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Did Lon Johnson's number crunching work for the Democrats in Michigan?


It’s been almost three months since Democrats lost the race for governor, and you might think that by now, few would care why.

But why they lost an election they thought they could win is still a hot topic, for this reason: The Michigan Democratic Party is holding its spring state convention on Valentine’s Day, and the delegates will decide whether or not to re-elect Lon Johnson party chair.

Why anyone would want to spend Valentine’s Day with a bunch of politicians in a windowless auditorium is another question.

But back to basics.

Two years ago, Johnson ousted longtime chair Mark Brewer, and pledged a new approach to winning elections. Johnson is a proud numbers-crunching nerd who figured that most of all, elections are about turnout.

He put the party’s energies and money toward trying to get Democrats who didn’t vote in 2010 to show up.

But to his shock, even fewer voted last year.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer did much better than the last nominee had, but still fell short.

After the votes were in, some said that strategy had been a complete flop. Johnson admitted he may have been overconfident, but cautioned against rushing to judgment before they’d had an opportunity to completely analyze the returns.

Well, this weekend a source close to Johnson told me that a complete analysis of who voted was 91% complete. And, that source said, the numbers at least partly vindicate Lon Johnson.

Well, this weekend a source close to Johnson told me that a complete analysis of who voted was 91% complete. And, that source said, the numbers at least partly vindicate Lon Johnson.

While there were fewer ballots cast than expected, more Democrats than Republicans seem to have voted absentee.

The source also said that 229,000 more Democrats voted than did in 2010. That's a figure that they claimed was higher than the party’s goal of turning out about 180,000.

Yet if all this is true, then why did the Democrats lose?

Actually, this analysis is a little self-serving; Lon Johnson told me they were expecting a statewide turnout of at least 3.4 million. It was more than 200,000 less than that.

Numbers, however, don’t vote. People do. My theory, based on a lifetime of watching this stuff, is that Democrats did succeed in getting the word out about the things Snyder did that many, perhaps most people found “wrong.”

But Schauer then failed to close the sale by telling people what he would do instead, say, on the roads. He also failed to persuade people that if they elected him, he could get the job done.

The pattern of the returns also say to me that Snyder clearly benefited from the perception, especially in the Detroit suburbs, that he had done a masterful job handling the Motor City’s crisis.

But the bottom line may just have been that it was a very Republican year. In fact, that was less true in Michigan than elsewhere. Snyder won by almost 19 points the first time, but only four points this time.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s numbers were also lower than before.

But whatever the case, it looks as if Lon Johnson may have persuaded party leaders and the faithful to give him another chance. Despite rumors, so far, nobody has come forth to challenge him.

Yet Valentine’s Day is still almost three weeks away.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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