Michigan’s political geography: Understanding 2016’s defining swing state in 2020

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Politics – washingtonpost

But Trump’s appeal in the state may have been overrated. As about 280,000 disgruntled Michiganders picked third-party candidates, he won with just 47.3 percent of vote. (Fewer than 70,000 voters backed third parties in 2012.) Trump did not hold rallies in the state during the 2018 midterms, when Democrats swept every statewide office, picked up two House seats, and passed ballot measures that legalized marijuana and expanded voting rights.

The Trump campaign is still advertising in Michigan, but both parties now view the state as harder than Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, the other crucial 2018 states, to keep in the Republican camp. A region-by-region look can explain why. To lose, Hillary Clinton needed to underperform in Detroit, shed the party’s traditional strength in smaller cities, and make few or no gains in suburbs.

She did all of that, and Democrats have spent nearly four years compensating for it and getting lucky. The politics of covid-19, which found Republicans encouraging protests of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders, revealed how the president’s Michigan coalition was highly visible but heavily outnumbered.

Detroit

Still the most vote-rich county in the state, Wayne’s population peaked more than 50 years ago along with the city of Detroit. The troubled city’s decline has slowed since the end of the 2008-2009 recession, but it remains downright hostile to Republicans. An office the party opened there in 2013 now lies empty, and John James, a Black veteran who may be the strongest Republican Senate candidate in a decade, won just 9,118 votes across the city in his 2018 bid.

Most of the county’s voters actually live outside the city, and some Whiter communities, like the suburb of Livonia, backed Trump in 2016. But any Democratic statewide win depends on a massive majority from Wayne County. Barack Obama won the county by 382,032 votes, while Hillary Clinton won it by just 290,388. Had her margin declined by half that amount, she’d have carried the state, and Democrats have focused intensely on Wayne ever since, from finding more voters in the largely Arab-American city of Dearborn to revving up turnout in Detroit.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 229,337
  • Hillary Clinton: 519,725

Detroit Suburbs

The counties just north of Detroit grew as the city declined, with places like Sterling Heights, Southfield and Warren growing from small towns to busy suburbs. In the 1980s, demographers looking for “Reagan Democrats” often landed here, and Democrats struggled not only to win them but to lose them by less than double digits. And for a long time, Macomb and Oakland counties voted roughly the same way — within single digits of each other from 1980 to 2012.

That changed in 2016, as more diverse and more highly educated Oakland backed Clinton by eight points while Macomb backed Trump by 12. In Oakland County, at least 46 percent of residents hold college degrees; in Macomb, it’s just 25 percent. The gap continued in 2018, when Democrats swept the state, the top of the ticket carrying Oakland by 100,000 votes and squeaking by in Macomb by around 10,000 votes.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 513,727
  • Hillary Clinton: 519,270

Counties included: Oakland, Macomb

The Middle

Washtenaw County, home to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and the University of Michigan, is now the most heavily Democratic in the state. Ingham, home to the state capitol of Lansing and Michigan State University, is a smaller but reliable stronghold. The rest of the region leans to the right, but Trump dominated it in 2016, adding thousands of votes to traditional Republican margins in suburban counties like Livingston and flipping Calhoun, Eaton and Monroe.

Before the pandemic, the president had started tending to this part of the state, holding a rally in Battle Creek. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who flipped a House seat that stretches from Lansing toward Detroit, reversed some of those 2016 trends, but the sort of ultra-grassroots campaigning she depended on was waylaid by the pandemic.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 458,039
  • Hillary Clinton: 430,525

Counties included: Montcalm, Gratiot, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Calhoun, Jackson, Washtenaw, Branch, Hillsdale, Lenawee, Monroe

The Thumb

Michigan’s “cottage country” exists wherever there are lakes, and much of it is here, in places with ready access to Lake Huron. Farther from the shore, the biggest cities — Flint, Saginaw — have been shrinking for years, but the whole region has been losing population and moving to the right. Until 2016, Democrats tended to run up the score in those cities and minimized their losses in rural counties, carrying the region.

That changed in 2016, as nearly every precinct outside of those places went for Trump — Port Huron, a lake town where Students for a Democratic Society composed their manifesto in 1962, was the only other dot of blue. In 2015, Trump’s first political trip to Michigan put him in Saginaw, and Democrats’ late panic over the state basically ignored the region — a mistake they haven’t made this cycle.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 278,407
  • Hillary Clinton: 222,959

Counties included: Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, St. Croix, Lapeer, Genessee

The West

The state’s conservative heartland was settled largely by Dutch immigrants, the most famous of them — the DeVos family — bankrolling Republican politics for decades. It has had a complicated relationship with Donald Trump. He lost the region to Ted Cruz in the March 2016 primary and didn’t much improve on Mitt Romney’s 2016 performance here even as he blew away typical Republican margins across much of the state. The region’s two most populous counties, Kent and Ottawa, were among the only parts of Michigan that shifted left, led by movement in their biggest city, Grand Rapids.

That trend continued in 2018, as Democrat Gretchen Whitmer dramatically improved on the party’s margins in western Michigan. Barring a complete collapse of his campaign, the president will win the region, but more losses in places like Kalamazoo and Holland would make it close and echo suburban declines in other parts of the state.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 466,203
  • Hillary Clinton: 373,958

Counties included: Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien, Cass, Oceana, Newaygo, St Joseph, Kalamazoo

U.P. North

Thinly populated and socially conservative, the Upper Peninsula makes up nearly a third of Michigan’s territory but just a fraction of its vote. Unlike some other parts of the state, its shift to the right continued in 2018; Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who’d won every county in the U.P. in her first two reelections, held onto only its two most liberal counties. (Only Marquette, home to Northern Michigan University, is reliably blue.)

But “northern Michigan” starts far below the Mackinac Bridge, and apart from some towns around Grand Traverse Bay, the region votes Republican by a landslide. Just three of the “mitt’s” northern counties — Isabella, Lake, and Manistee — flipped from blue to red, because the rest were red already.

2016 vote totals

  • Donald Trump: 334,163
  • Hillary Clinton: 202,810

Counties included: Gogebic, Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga, Iron, Marquette, Dickinson, Menominee, Delta, Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce, Mackinac, Chippewa, Emmet, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Charlevoix, Antrim, LeeLanau, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Oscoda, Alcona, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Clare, Gladwin, Arenac, Mecasta, Isabella, Midlan

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