Michigan Primary Recap: Biden Can Follow Obama’s Geographic Path to Victory
By Ryan Pougiales
Democrats have a tested geographic path to victory: turn out base voters in the cities, win the suburbs, and minimize losses in rural stretches. This is how Barack Obama won the presidency. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton did not hit these thresholds in the general election. Turnout slumped in urban counties, she fell short of 50% in the suburbs, and rural support dropped to 34%.
In the 2020 primary, Joe Biden is putting up performances that suggest he can re-capture Obama’s geographic path to victory. While Bernie Sanders has claimed that he is best suited to activate Democrats’ coalition, it is Biden who is proving it in state after state. Biden is doing it with an agenda rooted in kitchen-table issues, like reducing health care costs, as well as addressing urgent crises — like an actionable roadmap to take on the coronavirus. Overall participation has surged in states Biden has won, but just as important, it is where he has turned out and won over voters. Biden is spurring massive turnout in cities, he is winning over suburban communities, and he’s making impressive gains in rural areas.
Biden’s primary win in Michigan last Tuesday exemplifies how he is bringing together Obama’s geographic path to victory. He won every county in the state, but it is where he excelled that matters. Compared to the 2016 Michigan primary, turnout was up in urban counties, he outpaced Clinton’s suburban support, and he dominated in rural areas.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, just under 350,000 people turned out in Michigan’s urban counties, which represented fewer than one-in-five registered voters in these places. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders by 14 points in these counties, but more importantly, overall turnout surged by 21% to over 420,000 people. In Wayne County, which is home to Detroit and the largest concentration of voters in the state, 41,000 more people turned out to vote in the 2020 primary than in 2016. In Kent County, home to Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids, overall turnout was up over 33,000.
In 2020, Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders by 14 points in urban counties, but more importantly, overall turnout surged by 21% to over 420,000 people.
It is Biden, not Sanders, who is proving throughout the primary process that he has the ideas and the message that can get out Democrats’ core supporters in urban counties in Michigan and across the country.
Michigan’s suburban counties account for half the statewide vote. In 2016, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s suburbs by a four-point margin, 51–47%. On Tuesday, Joe Biden beat Sanders by 16 points in these same counties. Turnout also spiked in the suburbs; it increased by 39% from 2016. Biden beat Sanders in the blue-collar Macomb County and white-collar Oakland County suburbs by over 20 points. Suburban Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor) gave Sanders half of his statewide margin of victory in 2016; on Tuesday, Biden beat him outright there.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s suburbs by a four-point margin, 51–47%. On Tuesday, Joe Biden beat Sanders by 16 points in these same counties.
Democrats cannot win statewide in Michigan or any other battleground state without winning the suburbs. Biden is showing in the primary that he is the one who can persuade voters and win in the suburbs come November.
The Rural Areas
Michigan’s rural counties make up about 30% of the statewide vote. While it is unlikely that Democrats can win rural Michigan in the general election, Joe Biden is showing that he’s the best choice to keep Democrats competitive in these areas. In 2016, Bernie Sanders dominated in rural Michigan: he beat Hillary Clinton by 12 points across rural counties. But on Tuesday, Biden beat Sanders by 21 points there. This 33-point swing for Biden suggests a real opportunity to cut into Trump’s rural margin in November.
Democrats do not need to win rural America to win the White House in 2020, but they do need to fight for rural votes to keep the bottom from falling out in these areas. Biden has done that in the primary and can do it again against Trump.
Democrats will win back the White House in 2020 if they can follow Barack Obama’s geographic path to victory of turning out base supporters in the cities, winning the suburbs, and minimizing losses in rural areas. While strong primary performances do not guarantee the same in the general election, Joe Biden’s successful mobilization and persuasion efforts in Michigan and across the primary map show that he’s the candidate best positioned to get it done.
Michigan election results data was drawn from the Michigan Secretary of State’s website. Counties were grouped into urban, suburban, and rural using an urban-rural classification scheme developed by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Ryan Pougiales is a senior political analyst at Third Way.