Poll: In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Whitmer's lead over Republican Dixon grows to 16 points

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LANSING – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's lead over Republican Tudor Dixon ahead of the Nov. 8 election has grown to 16 percentage points – up from 11 points one month ago – according to a new Free Press poll.

Over the last month, Whitmer's favorability numbers have brightened while Dixon's have dimmed amid an onslaught of Democratic TV ads highlighting the candidates' positions on abortion rights.

At left, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the pre-tape of her State of the State speech at Detroit Diesel in Redford Township on Jan. 26, 2022, and on right, Tudor Dixon makes a victory speech after winning the Republican Party nomination for governor at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids on August 2, 2022.
At left, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the pre-tape of her State of the State speech at Detroit Diesel in Redford Township on Jan. 26, 2022, and on right, Tudor Dixon makes a victory speech after winning the Republican Party nomination for governor at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids on August 2, 2022.

If the election were held today, 55% of those surveyed said they would vote for Whitmer, a Democrat who is seeking a second four-year term. Dixon, a Norton Shores businesswoman and former conservative TV commentator with no prior political experience, would get 39% support. Only 6% said they were undecided, down from 11% in a poll conducted by the same firm in August.

The latest statewide poll by EPIC-MRA of Lansing was conducted between Sept. 15 and 19 for the Free Press and its statewide media partners. It sampled 600 likely November voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Of those surveyed by live interviewers, 70% were contacted on their cellphones.

Such a large polling lead has not been seen in a Michigan governor's race since 2010, when several polls gave Republican Rick Snyder a similar lead over Democrat Virg Bernero and some polls showed Snyder ahead by 20 points. Snyder, a political newcomer at the time who was seen as a moderate, won that race by 18 points. No incumbent governor has held such a large polling lead since 1998, when polls showed Democratic challenger Geoffrey Fieger trailing Republican Gov. John Engler by a much larger margin, 20 to 30 points, before Engler cruised to a 24-point victory.

Typically, Michigan gubernatorial races tend to tighten as Election Day approaches. Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA, said that if Whitmer's support remains at 55% or expands beyond that, it means the governor could have "coattails" that would help other Democrats in congressional and state legislative races.

The Free Press poll reflects a shift by undecided voters into Whitmer's camp since August. At that time, Dixon's support was measured at the same 39% but expressed support for Whitmer was 5 points lower, at 50%.

More:Michigan abortion proposal has strong support, poll shows

The shift is almost certainly related to the abortion issue, which those surveyed said is tied with inflation as the top election issue. Each of those two issues was rated the number one issue by 24% of respondents, followed by education and jobs and the economy, at 10% each. The Free Press reported in August that abortion and inflation would be major campaign issues for Whitmer and Dixon respectively, but the poll suggests abortion is impacting the race much more directly than inflation is.

"Abortion is the driving force in terms of the improvement in Whitmer's numbers," said Porn.

The governor's widening lead is also likely related to the huge financial advantage Whitmer's campaign enjoys over Dixon's. Campaign finance reports filed early this month show Whitmer had spent $15.8 million on her campaign, much of it on TV ads, and still had $14 million in the bank. Dixon had spent just over $1.8 million and had only about $524,000 available to spend.

Whitmer "is running more ads and she is in line with public opinion on just about everything," Porn said.

Whitmer favors abortion rights and a November ballot proposal that would enshrine those rights in the state constitution and invalidate a 1931 law, still on the books, that criminalizes all abortions except those that endanger the life of a pregnant person. Dixon supports the 1931 law and has said she supports an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. The only abortion exception Dixon has said she supports is one to protect the life of the mother.

Of those surveyed, 52% had a favorable view of Whitmer and 44% had an unfavorable view. That was an improvement from August, when 48% had a favorable view of Whitmer and 43% had an unfavorable view.

Asked about Dixon, 24% had a favorable view of her and 44% had an unfavorable one. Though Dixon's favorable rating improved slightly, up from 22% in August, her unfavorable rating went up by nine points in the last month, from 35%.

Whitmer's numbers improved despite a predominant view among voters that Michigan is on the wrong track and ongoing concerns about the state of the economy generally and inflation specifically.

Asked about the condition of Michigan's economy, 60% gave it a negative rating and 36% a positive one — roughly unchanged in the last month.

More:Dixon, Whitmer working out of different playbooks as gubernatorial race gets underway

More:Tudor Dixon fails to boost finances off GOP primary win in governor's race

At the same time, 49% gave Whitmer a positive job approval rating, and 49% gave her a negative one. In August, those numbers were 47-51.

Republicans have tried to emphasize strong ties between Whitmer and Democratic President Joe Biden, who appeared with Whitmer at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week. But Biden, though still unpopular, also saw his numbers improve in the last month. He got a positive job approval rating from 35% of respondents and a negative job rating from 63%. In August, Biden's job approval numbers in Michigan were 30-69.

Asked about a 2024 rematch between Biden and former Republican President Donald Trump, 48% of respondents said they would vote for Biden and 44% said they would vote for Trump, with 8% undecided or refusing to say. Trump is to hold an Oct. 1 rally in Macomb County for Dixon and other members of the Republican ticket. Of those polled, 40% said they have a favorable view of Trump and 54% said they view him unfavorably. Biden's favorable/unfavorable numbers were 44/51.

It's all about the economy for Scott Pearson, a Ford worker and Shelby Township resident who participated in the survey and said he will vote for Dixon.

Pearson feels the economy has been in a tailspin ever since Trump left the White House and Biden moved in. And he sees Whitmer as a follower of Biden who was too aggressive in shutting Michigan down and too slow in reopening it during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'm paying way too much to drive to work; I'm paying too much to eat food," said Pearson, who said "free money" such as supplemental unemployment insurance benefits that were paid to Michigan residents to stay home, while he was working, has contributed to the inflation problem.

Asked about Dixon's attacks blaming Whitmer for high inflation, 47% of poll respondents said such attacks did not influence their view of the race one way or the other, while 30% said the attacks would make them less likely to vote for Whitmer and 22% said the attacks would make them more likely to vote for her.

Porn said he doesn't think continued high inflation has hurt Whitmer because most voters do not see it as something she can control.

That's the feeling of Veronica Dawkins, a retired Detroit-area postal worker who participated in the survey and said she expects she will vote for the governor.

"It's across the country; it's not just a Michigan problem," said Dawkins, who believes Whitmer's approach to the coronavirus pandemic likely saved many lives.

Dawkins said the abortion issue is a significant one for her, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, because she has a daughter and a son who are both in their 20s.

"It is a very dangerous time to turn the clock back that far," Dawkins said. "It's frightening. Although we haven't been confronted with a decision (about access to abortion), I don't want to be."

Of those surveyed, 43% identified as Democrats, 41% as Republicans, and 12% as independents. The August survey showed Democrats and Republicans evenly split, each making up 39% of the sample, with independents at 17%. Porn said the shift in party preferences shown in a random sample of the electorate is evidence of improving Democratic fortunes in recent weeks.

Sara Broadwater, a spokeswoman for the Dixon campaign, expressed skepticism about the poll numbers.

"If these were real numbers and Gretchen thought this race was over, then she and the Democratic Governors Association wouldn't be unloading $2.5 million a week attacking Tudor with dishonest ads," Broadwater said. "It's just that simple."

Maeve Coyle, a spokeswoman for the Whitmer campaign, said Michigan is a battleground state, third-party groups and Michigan's DeVos family are spending millions to back Dixon, and the race remains competitive.

"Gov. Whitmer is running on her record of working with anyone to make a difference for Michigan families," Coyle said.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gretchen Whitmer, Tudor Dixon poll shows widening gap in Michigan