If Republicans want to win Michigan in November, they'll have to have a better story on the Flint water crisis, which has become a symbol of conservative mismanagement of government.
But, perhaps more surprisingly, the same could be said of Democrats, who would like to make Flint the 2016 version of Katrina -- politically speaking. It won't be easy.
In the 2008 election, Democrats turned the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to political gain, attacking Republicans for incompetence in addressing the crisis. Can the Democrats do the same in 2016 with Flint?
Over the past two months the revelations out of Flint have kept getting worse. Recently the news broke that residents paid some of the highest water bills in the nation for their poisoned water, while a previous investigation from the Detroit Free Press revealed that state workers received bottled water before the government acknowledged any problems.
Opponents of Republican Governor Rick Snyder have wasted no time tying this crisis around his neck, including pointing to a Detroit Free Press story as proof that the administration knew about Flint's problems long before it acted. Democrats nationally have also tried to portray this not as a local issue but as a failure of conservative governance. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have at various times blamed conservative austerity economics for the water crisis, joined by many voices across the Internet (including this writer).
The Democrats even held their latest primary debate in Flint. The debate, hosted by CNN, spent much time discussing water safety, health services and the basic role of government -- both in reference to the disaster in Flint as well as to the general responsibilities of government to take care of the people.
Democrats have distilled the lesson of Flint down to one clear message, “see what happens with Republicans in charge” and they’re hoping it resonates with voters in the same way that Katrina did. Today the hurricane still lingers as one of the signature stains on George W. Bush's legacy, a presidency that helped usher in not just the Obama administration but Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
"Katrina showed that [Bush] is incompetent" former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview afterward, and today's Democrats have been echoing that charge about Flint, hoping it will resonate with voters.
“This will be and absolutely should be something that’s on the mind of voters,” said TJ Helmstetter, Midwestern press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. “The Flint water crisis is a deeply significant example of how people can be harmed when the government fails to do its job, and in this case this was an example of how a Republican governor allowed thousands of people to be poisoned when he failed to do his.”
As a political tactic, the Democrats’ case is strong. This happened not only on the watch of a Republican governor but as a direct result of his massively unpopular system of business-oriented emergency managers. Snyder built his political career on his c-suite style of leadership. It's a message shared by the party at large, and this has handed the left a case example for failure. Under rational conditions the Democrats they have an opportunity to meaningfully win some voters over.
But it probably won't work this time. The reasons: Voters are more partisan today than in 2008 and may regard Flint as more of an environmental issue rather than a failure of government.
Today’s voter doesn’t behave like a consumer selecting the best product for her political interests. Instead, as University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller wrote last year, they behave more like fans of rival sports teams. And there’s precious little that would convince an Ohio State fan to put on Michigan blue.
“[O]ur regular elections ensure that our party team always has another ‘game’ with the other team looming,” Miller wrote. “[T]his creates an environment where many partisans treat politics like a sports rivalry, akin to Kansas-Missouri or UNC-Duke in college sports. Partisans with that mentality view politics in stark good-evil terms and are motivated to participate in politics foremost by a strong desire to win at any cost.”
This backs up findings by the Pew Research Center that hostility to the opposing party drives voters more than loyalty to their own. Increasingly voters show up to vote against the other guy, and turning them off to their own party won’t have much impact on an electorate increasingly driven by this negative voting. More bad news for Democrats, this drive is particularly strong among Republicans (65% to 49%).
Watch Now: the Flint water crisis in pictures
For these voters, policy is beside the point. Slightly more than 40% of partisans say that “simply winning elections is more important to them than policy or ideological goals” Miller wrote. Almost as many were willing to agree that their party should use any tactics necessary to win, including “voter suppression, stealing or cheating in elections, physical violence and threats.”
“Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to express this incivility," he added.
In this environment, it’s hard to see how Flint will change many voters’ minds.
The water crisis is a policy argument, and a good one. Austerity economics were at the heart of Snyder’s emergency manager program, which handed power to locally unaccountable figures whose personal mandate focused on budget cuts by any means necessary. The Democrats have a fine traditional case to make that, as Helmstetter put it, this is “an important time for Americans to reflect on what it is that they want and they expect out of their leaders.”
But it's a policy argument pitched to an electorate increasingly uninterested in policy. Most partisans these days are single issue voters fueled by their hatred of "the other guy." Dinging their candidate's reputation won't change that.
Of course liberal strategists could be pursuing the all-elusive independent, or “swing,” voters. “Independent” has become the new cool, especially among millennials who show their free spirits by claiming non-affiliation by huge margins. Overall, Gallup has found, a whopping 41% of voters call themselves independent.
Almost all of them, however, have a partisan preference.
When you account for actual politics that plurality shrinks to anywhere from 11% to 5% of the voting public left up for grabs. Independents who harbor partisan leanings (almost all of them) tend to vote exactly like partisans, voting the same way each election and all the way down the ticket.
So, if partisans increasingly won’t cross party lines and independents have, for the most part, already cast their lot, what’s the point of making a case?
There might be one reason it could fuel Democrats somewhat: by helping win the turnout war.
"The politicians can talk about the Flint water crisis, but to people outside of Michigan it sounds like the same debate we usually have, which is Democrats saying Republicans are insufficiently protecting the environment. A lot of people are going to be persuaded by that, but those people are already voting for the Democrat," said Georgetown professor Jonathan Ladd in an interview with The Street.
The voters who will get fired up about Flint are already sympathetic to arguments about clean water, budget cuts and public programs. The ones who believe in smaller government with fewer taxes have already plastered their Facebook walls with “Still Better Than Granholm” slogans (a reference to Snyder's predecessor, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm) and urge reporters that Flint was actually a failure of the city's local government. They are ready and able to forgive the party on a national level even if they may punish Snyder himself in his next election.
For Democrats, Flint represents an opportunity to mobilize the base by reminding them of everything that they hate about a Republican administration. That “see what happens” message can help push voters off the fence, yes, but just about whether or not to deal with the hassle of voting.
To be sure, it will be an uphill battle. Just because Democrats weren't in power in Michigan when disaster struck, doesn't mean their message on the matter will be heard by voters. When one of the original Flint whistle-blowers, Lee-Anne Walters, asked Clinton and Sanders at this week's debate whether they would promise to remove all lead water pipes from the U.S., she didn't like the Sanders response; and she hated Clinton's.
"It actually made me vomit in my mouth," she told the Huffington Post the day after the debate.