Macomb County has long been a national hotspot for political observers and pollsters as home of the Reagan Democrats.
And, while it was deemed unspectacular in the 2008 presidential race, the county still is a crucial barometer for the upcoming 2012 election. That's because the unpredictable, mostly Democrat constituents aren't afraid to cross party lines when inspired by a candidate, making Macomb County Michigan's biggest swing county.
"The bottom line is: I don't think the Reagan Democrats have ever totally gone away, not in Macomb County anyway," said political analyst Bill Ballenger, who is editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. "They have been kind of dormant over the years. They're kind of a sleeper cell."
Ballenger said a resurgence of the Reagan Democrats is possible in the next election if voters find a candidate who resonates with them. However, he cautions that it's far too early to tell if that will be the case.
"Between now and November (2012) is an eternity in politics," he said.
One thing is certain: The third-most populated county in the state is a wild card that will likely set the mode for President Barack Obama in Michigan.
"Here's the real test: Can he lose Macomb County but still carry Michigan? I think he could, but it will be hard," Ballenger said. "If he loses Macomb, it's probably an indication that he will lose other places ... Macomb will become big that way."
In 2008, Obama took Macomb with 53 percent of the vote while Republican John McCain got 48 percent. In a recent Detroit Free Press poll with a 14 percent margin of error for Macomb County, the president trailed behind Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
Ballenger predicts Obama will be much closer to the leading Republican than the poll suggests. He notes a Republican candidate has not won Michigan since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.
In a Nov. 12 Los Angeles Times article, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has long studied Macomb County voters, said they "rebelled against Bush in 2006 and 2008 — against the lagging living standards and the economy — and then rebelled in 2010 against a lack of progress on the economy...They're still in rebellion. There's no evidence that the president or Democrats have won them back at all since 2010."
On a local level, Macomb County voters showed they were willing to cross party lines for candidates in 2010 with overwhelming support for former Sheriff Mark Hackel as the first county executive. Meanwhile, a majority of county residents voted for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Hackel is a Democrat. Synder is a Republican.
Hackel, who has longtime supporters in both parties, said: "I recognize that most people are not adhering to these strict party lines and are, in fact, becoming more disenfranchised. This isn't about the party any more. It's about the people."
From his own observations, Macomb County voters are moderate and independent-thinking, choosing candidates based on what they can bring to the table.
"What they're saying is, 'We didn't vote for them because of the R or the D.'"