Bush chats up Michiganders in Monroe.

Photo: White House.

President Bush swooped into Monroe, Mich., in mid-September for an appearance at one of the largest and most polluting coal-fired power plants in the world. As an exploration of his ideas about environmental policy, the visit was completely baffling. (Why go to such a filthy facility? Why sing the praises of a piece of legislation — the Clean Air Act — that his administration has made every effort to weaken?) But as a campaign stop, the Monroe visit made perfect sense.

Michigan is an important swing state at the political and geographic center of the eight-state Great Lakes region. It is crucial to the outcome of the 2004 presidential election — not only for its votes, but also for the lessons it can teach the rest of the nation. During last year’s gubernatorial race, Jennifer Granholm, a centrist Democrat, swept into office on a platform that stressed protecting natural resources as a foundation for improving the state’s economic competitiveness. That victory provided politicians of both parties with an object lesson in the galvanizing effect that environmental protection can have on voters in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

Three years ago, Al Gore and Ralph Nader reaped rewards in Michigan and most of the other Great Lakes states by making plain their allegiance to environmental protection and energy conservation. During his visits to the Great Lakes region, Gore talked about ensuring clean water and improving public transportation to reduce traffic congestion. More boldly, he predicted the end of the internal combustion engine. He handily won Michigan and five other Great Lakes states, collecting 117 electoral votes. The Great Lakes, in fact, provided 44 percent of the 266 electoral votes that Gore earned in 2000. Bush won Ohio and Indiana for 33 electoral votes. Nader didn’t score any electoral votes, but he did win 892,500 votes in the Great Lakes — more than in any other region of the country. In fact, he gathered almost 300,000 more votes in the area than he did on the West Coast, and more than twice as many as he attracted in New England.

The Bush administration knows that the Great Lakes states will be critical to what happens in 2004: Karl Rove, the president’s political advisor, has predicted that the election will be very tight, and he’s told Michigan Republican activists that Bush needs to do better in the Great Lakes in ’04 than he did in 2000. In an effort to bolster his image, Bush has become a frequent visitor to the region: His stop in Monroe was his 11th in Michigan since becoming president. (He’s also been to Ohio 11 times and has made 22 visits to Pennsylvania.)

Meanwhile, the region is equally crucial to Democrats, who will not prevail in 2004 unless they do at least as well there as Gore did in 2000 — and preferably better. Since the last election, Great Lakes states have lost nine congressional seats and as many electoral votes to the much faster-growing (and Republican) Sunbelt states. The only other Democratic strongholds in 2000 were New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. To triumph in 2004, the Democrats will have to win those regions and the Great Lakes area, plus Florida and a couple of states in the interior West. (Arizona and New Mexico, which have Democratic governors, seem most likely.)

Thus as the 2004 campaign gathers momentum, the electoral dynamics are clear enough. So are the top issues: jobs and the economy, war and national security, and health care.

Still, Democratic strategists say their presidential candidate will need another compelling issue to convince swing voters and Republican moderates to side with them. In Michigan and the other Great Lakes states, there is no better issue for Democrats to embrace than the environment. Conservation is a decades-old value in the Great Lakes region, which is home to the largest supply of surface freshwater on the planet. All those homes along shorelines and cabins deep in the North Woods are owned by people who care about the condition of lakes and rivers and wildlands, and who will vote for a candidate with credibility on the environment. As for those blue-collar workers whom the Republicans think they’ve locked up: Well, many of them spend a good bit of time fishing, hunting, and boating, and are devoted to protecting what is still a clean and expansive natural domain.

Great Lakes Stakes

When it comes to environmental politics, the similarities of the approaching presidential election and the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign are striking. Former Republican Gov. John Engler, who was first elected in a close race in 1990, spent most of his three terms attempting to render meaningless those state laws that safeguarded wetlands, water, air, public forests, and the Great Lakes coastlines. Sound familiar?

A factory on Lake Superior’s shores.

The state’s environmental and conservation organizations, initially overwhelmed by Engler’s attack, gradually came to understand its dimensions, and by the late 1990s, they were collaborating as they never had before to fight back. The groups organized at the grassroots and worked together to focus public attention on a handful of important issues, such as overflowing sewers that closed beaches and drilling for oil and natural gas beneath the Great Lakes. They published investigative reports about the deals Engler was making with his industrial campaign donors to open forests, water, and land to development, and they helped the state media track the consequences of his attacks on the environment.

By 2001, Engler’s environmental record had become so controversial that Republican gubernatorial candidates distanced themselves from him, and candidates of both parties competed with each other to command the issue. By the spring of 2002, protecting the Great Lakes from unauthorized water withdrawals, protecting farmland and wild spaces from sprawl, and protecting lakes and streams from contamination were priorities for Michigan voters, along with education, the economy, and the looming $1.8 billion state budget deficit, according to polls by both Democratic and Republican campaigns. The environment and natural resources were playing a more influential role in Michigan than in any other race for governor in the nation.

“We have a very active, very aggressive, and very smart environmental movement in Michigan,” said Dave Ladd, a Republican lobbyist in Lansing who served in the late 1990s as Engler’s environmental advisor and after that as his director of the Office of Great Lakes. “Their work to raise these issues had a major impact in shaping the platforms of both candidates. In 2002, both candidates took the same position on many, if not all, of the significant issues in Michigan — land use, water, solid waste, out-of-state trash. They were singing from the same hymnal.”

Granholm: A blue shirt,
but a green mantle.

Photo: Michigan Governor’s office.

In November 2002, by a margin of 51 to 47 percent, Granholm defeated Republican Lieutenant Gov. Dick Posthumus, Engler’s handpicked successor. Polls taken before and after the Michigan election showed that no matter how green Posthumus sounded, he was unable to sufficiently distance himself from Engler’s dismal environmental record. That’s an important lesson to learn as the nation gears up for the 2004 elections: Once environmental stewardship becomes a prominent issue, the advantage goes to the Democratic nominee, because the party’s environmental record and credibility are much stronger than that of Republicans.

Exit polls, particularly those taken by Epic-MRA, a respected nonpartisan Lansing-based polling firm, provided insight into the elements of Granholm’s victory and the importance of her environmental advocacy. According to Ed Sarpolus, the company’s principal pollster, 8 percent of registered Republicans, most of them suburban women, switched parties to vote for Granholm — and her environmental credentials were a big reason why.

“Gov. Granholm was credible on a wide range of issues and she was right on the environment,” said Sarpolus. “Dick Posthumus never really focused on the environment, which appeals to women and to independent voters. The only ad he did on the environment showed him in hunting garb, holding a shotgun and a dead pheasant.”

The Take-Home Lesson

So let’s review the story line: A determined chief executive whose party controls both houses of the legislature mounts a stealthy attack on popular laws that safeguard forests, water, air, and public health. His right-wing advisors, who view their top priority as advancing the economic prospects of select industries that are also top campaign donors, zealously pursue the mission.

The parallels between Michigan in 2002 and the presidential campaign of 2004 are close enough that national environmental organizations should look to the state as a model for how to unseat Bush by elevating the profile of his environmental record. Some of those organizations have already gotten the point: The Natural Resources Defense Council has targeted four* swing states (including Michigan) for a major grassroots communications and public-education campaign. “We’re going to be working in a number of states to amplify the message we’ve long been sending regarding the effect of the president’s fundamental retreat on the environment,” said Greg Wetstone, advocacy director for NRDC in Washington, D.C.

Other national environmental organizations also are planning to campaign hard in the Northwest, Florida, and several Rocky Mountain states, where they are testing messages in focus groups and conducting public opinion polls to identify the salient environmental issues that will rouse voters. In the Pacific Northwest, the campaigns may well focus on how the White House is trying to weaken the Clean Water Act and what that would mean to the region’s rivers and coasts. Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s work to open public lands to more mining, drilling, and development may be the focus of environmental campaigns in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states, where multi-billion-dollar tourism industries rely in part on easy public access to wilderness. And in Florida, national environmental groups are honing in on the administration’s energy policy and efforts to make Gulf Coast offshore energy resources more accessible to Bush and Cheney’s friends in the oil industry.

The vast majority of Americans (70 percent and more, according to most polls) want clean air and water, protected forests, and safe, unpolluted communities — even if meeting those goals means raising taxes. The challenge facing environmentalists in 2004 is that most voters can’t believe that their government would actually attempt to roll back the environmental laws that do so much good. Although major national newspapers have done a decent job of covering the Bush administration’s environmental retreat, smaller papers aren’t much interested, and television journalists, with the exception of Bill Moyers, barely care.

Thus the job of educating citizens about what’s really going on falls mostly to environmental organizations. True, conflict abroad and economic and national security concerns at home could make it difficult to focus voter attention on environmental issues. But “difficult” does not mean “impossible,” as recent happenings in Michigan prove. If other states follow the example set there, the political cost to President Bush for trashing the environment could be higher than he ever imagined.

*[Correction, 20 Oct 2003: NRDC has targeted four states for its campaign, not six, as this article originally stated. The states are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and New Mexico.]