DETROIT — What's the point? That's what many Michiganders are wondering about their presidential primary elections next Tuesday in this important manufacturing state whose hard luck can be seen as a possible harbinger for many of the nation's blue-collar workers.
Apathy runs deep among the state's 7.2 million registered voters.
The local economy, tied largely to U.S. automakers and labor unions, has been sliding for so long that many voters aren't convinced that any president can do much about it.
"I don't think Michigan is going to make that much of a difference," said Charles Wood, 44, who sells seat belts and other restraint systems to the auto industry.
Since he moved to Michigan three years ago from North Carolina, Wood said, he's found racial tension, dour moods and class warfare. "The whole state is an 'us versus them' mentality," he said. "It's the haves and have-nots."
Despite major universities and a developing research corridor, reasons for pessimism abound in the nation's eighth most populous state. Michigan has the country's highest unemployment rate, 7.4 percent in November. It claims among the nation's highest rates of housing foreclosures and one-way U-Haul rentals outbound, an exodus that's resulted in the loss of four congressional seats since the 1980s.
On top of that, state political activists — who insisted on moving up Michigan's primary election date to compete for influence with early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire — defied their national Democratic and Republican party organizations and lost.
Michigan was told that it will be stripped of all of its Democratic delegates and half of its Republican delegates to the parties' conventions. The state went for Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
Still, leading Democrats haven't campaigned here; half them went so far as to take their names off the ballot. Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel remain on. But voters who prefer Barack Obama, John Edwards or Bill Richardson can vote only "uncommitted."
That could leave some curiosities unresolved: Whom do Detroit's African-American voters support? Would frustrations with former President Clinton over NAFTA hurt support for his wife? Would Obama's admonition to the industry to make more fuel-efficient cars turn off autoworkers?
Republican candidates haven't shunned Michigan the same way.
They've formally debated in the state, and observers say that the outcome of the state's Republican primary may affect competitors' positions heading into South Carolina four days later, and on to Super Tuesday states Feb. 5.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said the state primary's results might be shaped by what had come out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and how large Michigan's conservative Christian turnout was, especially in Republican centers in the western part of the state.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has Michigan ties: His father was the governor there in the 1960s and the chairman of American Motors Corp. But Anuzis said Romney family-name recognition wasn't as strong with voters younger than 50 as it was with their parents.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been leading or tied with Romney in Michigan, but has been sinking recently in national polls. The sudden rise nationally of Christian conservative Mike Huckabee also could be a factor, as evangelicals are numerous in Michigan.
Still, even if the national parties soften their stands on penalizing Michigan at the conventions, the primary date move-up may have cost the state the very influence that its activists had sought, especially in the Democratic primary.
Many here said they'd probably vote despite the confusion.
Rick Benton, 35, who divides his time between Michigan and Arizona to run his event-production company, said he'd vote in the northern state: "They need my vote here more, because everyone's leaving for places like Arizona."
STATISTICAL PROFILE OF MICHIGAN
Source: 2008 Almanac of American Politics