? Was she amassing a war chest behind the scenes for an ad blitz? Was her internal polling showing vastly different numbers?

At this point, I’m a mostly retired political analyst who much prefers writing about policy and its impact on people, because the stakes are so incredibly high. I routinely turn down pundit pontification gigs because I don’t need to hear the sound of my own voice and debate politicos pretending some hardball Dem abortion ad is more offensive than Republican assaults on democracy with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and long after.

I’ve been wrong about elections before — most glaringly when Donald Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016 — so you always have to leave open the possibility that your radar is off, that there are signs you’re missing and people you’re not listening to.

– Susan J. Demas

But after a couple decades of doing this, I can practically analyze poll numbers in my sleep and still subconsciously handicap races in my head. 

And with reproductive rights, climate policy, the future of public education and the fairness of future elections on the line, the 2022 midterms in Michigan and beyond were well worth keeping a close eye on.

I’ve been wrong about elections before — most glaringly when Donald Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016 — so you always have to leave open the possibility that your radar is off, that there are signs you’re missing and people you’re not listening to.

So in the weeks that followed, I watched for evidence of a genuine shift in the race. There were more pro-Dixon ads, but pro-Whitmer spots still lapped them. A slew of GOP polls from Trafalgar and unknown outfits like American Greatness started popping up showing a dead heat.

As we now know, bad polling was part of a national GOP strategy to “flood the zone with shit,” a favorite disinformation technique from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and convince everyone the “red wave” was an unstoppable force.

Michigan GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, who was chastised a decade ago by the New York Times for his sketchy surveys, teamed up with insider newsletter MIRS on polls that were then widely touted by Dixon’s campaign. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Mitchell proceeded to do a massive media tour, including appearing on the far-right webcast of Church Militant, which the Southern Poverty Law Center said in 2018 was a hate group. That all led to the national political news site Real Clear Politics, which, like MIRS, purports not to lean to the right, announcing the race was a “Toss-up.”

All that fueled a narrative that the Republican was headed for a 1990 John Engler-style upset over Whitmer — catnip for political reporters after the race had been a snoozefest for so long.

There was a three-pronged effort to relentlessly keep that messaging in the political bloodstream: First, from the Dixon campaign itself, then from a host of GOP operatives and figures in and outside Michigan posting chest-beating tweets, and finally from right-wing media figures who seemed to have fully bought the hype.

The delusional feedback loop was aptly summed up to the Michigan Advance before the election by Spencer Hayes, a Millennial PR pro in metro Detroit: “The thing that I’ve noticed is mostly just all the Republican messaging has just been full-steam ahead, pretending that Tudor Dixon is killing it and that she’s mounting a miraculous win.”

GOP operatives from outfits like the DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund are paid to spin for a living. Political reporters and pundits, however, don’t have to swallow it — but the bevy of breathless tweets and stories about the Dixon-Whitmer matchup coming down to the wire suggests that Republicans’ sales job worked.

The willingness of conservative journalists to not just drink the Kool-Aid, but actively participate in selling it, should give us the most pause. 

Here's the thing I couldn't understand about analysts smugly plugging a red wave on the strength of GOP polls. If a party was willing to deny the results of the last election and try to overthrow the government, why would we think dumping bad midterm polls was a bridge too far?

– Susan J. Demas

Detroit News opinion editors Nolan Finley and Kaitlyn Buss, for example, claimed in an Oct. 26 column saluting Dixon that the “race that has tightened to a near dead heat,” even though the Detroit News’ own polling never reflected that. In fact, the paper’s last poll from the Glengariff Group, released after the column, showed Whitmer beating Dixon by 9 points — which undershot the Democrat’s 10.5-point margin of victory (as well as badly underestimating Nessel’s 9-point win).   

Finley, who once wrote a crazed column during the early days of COVID excoriating Whitmer an ”arbitrary and condescending dictator,” could be expected to view the race through a right-wing lens. 

As a progressive who backs basic human rights for women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people, I naturally found Dixon’s vengeful, far-right platform abhorrent. 

But if you bill yourself as a purveyor of facts — as journalists are supposed to be — who can coldly analyze data and elections, you can’t let your anger or hopes blind you to what’s staring you straight in the face. That’s a lesson I learned all too well when I misjudged Trump’s strength (and Hillary Clinton’s weakness) in Michigan six years ago.

Throughout the entire 2022 election — even as Dixon was making disgusting jokes about the assassination plot against Whitmer, declaring 14-year-old rape victims should be forced to give birth and demonizing LGBTQ+ kids for just daring to exist — I left open the possibility that my assessment that she was losing (badly) was wrong.

I just wasn’t seeing it in good-quality polling, early vote numbers, youth enthusiasm or interviews with swing voters, many of whom had decidedly not moved on from Roe‘s reversal, as pundits and Republicans kept insisting. 

As I told reporters who called me on Election Day, I’ve covered bloodbath Democratic midterms before and the vibe didn’t feel like 2010 or 2014 to me. I thought Dems would surprise a lot of folks — and they did.

My predictions were that Whitmer, Nessel and Benson would win, as would the three statewide proposals for term limits reform, voting rights and abortion rights (the much-scrutinized Proposal 3). I thought Dems would take three out of four competitive congressional races, which all turned out to be correct. 

Michigan Democrats attend a rally with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other candidates in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Nov. 4, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Where I fell short was in underestimating the margins on top races and thus forecasting a 19-19 state Senate and narrow GOP-majority House — when the Dems flipped them both and will have a trifecta for the first time in almost 40 years.

The fact that Democrats pulled this off in a swing state like Michigan during a midterm election with a president of their own party whose approval is underwater makes this an absolutely historic victory.

Anyone who knows me knows I like being right — but what I like so much more is living in a world where facts still matter, where Americans can come together and stand up for democracy, decency and basic rights.

Here’s the thing I couldn’t understand about analysts smugly plugging a red wave on the strength of GOP polls. If a party was willing to deny the results of the last election and try to overthrow the government, why would we think dumping bad midterm polls was a bridge too far?

It was a fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy and it went down in flames — but not for lack of trying. In the end, voters turned out to be smarter than talking heads.

Now should be a time of soul-searching and reflection for political reporters and pundits. Many were lied to straight up by GOP sources that Dixon would notch a shocking win, Prop 3 was going down and Republican Matt DePerno would oust Nessel. 

Call me old-fashioned, but credibility still matters — and it should going forward.

Anyone who knows me knows I like being right — but what I like so much more is living in a world where facts still matter, where Americans can come together and stand up for democracy, decency and basic rights.

– Susan J. Demas

Maybe the knee-jerk reaction of reporters to dismiss female experts and liberal analysts as being annoying peddlers of “hopium” this election — because savvy folks all know inflation is everything and the out-party wins midterms — meant they missed what was really going on in Michigan and across the country.

For years, Republicans expertly worked the refs in the media so terrified of being labeled “biased” that they ensure loud conservative voices get airtime over female, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ journalists — who bring insights into communities that are often ignored in mainstream coverage (the Advance’s mission, by the way, is to give voice to them). Perhaps that also contributed to why so many self-styled political junkies botched their election projections.

Over the past few days, I tuned into some male-dominated pundit wrapups and political shows, which were, not surprisingly, devoid of mea culpas

Few gave any real credit to “those women from Michigan” for campaigning on threats to democracy and abortion rights — issues that resonated with voters and propelled them to hard-fought, resounding wins.

That’s not a great look for my profession. But in the end, this election proved just how irrelevant hot takes are to voters.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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