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State of the 2020 Election: Michigan

With the presidential election less than two months away, it’s now time to start looking more closely at the state of the race, who is situated to win all the key swing states, and how these states will be decided. This will be a multi-part series, where in each part, I take a deep dive into one specific state.

For those who have read my county-level analysis of Texas, this series will adopt a similar approach to looking at each state, where I break down the states into different groupings of counties based on how likely they are to go blue. While I will incorporate corollaries for how President Trump can capture (or simply hold) the state, I will mainly be approaching this from the perspective of a strategist on Joe Biden’s campaign as Biden is the challenger without the advantages typically enjoyed by an incumbent. So with that out of the way, let’s get into Michigan.

The Big Picture

Michigan’s 2016 presidential results

Michigan in 2016

Donald Trump- 2,279,543 (47.5 percent, up 2.79 percent from Romney in 2012)

Hillary Clinton- 2,268,839 (47.27 percent, down 6.94 percent from Obama in 2012)

Voter Turnout- 63.87 percent (up 0.41 percent from 2012)

Michigan was one of six states that flipped from President Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016, making it a hallmark of how Trump molded the alienation of working class white voters over the slow economic recovery and unsavory cultural shifts into a winning electoral strategy. Such a strategy wasn’t expected to work, however. FiveThirtyEight, which was noted for being more generous to Trump in its election forecasting model than others, only gave him a 19.7 percent chance of winning the state in 2016. In addition to leading in every poll, there was little reason for analysts to believe that Clinton could lose a state that had gone blue in every presidential election since her husband captured it in 1992. Hindsight may be 2020 (pun intended), but previous results can at least set expectations for possible future results.

Michigan’s 2012 presidential results

Michigan was the tightest race in 2016, only being decided by 10,704 votes (0.23 percent) in a state where over 4.8 million people cast their ballots. And while its 16 electoral votes would not have handed the presidency to Hillary Clinton, implementing an effective campaign for previous Obama voters in Michigan would have gone a long way towards winning other Midwestern states with similar demographics (such as Pennsylvania).

Although Trump received praise at the time for carving out a strong coalition of white working class voters from the clutches of the Democratic ranks, there’s already doubts about his ability to keep these people from voting Republican beyond his initial election. In the 2018, Michigan voters decisively rejected Republican Senate candidate John James and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, both of whom were endorsed by President Trump before winning their respective primaries.

Admittedly, out of the states that Clinton lost in 2016, I believe Michigan will be among the easiest to flip back into Democratic hands based on the current available data. Since June, Biden has maintained a lead of at least seven points in the state. Also, considering Michigan’s history of going Democratic, both the Biden campaign and the DNC won’t be taking it for granted the same way the Clinton campaign did four years ago. Even so, one cannot rule out the possibility that President Trump has built a unique appeal here similar to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The only way we’ll know for sure is to see the returns on Election Night.

In the meantime, here are the key groups of counties that will be instrumental to deciding the election this fall.

Solid Democratic Counties

Michigan’s solidly Democratic counties

Ingham (Lansing and Michigan State University)

Washtenaw (Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan)

Wayne (Detroit city proper and surrounding suburbs)

These are the most solidly Democratic counties in the state and have been for some time. Ingham has gone blue in every election since 1992, Washtenaw has been solidly Democratic since 1988, and Wayne County hasn’t backed a Republican since Herbert Hoover in 1928. Even in Donald Trump’s surprising success in Michigan back in 2016, Hillary Clinton still held onto these counties with over 60 percent of the vote and there’s little doubt that Biden can retain strong margins here.

This is also a fairly populous subsection. These three counties accounted for 14 percent of all votes cast in Michigan during the 2016 election. The fact that Democrats enjoy a strong advantage in these three counties is a critical reason why the Party has remained competitive in the state even in Republican landslides such as 1972, 1980, and 1984 (as well as 2016). And while Clinton won decisively in these counties, she under performed compared to previous Democratic nominees to the point where her support here couldn’t make up for losses sustained elsewhere in the state.

Detroit, Wayne County

Wayne was the biggest disappointment in this regard. Despite winning the county with 66.8 percent, this margin was 5.2 points smaller than Obama’s in 2012 and turnout was 1 point lower. While this may sound small, these differences translate into Clinton receiving 76,402 fewer votes in Wayne County, over seven times the margin of the entire state. Some of that is due to a shrinking electorate, but Trump still managed to eat a bit into Clinton’s lead there.

“The Big House” at the University of Michigan, Washtenaw County

Ingham and Washtenaw weren’t as bad for Clinton, but were still indicative of her weaknesses at exciting young voters and consolidating support among college-educated voters. Overall, Clinton slightly improved upon Obama in Washtenaw, picking up 7,593 votes in a county where turnout increased by 1.6 percent and voter registration increased by 2.5 percent. As for Ingham, however, Clinton lost 1,737 votes there as that county saw a 1.7 percent increase in voter registration and turnout holding steady.

Spartan Stadium at Michigan State, Ingham County

Looking more at demographics, Michigan exit polls indicate that she won handily among voters under 30 and received support from half of the state’s college-educated voters (including 61 percent of voters with a postgraduate degree). Even so, these margins weren’t enough to compensate for Trump’s advantage over voters over 30 (who make up a considerably larger cross section of the electorate) and over voters that don’t have a college degree (who also make up a larger cross section of the electorate).

Other demographic indicators point to the subsection’s Democratic strength. These counties are more racially diverse than the rest of the state, with 39.7 percent of residents being nonwhite. Much of that comes from Wayne County, which has Detroit, but Ingham and Washtenaw Counties have increasingly welcomed more non-white residents since 2000. Furthermore, these counties are noted for their high concentration of college graduates and wealth. As the home of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw is the most highly educated county in the state, where more than half of its residents that are ages 25 and over have at least a bachelor’s degree. And Ingham, home to Big Ten rival Michigan State, isn’t far behind where over 38 percent of its adult residents had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2018. On a similar note, Washtenaw is in the top five counties in the state across all measures of income (the measure I use, per capita personal income, placed Washtenaw as the third highest in 2016 with $54,377). The three counties combined had a per capita income of $42,331 in 2016 which, while lower than the state average, is still higher than that of the Obama-Trump counties that will be discussed later.

Winning Michigan will require Biden to carry these three counties by a substantial margin. While Biden will have little difficulty getting the support of voters in these counties, given the favorable demographics and the long history of supporting Democratic candidates, the challenge will be beating President Trump in terms of turnout. Washtenaw presents a unique opportunity as voter registration there grew by over 6 percent since 2016, making it one of the fastest growing electorates in the state. Assuming turnout holds steady (or possibly increases), capturing these new voters will go a long way towards Biden winning the state.

Alternatively, while it’s very unlikely that President Trump will win these counties, he can retain the state by either cutting into Biden’s lead or by reducing turnout in these counties. Wayne County will be instrumental on this front. In 2016, Trump benefited from winning 15,000 votes more votes in Wayne than Romney did and from having an electorate there that was 38,000 votes smaller than in 2012. Being able to win back a lot of these voters in Wayne will go a long way towards Trump carrying Michigan; however, another wildcard will be mail-in voting, which is expected to play a larger role in this year’s election than previously. Many voters, especially nonwhite voters, have never submitted an absentee ballot before and are more likely to make mistakes when filling out the ballot, resulting in these ballots being rejected. Considering Wayne County’s large black population, it’ll be interesting to see how this new landscape will affect turnout there. If the result is a decrease in turnout among black voters in Wayne, then this will also cut into Biden’s lead in the county and statewide, increasing the likelihood of Trump carrying the state.

On the whole, turnout will be a critical factor for both campaigns in these counties. While Biden isn’t known as a great campaigner, he benefits from a more emboldened electorate than the one Clinton inherited in 2016, one that has seen the reality of a Trump presidency and don’t like what they see. This should help Biden both in turnout and in vote share; however, the rollout of mail-in voting will be critical to determine whether these expectations translate into reality.

Narrowly Contested Counties

Michigan’s narrowly contested, or “swing” counties

Genesee (Flint city proper)

Isabella (central part of state)

Kalamazoo (southwest part of state)

Kent (Grand Rapids city proper and surrounding suburbs)

Leelanau (northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula)

Marquette (northern coast of the Upper Peninsula)

Muskegon (western coast of the Lower Peninsula)

Oakland (Detroit metropolitan area)

Saginaw (central part of state)

These are the “swing” counties where Clinton received 45 and 55 percent of the vote in 2016. While Clinton won five of the nine counties in this subsection, she only got 49.8 percent of the vote here and received 49,413 votes fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. The five counties Clinton won in this group have been Democratic for several decades at this point; the last time any of them went Republican was Oakland County in 1992.

Admittedly, though, the classification of these counties as “swing” are a development from 2016. Only four of these counties were also “swings” in 2012 and all of them saw movement in the same direction (Republican) from 2012 to 2016. Even so, the inclusion of Trump on the ballot promises to make each of these counties competitive in 2020. Not to mention that this subsection has a huge pot of voters; in 2016, 20 percent of all presidential ballots were cast in these nine counties.

Demographics present an interesting story. 21.1 percent of this subsection’s population is nonwhite and 5.6 percent is Hispanic, placing it on par won with the state average. This is a 4.7 percent increase for nonwhite residents and a 2 percent increase for Hispanics since 1996. Still, there’s a considerable degree of variation across these nine counties. Some, like Leelanau and Marquette, have remained almost entirely white, with less than 7 percent of their populations being of a different race. Others, like Genesee and Oakland, have relatively larger and more diverse populations (and in Oakland’s case, has seen a rapid increase in nonwhite residents). While not as strong as that observed statewide, there is a positive correlation in these counties between the percentage of nonwhite residents and Democratic vote share since 2000 (r=0.399).

Leelanau County

Regarding educational attainment, these counties skew towards the top half in the state. Four of these counties are in the state’s top ten for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree (in fact, three of those four are in the top five). This educational attainment carries over to economic conditions, where per capita income is squarely above the state rate ($52,790 in 2016) and unemployment is lower (4.4 percent). Not to mention that these nine counties accounted for almost 40 percent of Michigan’s GDP in 2016, making this subsection a significant contributor to the state’s economic well-being.

Flint native Michael Moore tests the city’s water.

A lot of these counties are either urban or suburban. On one side are places like Genesee County, home to the city of Flint, as well as Kent County, home to Grand Rapids (the state’s second largest city). These urban areas generally favor Democrats; however, they were not immune to Trump’s successful 2016 campaign. Of the counties she won in 2016, Clinton saw her biggest drop from Obama’s 2012 performance in Genesee, losing over 11 percentage points there.

Oakland County

On the flip side are places like Oakland County, home to many affluent suburbs, making it a centerpiece of the Detroit metropolitan area. For decades, Oakland epitomized the suburban conservatism that allowed the Republican Party to thrive. It, along with neighboring Macomb County, created a powerful counterweight to the solidly Democratic Wayne County. Between the end of World War II and the early 1990s, Democrats were lucky if they got 45 percent of the vote in the county. But since the early 1990s, Oakland has become more competitive and the electoral advantage has shifted to Democrats. This is partly due to changing demographics as Oakland has increasingly attracted young, college educated, and racially diverse residents. But it also reflects the changing political dynamics of suburbs observed across the country. Particularly, there emerged a distinction between “inner suburbs” of Oakland that are closer to the city, which saw an uptick in demographics favoring Democrats, and “outer suburbs” that were more rural, white, and Republican.

Grand Rapids, Kent County

Kent County is a unique example of this, as in addition to having the city of Grand Rapids houses many of its suburbs. And while Grand Rapids has gone Democratic since the 2000s (and went for Clinton in 2016), the outer suburbs have kept the county in Republican hands for decades; in the last hundred years, the Democratic presidential candidate has only won Kent County three times (Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Barack Obama in 2008). Similar to Detroit, Kent has seen its inner suburbs become more Democratic alongside Grand Rapids while its exurbs and rural areas have become a new Republican counterweight.

The suburbs have drawn more attention in recent years for their realigning party preferences and relevance in national elections. There’s a growing consensus among political analysts that the road to electoral victory runs through the suburbs of the swing states’ largest cities and the actions of both Biden and President Trump have been viewed through the lens of appealing to the voters that live in these areas.

So what does it look like for Michigan and these swing counties? Since 2016, voter registration in this subsection has grown by 3.7 percent, slightly faster than the state average. Broken down further, Kent and Muskegon are the two fastest growing counties in this subsection, with voter registration having increased by 5.9 percent and 4.7 percent respectively. The two of them combined cast 386,000 votes in 2016 and assuming their turnout holds steady should create 22,000 new voters up for grabs in these counties. Even so, it’s unclear at this point whether these counties will benefit Biden.

Despite its fast growth, Kent County saw one of the smallest changes in Democratic vote share between 2012 and 2016 in the state, hovering around 45 percent in both elections. On one hand, this could mean that the new voters coming into the county share the same split between Clinton and Trump as the existing population, thus failing to move the needle. It could also mean that the existing population shifted more solidly towards Trump than previous Republican candidates while the new population was disproportionately Democratic, thus offsetting any gains for Trump there. Examining Democratic performance in other races provides some clarity on this question. Generally speaking, Democratic presidential candidates have outperformed candidates in other races, such as House, governor, and Senate. In 2018, both Whitmer and Stabenow won Kent County in their respective elections. And considering voter turnout in those elections matched that generally observed in a presidential election, these results offer some hope for Biden.

While Kent County is only one example, this subsection is filled with both opportunities and challenges for Biden heading into 2020. The 2018 midterms appeared to be a return to form for Democratic candidates in many of these counties. Whitmer and Stabenow won every county in this subsection, but Whitmer won more convincingly. Both candidates were endorsed by Biden, Clinton, and Obama and it doesn’t appear that these endorsements harmed them. And above all else, both Whitmer and Stabenow align themselves closer to Biden on policy issues than with more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders (Whitmer, for example, refused to support Medicare for All). Considering this, a candidate like Biden that doesn’t have the baggage that Clinton did should be expected to do well in these parts.

One other factor is how Biden will do in the suburban counties, such as Oakland. In 2016, exit polling indicates that Trump won the suburbs of Michigan by 11 points; however, there are strong doubts that he will repeat this success in 2020. In recent months, President Trump has attempted to appeal to suburban voters by shifting attention from his handling of the pandemic to violence resulting from the Black Lives Matter protests. Although this assessment only applies to a small percentage of demonstrations, President Trump has argued that a Biden presidency would enable crime to skyrocket and “destroy the suburban way of life”, which he believes would play into the fears of suburban voters. Unfortunately for President Trump, this strategy doesn’t appear to be working. While support for Black Lives Matter has dropped during the summer as a result of coverage of the violence, this hasn’t translated to an increase in support for Trump; more voters trust Biden over Trump to handle public safety. Additional polling has indicated that President Trump is trailing heavily among suburban voters, suggesting that the “law and order” strategy that had worked among these voters in the past is no longer as effective.

When applied to Michigan and its suburbs, the results are interesting. On one hand, exit polls from the 2018 election indicate that both Whitmer and Stabenow lost narrowly in suburban areas, suggesting that not much improvement was made in this regard. But the actual results show that both won Oakland County as well as the more conservative Macomb County, both of which are fairly populous suburbs with a lot of voters up for grabs. And considering that this was before the Black Lives Matter issue elevated, there is promise that Biden can build upon those gains in these counties.

On the whole, turnout won’t be as much of an issue for Biden, given that these counties generally produce high turnout. The big question for these counties is whether the gains from 2018 will translate to an election with President Trump’s name on the ballot. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Biden will do so; however, if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to never take votes for granted.

Obama-Trump Counties

Michigan’s Obama-Trump counties

Bay (northeast coast of the Lower Peninsula)

Calhoun (southern part of the state)

Eaton (southern part of state)

Gogebic (northern coast of the Upper Peninsula, on Wisconsin border)

Isabella (central part of state)

Lake (western part of the Lower Peninsula)

Macomb (Detroit metropolitan area)

Manistee (western coast of the Lower Peninsula)

Monroe (southeastern part of state, on Ohio border)

Saginaw (central part of state)

Shiawassee (central part of state)

Van Buren (southwestern coast of the Lower Peninsula)

These twelve counties flipped from President Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. In 2016, 18 percent of all ballots were cast in this subsection. These counties present a prime opportunity for Biden to make up lost ground as, for the most part, they historically favored Democrats. Outside Obama’s two elections, John Kerry won five of these counties in 2004 and Al Gore won nine in 2000.

In 2016, Clinton only received 41.8 percent of the vote in these counties, down from the 51.7 percent Obama got in 2012 and the 54.2 percent he got in 2008. At 64.4 percent, voter turnout in these counties was around the same as the state level and comparable to their 2012 rate (63.9 percent). And the electorate only grew by 1.08 percent between 2012 and 2016. Considering these factors, plus the size of the swing these counties gave Trump, it’s unlikely that Trump benefited from an influx of new voters that recently moved in or haven’t historically turned out.

And when looking at socioeconomic indicators, there doesn’t seem to be a substantial change that would favor a Republican challenger. Between 2015 and 2016, the unemployment rate in these counties decreased from 5.5 percent to 5.1 percent, putting it slightly above the state rate, but significantly below the 9.2 percent they were at in 2012. Income per capita remained below the state rate at $40,796 and had grown by 2.4 percent from the year before. Even so, these economic indicators don’t suggest a downturn especially damaging to these counties that would motivate voters to support a challenger. In terms of demographics, this subsection is more white than the rest of the state; however, the proportion of nonwhite residents has nearly doubled since 2000, reaching 15.1 percent in 2016. And while Hispanics only make up 4 percent of this subsection’s population, this rate is comparable to the rest of the state. One would expect the uptick in nonwhite residents to favor Democrats in elections, making Trump’s capturing of these counties surprising.

Saginaw, Saginaw County

Instead, the most likely culprit for Trump’s victory in these counties is simply his superior campaigning and his ability to resonate with the voters there. The flip side of this is Clinton’s lackluster campaign and her uniquely low favorability ratings. It’s well-documented at this point that the Clinton campaign didn’t invest adequate time or resources in Michigan, largely because the campaign took the state for granted. Potential volunteers in the state weren’t given literature to hand out and weren’t given the tools or training needed to gauge support on the ground. As a result, the campaign didn’t realize they had a Michigan problem until it was too late.

An often-discussed reason that Trump won the 2016 election was his ability to win among white voters without a college degree. When looking at the Obama-Trump counties, the demographics appear to reflect that advantage. All twelve of these counties are at or below the state average of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. Lake County is last in the state, with only 9 percent of its residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. So while these counties have increased their nonwhite population, both white voters and voters without a college degree are still prominent contingents of the electorate. This, combined with the Clinton campaign’s lackluster performance, gave Trump a wide opening to take these counties.

Even so, there are several reasons to believe that 2016 was an anomaly. In the case of these Obama-Trump counties, many of them saw a swing back towards the Democratic column during the 2018 midterms. In these counties, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow received 48.8 percent of the vote and gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer received 49.7 percent. While this is worse than their statewide performances, both candidates still made substantial ground lost from 2016. Half of these counties flipped from Trump to either Stabenow or Whitmer. In nine of the twelve counties, Stabenow and/or Whitmer received more raw votes than Hillary Clinton did just two years prior. Considering 2018 was a midterm election, which usually boast lower turnout than presidential elections, this feat was quite impressive.

But another important factor is that the Biden campaign nor the DNC are aware of the complacency Clinton demonstrated in 2016 and are determined to not make that mistake again. Despite leading in the polls in Michigan, Democrats are weary of how the polls had it wrong in 2016. The response has been to invest more time and resources towards the state. Considering that external circumstances will limit the amount of door-to-door canvassing by both campaigns, Biden is determined to spend heavily on phone banking and advertising. Since April 1, Biden has outspent the Trump campaign on advertising by a wide margin, indicating that the campaign highly values the votes of Lake Staters. And a critical factor to winning back Michigan will be Biden’s ability to sway voters in these counties back in the Democratic column.

Looking to the upcoming election, these Obama-Trump counties will likely receive much attention from political analysts. Not only will they produce interesting comparisons to 2016, but their vote share will be just as important for winning Michigan this year. Since 2016, voter registration in this subsection has grown by 3.1 percent, placing it on par with the rest of the state.

Furthermore, the 2018 midterms produced promising results. Five of the counties went for both Whitmer and Stabenow and (despite a slightly lower turnout), nine of them saw at least one of these candidates receive more votes than Clinton (six of them saw both candidates receive more votes than Clinton). Across the entire subsection, Stabenow received 2,149 more votes than Clinton and Whitmer received 9,697 more votes than Clinton. Considering this is in spite of a smaller voter turnout than in 2016, this is quite encouraging for the Biden campaign; however, it doesn’t guarantee that these votes won’t go to President Trump this November. In 2014, a cycle that favored Republicans, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer won five of these counties while incumbent Senator Gary Peters won all twelve; however, that didn’t translate to a Clinton-Trump matchup.

On the whole, these counties will be decided by whether Biden can capitalize on the gains from 2018. Namely, Biden can win these counties if he can appeal to the working class voters there, through his upbringing and through his championing of President Obama’s policies. Luckily for Biden, he isn’t perceived as out-of-touch or controversial in the same manner that Clinton was four years ago. Biden will also benefit from a less divided party than Clinton, considering that Sanders has pushed more to get his supporters to back the Party’s nominee. There is more going for Biden this time around and these counties will be front and center to the campaign’s strategy. The question, though, is whether it will work.


When put altogether, I believe there are plenty of opportunities for the Biden campaign to win Michigan by driving up turnout in the counties that Clinton won while battling hard in the swing counties and the Obama-Trump counties that Trump captured four years earlier. I think a lot of the reason these counties went the way they did was because of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate and the fact that the voters there believed she was taking them for granted. Even in the age of intense party polarization, no one wants to be told that their vote doesn’t matter.

But on the other hand, there’s still time before the election for President Trump to make his case. After all, Trump trailed in the polls in Michigan before the 2016 election and much was made afterwards of how the polls undercounted people that voted for Trump. Is a repeat possible? Plenty of Democrats seem to think so, but I think the biggest difference this time is that Democrats won’t be complacent. On the other hand, those that voted for Trump in 2016 did so on the basis on what they thought a Trump presidency might look like. This time, they have a concrete answer to that question. Will they like what they see? Will they hold their nose and see it as the lesser of two evils? Or will they see Biden as the candidate Clinton should have been four years ago?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m planning to make more posts like this talking about the other swing states. In the next part, I’ll be taking a deep dive into Pennsylvania, another Rust Belt state that was expected to go for Clinton until Trump proved otherwise.



Posts articles about a range of political topics, including elections, public policy, and other developments.

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