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By JON KING

The gulf between what Michiganders believe to be true and what is actually true is widening to a point that it is “undermining what we once took as a shared belief in democracy.”

That’s one of the conclusions of a poll released by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce to coincide with this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, which runs through Friday on Mackinac Island.

“The Chamber’s latest polling shows deep gaps in the understanding of basic elements of our society including the state of our economy and the cost of an education,” said Chamber President Sandy Baruah in a release accompanying the poll. “Additionally, our polling uncovered troubling views of the value of democracy. Businesses, and those employed by them, can only succeed in an environment of stability. Our polling shows this stability is beginning to fray.”

The poll, conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group, encompassed 600 registered Michigan voters between May 1 and 5 and covered three basic areas: the economy, higher education and democracy.

Among the poll’s key findings:

  • Less than half of respondents strongly agree democracy is the best form of government.
  • 17% of respondents believe it does not matter if our government is a democracy.
  • More than one-third of Michigan voters say there are circumstances when the use of force, violence or threats is justified in a democracy
  • Despite low unemployment and increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP), consumer confidence is lower now than during the Great Recession.
  • While more than three-quarters of Michigan voters are secure in their jobs and the job market, 52% believe the state’s economy is on the wrong track.
  • Although the average cost of a four-year degree at a public university in Michigan is about $64,000, nearly one-third of respondents believe that cost to be over $100,000.

Glengariff President Richard Czuba said the results highlight a situation in which voters no longer share common facts.

“The speed and ease that these inaccuracies take root are now threatening even the underpinnings of our joint understanding of the importance of democracy,” said Czuba, who emphasized that these are questions he’s never needed to be asked before.

“I’ll be very blunt. I’ve never pulled on the question, because I’ve never felt like we needed to pull on the question,” he said. “This is the first time in my 40 years of polling Michigan, where it felt like we needed to step back and ask some basic fundamental questions.”

The economy

This “perception-reality disconnect” has shown up in the chamber’s polling in recent years as a divergence between the actual economic circumstances experienced by voters versus what they believed them to be.

The same was true for this poll which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4% and gathered 85% of the responses from cell phones and 15% from landlines.

Despite the fact that GDP increased 3.4% in the last three months of 2023, Michigan’s unemployment was at a steady low of 3.9% as of March 2024 and U.S. stocks were up 26% in 2023; 61% of respondents said the economy was either weakening or in recession.

Additionally, 52% of Michigan voters continue to believe the state’s economy is on the wrong track, with just under 40% saying it’s on the right track. That perception gap came despite nearly 85% of the employed voters who were polled saying they were not concerned about losing their jobs, and more than 75% not having trouble finding a good-paying job.

Czuba said the perception that good jobs are available in Michigan for anyone that wants to work is actually one of the few things they found that voters can agree on.

“From a 40-year perspective of polling in Michigan, I want to step back and say how rare that moment is,” he noted. “Michigan is always about jobs. It’s about the risk of losing jobs, it seems. And this is one of these rare moments, where Michiganders are not concerned about losing their jobs. And yet, by a margin of 39 to 52 voters say the state’s economy is on the wrong track.”

Czuba said when they asked those who felt the economy was on the wrong track why they felt that way, they “disproportionately” identified inflation and higher costs.

“We asked them what the inflation rate had been over the past year and we gave them categories,” he said. “28% could correctly say that the inflation rate over the past year had been 4% or less. 43% said it was from four to 6%. 39% said it was running above 6% over the last year with 24% saying over 8%.”

As of April 2024, the inflation rate was at 3.4% and has averaged 3.3% since the beginning of the year. It hasn’t been above 4% since May 2023. That means nearly two-thirds of voters have an incorrect perception about inflation, with nearly one-quarter thinking it is more than double its actual rate.

The same misperception held true for the stock market. While the Dow Jones Industrial Average has seen a more than 18% gain in the last year, reaching the 40,000 mark for the first time ever this month, more than one-third of the voters in the poll (33.6%) say it’s been running at average, while 18.5% said it was slower than average. Only 16% accurately said it’s faster than average, while just under a third of voters weren’t sure.

Czuba says when they dig down into the numbers, it is clear political affiliation is a major factor in economic perception, with voters who identify as aligning with the Republican Party being much more pessimistic in their assessment of the economy, while Democrats and independent voters have an improving assessment.

“60% say they are doing the same or better than they have in the past, before COVID,” said Czuba. “38% say worse, and that worse is being driven, as we’ve seen in past surveys, by base Republican voters. 64% of base Republican voters say they are doing worse than before COVID.”

From the chamber’s point of view, the numbers point to a problematic situation in the long-term.

“While voters’ sour mood about overall economic conditions is no doubt related to the run-up in prices in 2022 and 2023, the lack of acknowledgment of overall positive economic conditions – including moderating inflation – today is troubling and makes it more difficult for public policy and business leaders to plan for the future, including making investment decisions,” stated the release.

Education

The polling done for the chamber on voters’ perception about the cost and value of a college degree align with the false impressions seen in their views on the economy.

gold coin with State of Michigan on it

Image by DALL-E. Prompt by Doug Marrin.

“More challenging than the misinformation itself is that no loud voices are countering the perception that college is not worth the cost with facts, which allows these false perceptions to take hold,” said the chamber, which believes business leaders must do more to demonstrate that postsecondary education is not only as an essential element for economic prosperity, it is more accessible than commonly thought.

That conviction is bolstered by statistics that quantify the value of a college degree.

“Eighty-five percent of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree can support a family of three compared to only 25% of jobs that require less than a college degree,” said Baruah. “By 2031, 72% of jobs will require a postsecondary education — and in Michigan today, only 53% of adults have a two-or four-year degree or hold a skilled credential. We have work to do to meet the needs of businesses and citizens.”

However, the polling data shows a major disconnect on linking post-secondary education to economic prosperity.

Czuba says they started by asking the open ended question, “What’s the most important assessment for determining whether someone is successful in Michigan?” and when they aggregated the responses, there was a single clear answer.

“Forty-two percent of voters gave some answer regarding financial security and stability (which) far outpaces the number two, which at 9% was their work,” he said. “Another 9% said their happiness. 6% said homeownership. 5% said their determination.”

When they asked what the minimum level of education voters believed was required to make a living wage that sustains a family in Michigan, a college degree ranked third.

“39% said a trade certification,” said Czuba. “30%, the number two answer, said a high school diploma. Only 19% said a four-year degree.”

He said that where voters lived had a definite effect on their perception of the value of a post-secondary degree.

“Those from small and rural areas were about 10 points more likely to say a high school diploma was sufficient than those in urban and suburban areas, by a margin of 70 to 23%,” Czuba said.

And once again, political affiliation impacted voters’ perceptions.

“We asked [if] a four-year degree was worth the money,” said Czuba. “Only 22% say it is worth the money. When you look at those who flat out say ‘It’s not worth the money’, 40% of Democrats, 49% of independents (and) 64% of Republicans say a four-year degree is not worth the money.”

A key factor in that perception concerned cost. Respondents were asked how much the average cost of a four-year degree at universities like Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Northern Michigan would cost.

One-fifth (20.2%) believe it would cost between $20,000 and $50,000, 45% said from $50,000 to $100,000 and 29.1% believed it would exceed $100,000.

In fact, according to the Michigan Association of State Universities, the average cost of public university tuition in Michigan is about $16,000 per year,or approximately $64,000 for four years before any aid is applied.

On that point, Czuba said they asked what voters believed the average student loan debt was for graduating seniors at Wayne State University in Detroit. Only 11% said it was under $25,000, while 27% said it was more than $75,000.

According to the chamber, almost half of graduating Wayne State University students carry no debt, and those that do, carry less than $25,000.

“I think what is clear from these answers (is that) voters are all over the map on this,” said Czuba. “They don’t know and they’re wildly overpricing this and I think one of the problems we see here is there’s no clarity for voters.”

Democracy

While the health of democracy is not a typical talking point for a business-oriented organization like the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, the “drastic polarization on nearly every economic and societal issue” demanded an examination of voters’ thoughts on the strength of democracy.

Calling the poll results on that topic “jarring,” the chamber said that voting rights and ballot access are democratic principles “essential to the stable environment businesses need to succeed.”

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with the condition of democracy in the United States, with nearly half being very dissatisfied, while just over two-thirds (67%) agreed that democracy is the best form of government.

Of greater concern, however, was the finding that 17% of respondents believed it didn’t matter if our government is a democracy.

“So you see the corroding beginning here of democracy,” said Czuba. “Five percent said under certain circumstances, an autocratic government is preferable, and 11% couldn’t even offer an opinion. So a third of voters cannot positively state democracy is the best form of government.”

That tracks with recent national polls, like one in December from The Economist/YouGov which found only 54% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 agree with the statement, “Democracy is the greatest form of government,” 34% said they neither agree nor disagree and 12% said they disagree.

Czuba said of particular interest in the results of the chamber’s polling was that voters who identified themselves as independent-leaning were most likely to say that our form of government doesn’t matter.

“You have these base-Democrats and these base-Republicans arguing for their very specific positions and form of government, and they’re turning an awful lot to people in the center that democracy works or is the best form of government,” he stated.

Then they checked opinions on six basic principles of democracy: freedom to worship, freedom of speech, all votes are equal, all votes are counted, and finally, the fair application of the law at both the local and federal level.

Of the six, only the freedom of worship found a majority of all voters (53.3%) to be very confident of their right to do so, while majorities of Republican (50.8%), independent (52.6%) and Black voters (55.8%) expressed a lack of confidence of being able to exercise their right to speak freely.

On the idea that all votes are equal, Czuba said political affiliation and age were motivating factors.

“Republicans lack confidence in this, Democrats and independents do not,” he said. “Older voters are the most confident that your vote will be counted accurately. It’s the majority of Republican voters that lack confidence. We certainly are seeing that conversation take place on the Republican side. So we see how that political conversation is undermining this tenet of democracy.”

When it came to the principle of accurately counting all votes, the results indicated that, again, the sharpest differentiator is party affiliation. Approximately 80% of Democrats had confidence in the voting process, while only about 42% of Republicans did.

Czuba said one of the most fascinating findings was that federal law enforcement, and specifically the FBI, did not retain the confidence of any demographic group that they would execute the laws fairly and without bias, with 66.7% of Republicans topping the list.

“That’s a huge red flag. It’s a stunning number,” he said.

On the flip side, Czuba said when it came to local law enforcement, 54.6% of respondents who identified as strong Democrats had a lack of confidence, while strong Republicans and independents did not, scoring 22% and 40.6% respectively.

However, when it came to confidence in local law enforcement, race played a larger factor than political affiliation, with 64% of white voters feeling confident in fair treatment, while 69% of Black voters said they did not.

But perhaps the most startling results in the survey concerned voter attitudes toward political violence.

Although 86% of Michigan voters believe political violence is a threat to American democracy, and a majority of 51% say it’s a serious threat, 5% openly believe it is justified if the candidate for president they support loses the 2024 election after all votes are counted fairly.

“While that may not seem like a large number, 5% of our population is a lot of people, and I want to point that out,” said Czuba. “That’s a lot of people who believe violence is justified.”

Of more concern is the finding that 35.4% of Michigan voters say there are circumstances when the use of force, violence, or threats is justified in a democracy, while 13.1% said they did not know. That means 48.5% of voters in the poll either could not, or would not, rule out political violence under any circumstance.

Digging deeper into the violence issue, there were four demographic groups that rose above 40% who said there were circumstances when it was justified: Men 40.6%, rural voters 43.1%, Strong Republican voters 44.0%, and Leaning Republican voters 56.1%.

When asked for an example of what circumstance might justify violence, the top answer by far at 33.2% was if a crime was committed. The next highest was riots or mobs at 7.9% and terrorism or threat from a foreign power coming in third at 7.5%

That’s a stark contrast to the theme this year of the Mackinac Policy Conference, which is: “Bridging the Future Together.”

“But in order to do anything together, Michiganders must start from a common frame of reference,” said Baruah.

This article was originally published by the Michigan Advance at https://michiganadvance.com/

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