Here's how Biden beat Trump in Michigan — and it wasn't corruption
Just as he did in 2016, President Donald Trump this year mounted a late-breaking surge in Michigan, using an aggressive campaign to bolster turnout, disproving myriad polls that showed his support lagging and drawing even greater backing from voters across wide swaths of the state than he did four years ago.
It wasn't enough.
Far from the Michigan election being stolen from Trump as he claims, the president did a remarkable job of energizing support, especially, but not only, in older industrial and rural parts of the state. He also saw raw numbers of voters swell in virtually every part of Michigan, which is a testament to his ability to generate additional support where it had seemed it had hit a ceiling.
But even as Trump added some 365,000 voters to his totals in Michigan from four years ago in Tuesday's general election, his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, did far better, running up surging vote totals in urban and suburban areas and narrowing Trump's edge in key counties, including Macomb, Kent and Livingston. The fact that many of those areas are Republican-leaning or backed the president, as much as anything, give the lie to Trump's wild and seemingly desperate claims that it was corruption in Detroit that cost him the election, when there is no evidence to support it.
Biden, the former vice president who won Michigan 50.6%-47.9%, won the presidency Saturday morning after the Associated Press called the race in Pennsylvania, giving him 284 Electoral College votes, with 270 needed to win the presidency, and delivering him a state that, like Michigan and Wisconsin, were key to Trump's victory in 2016 and played a vital role in defeating him this year.
In winning Michigan, data from the Secretary of State's Office indicated Biden, now the president-elect, added nearly 522,000 votes to those won by Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. In doing so, he swamped Trump's advantage in rural and older industrial areas with massive turnout, especially in Oakland and Wayne counties, which alone gave him more than 158,000 more votes than Clinton won in them.
And despite the fact that Detroit is part of Wayne County and Trump has claimed it is corruption there that cost him the state, it's worth noting that Biden got about 1,000 fewer votes than Clinton did out of Detroit proper, while Trump's support in the city grew by about 5,000 votes. In suburban Oakland County, meanwhile, Biden's support grew by 91,000 votes — though the president isn't making claims about trucks pulling up in the dead of the night there.
"He (Trump) grew his base considerably. The pollsters were all wrong," said Susy Heintz Avery, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. "But what happened was the Democrats got their voters out ... it wasn't enough to overcome what they were able to get out in voter-rich southeastern Michigan."
That's only part of the story to Biden winning Michigan: Even as Trump was adding to his vote totals in every county of the state but one — Dickinson, in the Upper Peninsula, where Secretary of State records show he lost 111 votes — his margin of victory in several counties long considered friendly to Republicans fell. For instance, it dropped by 8 percentage points in Emmet County, 9 in Ottawa in west Michigan, nearly 10 in Grand Traverse.
In Antrim County, where an initial count raised questions and led to a re-tabulation, Trump's margin of victory fell 15%.
Biden lost in all those places, as he did in all but 11 of the state's 83 counties. But he won three more counties than Clinton did and did better in those he didn't win than Clinton did in a state known to be more Democratic-leaning than Republican in presidential elections. Trump couldn't afford it, having beaten Clinton four years ago by just 10,704 votes, or about two-tenths of 1% of the vote.Biden won in Genesee, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Kent, Leelanau, Marquette, Muskegon, Oakland, Saginaw, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.
Enthusiasm was clearly up, too. In 2016, more than 75,000 people in the state cast ballots but didn't vote for any presidential candidate. The early numbers from the Secretary of State's Office indicate that was down in this election to about 45,000, far closer to normal.
"I think it says a lot more about Hillary Clinton than it does Joe Biden," said David Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University. "People didn't like her. So they didn't vote for her. Maybe this tells us '16 was an outlier."
The 2020 election isn't a story about corruption. Instead, the county-by-county breakdowns — which may change slightly as officials finalize tabulations but are unlikely to vary by much — tell us a lot about trends that have been underway in the state for some time, including where certain areas appear to be trending more toward Democrats and others toward Republicans; it also tells us about how willing voters may be to split their tickets, despite what are often viewed as intransigent partisan leanings on the parts of voters.
And it tells us about Trump, a combative and polarizing politician who has continued to shock with his claims and surprise with the resilience he has shown in drawing support in places like Michigan.
Here's a look at how the state split the vote of 2020 and how Biden was able to beat Trump and put Michigan back into the Democrats' "blue wall" of states:
Look first to metro Detroit
A few weeks ago, the Free Press took a deep dive into the state's regions, their voting trends and their importance in electing statewide candidates. That piece concluded that history indicated that anytime a Democratic presidential or gubernatorial candidate won better than 56% in metro Detroit — defined as Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties — he or she would win the state.
Clinton won the Democratic-leaning region 55.8%-39.9% for Trump four years ago.
Biden won it 58.6%-40.1%.
Driving Biden's success wasn't only the fact that he did better percentage-wise than Clinton did in 2016 across metro Detroit, however. Record turnout of 5.5 million, larger than that seen in the election of 2008, drove his victory. In Oakland County, the state's second largest county, turnout was nearly 75%, higher than the 72% seen in 2008; in Detroit — which is getting smaller — and the rest of Wayne County, turnout was 62%, just under that seen in the 2008 election.
And it helped Biden buck history.
For instance,the vote in blue-collar Macomb County, north of Detroit, has predicted the statewide winner for governor or president in the last seven elections and 17 of the last 20. But not this time, even with Trump winning Macomb for a second time. With Detroit having turnout not seen in 20 years and turnout up significantly in both Oakland and Wayne counties relative to 2016, Biden's margins in those counties— he won in Oakland 56%-42%, compared with Clinton's 52%-34% and in Wayne 68%-31% to Clinton's 67%-29% — more than made up the difference.
And while Trump won Macomb, his margin, 53%-45%, was well below the 54%-42% Trump beat Clinton by there four years ago.
An example of that varying support can be found in Clinton Township Precinct 38, located along Romeo Plank at Hall Road. It is one of the 80 key precincts identified by Tim Kiska, an associate professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who does election analysis for the Free Press, as representative of the direction the state may take in a given election. Four years ago, its 974 votes broke 61%-35% for Trump.
This year, he won the precinct again. But it was 56%-45%.
And there are any number of places where such a change can be demonstrated, across metro Detroit. In Wayne County's Canton Precinct 2, for instance, the in-person vote broke 58%-42% for Biden, up from the 52%-43% Clinton had in 2016. In Oakland County, in Novi Precinct 21, Clinton eked out a 49.8%-46.9% among the 1,157 votes. This year, Biden won 60%-40% and there were 1,500 voters.
Biden performed better in other key areas, too
It wasn't just metro Detroit, however. Biden, for instance, did far better than Clinton did in some other areas, and in some of them may have been helped by forces outside his or Trump's control.
By that, we're talking about the fact that while third party candidates played an oversize role in the 2016 election, with Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein taking about 5% of the vote, they accounted for just a little over 1% in this election.
And that accrued to Biden's benefit in, for instance, northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where Trump's level of support from four years ago was virtually unchanged at 58.6%. But Biden got 40% to Clinton's 36%. The difference? Third parties.
For instance, look at East Bay Township Precinct 1 in Grand Traverse County. Four years ago, Trump won among the 1,182 votes there 53%-40%, with 6% split between Johnson and Stein. This year, 1,311 voters cast ballots, and it was Trump 49.4% to 49.1% for Biden. That left about 1.5% for the third party candidates.
That played out in other areas all over the state.
"It's a huge reason we got the vote that we did, when you're talking about the numbers of third party votes we had in '16," Dulio said. "It's back to more typical levels this year."
From one standpoint, Biden didn't overachieve: Where Trump in 2016 flipped a dozen counties from blue to red, Biden flipped only three. Only one of them — Saginaw — was among those Trump flipped four years ago, and even then, Biden won it by only three-tenths of 1%. Biden was alsoable to flip Kent and Leelanau, though, two more traditionally Republican counties (though both also voted for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer two years ago).
But Biden was able to show some surprising levels of support in Republican areas relative to Trump. Not only did he flip Kent, where Grand Rapids is located, he cut Trump's margin in Ottawa County, in one of the most Republican parts of the state, by 9 percentage points. In fact, while Biden lost west Michigan as a region overall, he still was able to improve his percentage of support relative to Clinton's by 5 percentage points — again, much of that coming from third party support from four years ago — and get 119,000 more votes out of the region.
Trump, despite ending his campaign in Grand Rapids and making west Michigan a focus of his campaign, raised less than 75,000 new votes. And his percentage of the overall vote actually declined slightly.
It spoke generally to the strength Democrats showed in growing suburbs as well as in areas where retirees from southeastern Michigan are moving into Up North. In Livingston County, for instance, Trump won by 23 points — but that was 7 points worse than he had done against Clinton. In Brighton's Precinct 4, at the Brighton Education Community Center on Church Street, Trump won 55%-40% four years ago, getting 507 votes to Clinton's 370. This year, Trump won 52%-48%.He got 552 votes to Biden's 509.
And in Grand Traverse, Trump went from winning by 13 points four years ago to beating Biden by just 3. And that's in a county, like Kent, where Trump held a rally on the last day of the campaign, making his case to voters.
Trump's working class appeal is evident, as is his ability to beat the polls
The president, meanwhile, has repeatedly shown himself to be a political marvel, defying odds and proving pundits, handicappers and pollsters wrong.
Four years ago, he rode a level of support in rural and older industrial areas, especially those with large swaths of white voters, unlike that seen since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, decrying trade deals and blustering that he'd force Mexico to pay for a wall along the southern border. Much of his bluster was false rhetoric. But he kept it up, and it worked to a great degree.
This year, despite trailing in many independent public opinion polls such as the Free Press' by around 7 points, he brought it closer to 2 by outgaining Biden in areas like St. Clair County, where he added more than 10,000 votes, and Monroe, where he added 9,400. In the region around Saginaw Bay and the Thumb, he got 27,000 more votes than in 2016 out of an area still trying to dig itself out of long-standing manufacturing losses.
A survey of some 3,400 voters in Michigan done by the Associated Press as part of its election coverage found whites without college degrees made up some 54% of the electorate, and they overwhelmingly supported Trump 58%-41%. His margin of support among white men without college degrees was even higher, 64%-34%.
Getting those voters to voice their support in public opinion polls isn't easy. Bernie Porn, pollster for EPIC-MRA of Lansing, which does polling work for the Free Press, said Trump's margin in the election suggests to him that a greater-than-believed portion of undecided voters and voters who tell pollsters they are supporting third party candidates — the former accounting for 6% and the latter 5% in the Free Press' last poll of the campaign — are really so-called "shy" Trump supporters who mask that support.
As to why that should be the case, Porn said, "I think it's unique to the character of Donald Trump and how he is perceived. ... Some voters are unwilling to admit they are voting for him. ... Seven points (the margin between the two candidates in the poll) is not representative of the gap (in the election). ... I have to come to the conclusion that there is a certain lie factor, a certain unwillingness of Trump voters to express themselves."
If that's the case, it's not just in Michigan, but in several other states as well, including Wisconsin and Florida, where Trump clearly outperformed most recent polls.
Ticket splitters and changing elections
Republican voters, though, as well as Democratic ones, are clearly not monolithic.
For instance, the 2020 election showed its share of vote-splitters. While Republican businessman John James lost the race statewide to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., 49.8%-48.3%, he ran ahead of Trump in some areas.
In Oakland County, for instance, where Trump got 42.3% of the vote, or just over 328,000 votes, James, did better, with 43.8% of the vote, or 334,469 votes.
"That tells me some of those folks in Oakland County are turned off by Trump himself but would support Republican principles, at least as John James was pushing them," Dulio said.
That difference was even more stark in Kent County in west Michigan, where Trump lost, getting 165,318 votes to Biden's 186,753. But James won over Peters in that county, with 176,356 to 174,147 for Peters.
It was even apparent looking at the statewide vote for university trustees, which have often been seen as a barometer for partisanship since voters don't give them nearly as much attention as the top of the ticket and may merely have followed their party inclination. But as Biden was winning a close race at the top of the ticket, Republicans won a trustee seat at Michigan State University and a Board of Governor's seat at Wayne State University (the latter going for former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land).
"It used to be, you went in and voted your party," Avery said. "That's not happening any more. It's based on the candidate."
What may be the most remarkable part of Biden's victory in Michigan, however, is the way in which the entire process unfolded amid the coronavirus pandemic. Turnout topped 5.5 million votes, beating the record of 5 million in 2008, and that, in turn, was driven by an avalanche of absentee votes, which were believed to top 3.3 million.
It is those votes, which under state law clerks and elections officials couldn't begin counting until Election Day, that Trump has especially called corrupt, as Democratic state officials encouraged people to vote by mail — as Trump does — in order to avoid potentially crowded polling places and ward against the spread of the virus.
There is no evidence of absentee ballot corruption in Michigan and none of widespread problems nationwide. But it was clear that Democratic voters, especially, heeded the call to vote absentee. With millions of those votes cast in the weeks before Election Day, it entirely changed the face of the campaign, and Avery wonders whether it won't change things for good.
"Everything will have to start a lot earlier. You can't wait until the last week. Political parties have to realign their messaging," she said.
Peter Wielhouwer, associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Government and Politics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, said the fact of early voting blunted Trump's aggressive campaigning in the last few weeks in Michigan.
"The Trump surge came at the end and he couldn't quite catch up to Biden's advantage," he said. "We know that a lot of that was baked in. For months, the president had been saying you can't trust absentee, mail-in ballots so his base was not using it. ... Nothing that was going to happen in the last couple of weeks was going to change those votes."
The Biden campaign knew it, telling reporters Trump would have to top 62% of the in-person voting in order to overcome the advantage. And while we don't know precisely what that percentage was yet across the state, Kiska's key precincts give a decent idea.
In-person voting favored Trump 59%-39%.
As much as anything, however, the 2020 election in Michigan may have been a simple reversion to the mean, an indication that, even with changing voting patterns within the state, Michigan's overall political nature hasn't changed that much after all.
"I was just thinking that the Biden campaign nurtured the blue wall and cultivated it," said Wielhouwer. "My inclination was that the blue wall states were going to do what they normally do and vote Democrat."