BRIGHTON, Mich. — President Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 by a total of just 10,704 votes out of some 4.7 million cast, a lightning-in-a-bottle victory over a fatally flawed opponent.
Four years later, Trump’s already-microscopic margin for error has disappeared, and his supporters in the state privately question how much longer he will contest Michigan.
To understand this, consider the three demographic groups that dominate Michigan elections: Black voters in the big cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Flint; college-educated whites in the wealthy suburbs of southeast Michigan; and non-college-educated whites in working-class suburbs, exurbs and rural areas across the state.
In 2016, every conceivable thing that could have broken Trump’s way, with regard to these three groups, did. Black turnout was astonishingly depressed. White college graduates held their noses and voted for him at higher rates than elsewhere. And working-class whites rejected the Democratic ticket in numbers never before seen. It was, to use a bad cliché, a perfect storm — a perfect storm that was barely enough to get Trump across the finish line.
The question that shadowed Trump’s election was whether these were one-time occurrences — the byproduct of a freak election featuring two reviled candidates — or the beginning of a trend.
Consider the mythologized white working-class. Ubiquitous throughout the state, from the hardscrabble towns of the Upper Peninsula to the culturally conservative neighborhoods of Macomb County, these modern-day “Reagan Democrats” have seen their jobs and communities decimated by outsourcing and automation. Many believed they found a champion in Trump.
Just as important, many could not stomach voting for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Whether it was her husband’s record on trade, her perceived condescension toward working people or her personal controversies, Clinton repelled these voters: She won just 31 percent of whites without a college degree, the lowest share ever recorded in Michigan exit polling.
Joe Biden doesn’t figure to dramatically improve on Clinton’s performance. The Democratic Party has become too disconnected from many of these voters on a cultural level — attitudes on guns, religion, law enforcement and other issues simply do not align. That said, Republicans here are skeptical that Trump can squeeze any more juice out of this base. Part of the reason, they say, is that Biden just does not alienate these voters the way Clinton did. The March 10 primary was instructive in this regard: Whereas Clinton lost working-class whites to Bernie Sanders by 11 points in 2016, Biden beat Sanders by 14 points with that group in 2020, a 25-point swing.
The consensus expectation is that Biden outperforms Clinton narrowly, enough to dent Trump’s margins with the biggest voting bloc in the state. (Non-college whites were 44 percent of Michigan’s electorate in 2016.) As Ben Frantz, president of UAW Local # 652 in Lansing, said, “A lot of these guys I know who turned on the Democrats last time around, they weren’t so much voting for Trump; they were voting against Hillary.”
The affluent suburbs outside of Detroit provide the flip side of the great realignment: If blue-collar workers have steadily bled away from the Democratic Party, white-collar workers are now fleeing the GOP at a comparable rate.
In 2016, Trump won college-educated whites in Michigan by 8 points, according to exit polling, more than double the national margin of 3 points. The sprawling, upscale suburb of Oakland County, offered a good indication why. Despite huge numbers of voters who were uncomfortable with both candidates, a huge chunk of Republican professionals stuck to party affiliation and voted Trump. The result: He lost Oakland County by an acceptable 8 points, a spread identical to Mitt Romney’s defeat there four years earlier.
Fast forward to 2020. Nobody here thinks Oakland County will be decided by single digits again. The 2018 governor’s race saw a 17-point Democratic rout in the county; the U.S. Senate race that same year was decided by 14 points. The Democratic freshmen who represent the county in Congress, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, ran two of the most competitive races in the country in 2018; two years later, Stevens is a virtual lock for reelection and Slotkin is heavily favored.
The trend among college-educated suburbanites is also visible in adjacent Livingston County, a longtime GOP stronghold. Turnout in the March 10 Democratic presidential primary jumped 56 percent from four years earlier, a reflection both of the changing demographics — more and more affluent, two-income households are taking root in Livingston County — and the shifting allegiances of voters who have traditionally leaned right.
“What scares Republicans is the change in Livingston,” said John Sellek, a local GOP strategist. “It’s a high-growth area, and that growth is coming from suburbanites who aren’t sure they identify as Republicans anymore.”
Black voters, particularly those in Detroit, are the critical piece of the puzzle. Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2012 campaign by more than 76,000 votes in Wayne County alone — seven times her statewide margin of defeat. It was more of the same in cities across the state: Clinton’s drop-off from Obama, which did not produce any corresponding spike in support for Trump, owes simply to diminished Black turnout. Local activists complain that the national Democratic Party ignored their advice and took their help for granted, failing to galvanize voters who were waiting to be turned out. This was a curse on Clinton’s campaign across the industrial Midwest, but nowhere was the sting felt more harshly than in Michigan.
There is no guarantee that Biden leaps over the exceptionally low bar set by Clinton. But he will almost certainly clear it, due to structural changes in Michigan’s election system. Two years ago, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved a new law approving no-excuse absentee voting, allowing anyone to vote by mail or by depositing their ballot at a clerk’s office. Democrats and Republicans alike expect that this new standard will turn low-propensity voters into medium-propensity voters, and medium-propensity voters into high-propensity voters.
The first evidence of its impact came in the August primary election. A record-shattering 2.5 million voters cast ballots in the August primary election, and the double-digit percentage increase in Wayne County turnout over the previous record was a reflection of Black voters capitalizing on the new system. The mystery isn’t whether Black turnout ticks up in November; it’s whether it explodes. The answer will depend largely on disillusioned younger Black voters who have little faith in either party.
“It’s not a question of them voting for Trump,” said Democratic state Rep. Tenisha Yancey. “It’s a question of them not voting at all.”
Add it all up — Trump’s ceiling with the white working-class, the exodus of suburbanites away from the GOP, and a near-certain turnout jump among Black voters — and the state of the race in Michigan looks grim for Trump. The three dynamics that all broke his way in 2016 now all appear to be breaking against him, and with voters in the state soon receiving their absentee ballots, the president’s allies on the ground expect he could concede Michigan sooner rather than later.