A political revolt by blue-collar Democrats against President Carter is blazing through this stronghold of the United Auto Workers, signaling a possible November upset of awesome proportions by presumptive Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.
The shifting political mood in suburban Macomb County outside Detroit was exemplified by a 38-year-old plastics worker whose husband toils for the troubled Chrysler Corp. "I hate to leave a sinking ship, but this year I might be voting Republican for the first time ever," she told us. "I am starting to think about Ronald Reagan."
This lifetime Democrat is among 64 voters we interviewed Saturday in several precincts of southern Macomb County (median family income: $20,260) selected for us by Patrick Caddell's Cambridge Survey Research as bastions of UAW strength. Armed with a questionnaire prepared by Caddell and aided by Alice Ryder and two other trained interviewers, our house-to-house talks uncovered 33 Democrats, eight Republicans and 23 independents.
Their presidential choices are startling: Reagan, 23; Carter, 21; Rep. John Anderson, 8; don't know, 7; and "will not vote," 5.
Even more startling are the perceptions these presumably average voters have of Carter and Reagan. Which would be stronger on defense: Reagan, 6 to 1; on handling the economy: Reagan, 2 to 1; on "leadership": Reagan, 2 to 1; on tax policy (which our interviews show is developing into a hot sleeper issue): Reagan, 3 to 1.
In short, Carter's political weakness is giving Reagan an attentive early hearing among disillusioned Democrats, dramatizing the political attributes best known about Reagan. A Chrysler production-line worker who now favors Reagan, asked what it is that Reagan "stands for," replied: "If you don't know what Reagan stands for, you shouldn't be taking this poll."
Only on the question of which candidate is best fitted to deal with the Soviet Union does Carter give Reagan a contest, and even there he loses. Reagan's favorable-unfavorable ratio is 57 percent favorable; Carter's, despite the fact that over half these voters are Democrats, is 47 percent.
"He is strong," an automotive worker said about Reagan. "Reagan seems to be more aggressive," said a 41-year-old tool and die maker, a Democrat now planning to vote for Reagan.
But the "strong" Reagan cuts both ways. A 43-year-old telephone operator backing Anderson said, "Reagan could get us into war." A 53-year-old X-ray technician sees it differently: "With Carter, there definitely will be war soon. With Reagan, maybe we can avoid war."
In all the interviewing we have done over the past generation, talk of war has never been so dominant. Nor has avowed willingness to spend more for defense. The voters we talked to favored increased defense spending almost 4 to 1. By a margin of better than 2 to 1, these voters actually favored more and better arms "even if it meant raising taxes."
That response can only be explained by concern over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the headlines last fall over the Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, the vulnerability of Middle East oil supplies and other signs that the United States is slipping behind the Soviets. What makes the willingness to pay higher taxes unexpected is that it comes in the face of general support for Reagan's espousal of Kemp-Roth income-tax cuts (30 percent over three years).
Despite some skepticism, voters here supported Kemp-Roth, 28 to 21 (with 15 uncertain). But the skepticism showed that Reagan needs to do more explaining than he has done so far. A 41-year-old housewife, an independent voter who plans to back Reagan in November, was troubled: "Where would Reagan get the money for such a big tax cut?"
But Reagan clearly has made Kemp-Roth an issue that so far works for him inside the UAW's political power center. On only one other issue, that of a strong national defense, does Reagan do better against Carter than on tax policy.
If the May 20 Michigan presidential primary were perceived by these anti-Carter Democrats as having any importance at all, some might cross over and vote for Reagan. Such was not the case, however, among the voters we interviewed; they will not vote in the Republican primary -- or the Democratic primary either. Michigan Democrats have picked their delegates, and the May 20 primary is a meaningless popularity contest that Carter should win. Our interviews showed him running almost 2 to 1 ahead of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
But the crossover of Democrats for Reagan in November could be heavy, even of historical proportions, as long as anti-Carter sentiment maintains the dynamism that our interviews reflected here. If these precincts of Macomb County reflect blue-collar moods throughout Michigan, a political change of far-reaching implications could be at hand.