BRIAN DICKERSON: Can Schauer avoid the Tomb of the Unknown Front-Runner?

By BRIAN DICKERSON
Guest Columnist

Mark Schauer could walk the length of any shopping mall in Michigan, and not one shopper in a hundred would recognize him.

So what are we to make of the fact that Schauer is in a dead heat with a nationally known incumbent to become Michigan’s next governor?

The short answer, of course, is “very little.”

In a rare coincidence that may signal only their shared sense of resignation, Republicans and Democrats both chose gubernatorial standard-bearers without holding primary elections.

The good news that a gubernatorial campaign that usually bludgeons voters with imbecilic advertising for the better part of five months has been cut in half.

The bad news is that the candidates and their third-party benefactors will have to stuff $40 million worth of half-truths and outright slander into just 60 days of television time. So if you’ve been suppressing an impulse to suspend your Comcast subscription, September might be a good time to indulge it.

The Schauer campaign insists its candidate’s rising poll numbers reflect his growing name recognition. But we’re really talking about an incremental increase in the number of voters who no longer confuse the Democratic gubernatorial nominee with someone in the Tigers’ starting rotation.

Most voters still conceive of the upcoming gubernatorial election as a contest between Rick Snyder and the Guy Who is Not Rick Snyder, a formulation in which a significant number favor the unknown Democrat over the brand-name Republican.

But Michigan’s political graveyard is littered with the corpses of challengers who led unpopular incumbents in the polls right up to the moment when voters learned who they were.

And election campaigns are all about transforming amorphous choices into brutally specific alternatives. (This the process by which middle-aged husbands who leave the living room when their wives turn on “House Hunters International” end up slinking back when they discover that household’s only other TV is currently airing “Dance Moms.”)

Schauer’s challenge is to flesh out the silhouette that voters conjure when they hear his name with flattering details before Snyder can deface it with unsightly warts.

Snyder’s more difficult task is to make sure voters credit him for the achievements he is proud of while overlooking, or at least forgiving, all the dunderheaded legislation he has signed into law even though he never in a million years thought they’d really pass it.

In a state where Republicans will likely continue to control the legislative and judicial branches no matter who is elected governor, Schauer may find that the “At Least I’m Not Snyder” campaign theme continues to be his strong suit. Whatever the Snyder campaign throws at him, Schauer will continue to argue credibly that he is the gubernatorial candidate most likely to use his veto pen when the Republican legislative majority does something really stupid.

But for now, Schauer remains the largely unknown alternative a significant number of voters prefer to the status quo they know. Poll numbers will remain largely meaningless until the Democratic candidate’s own strengths and weaknesses come into sharper focus, a next step that is as unpredictable as it is inevitable.

Brian Dickerson is the deputy editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press. He can be contacted at (313) 222-6584 or bdickerson@freepress.com.

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