In the era of Trump, Michigan's political map is changing. Here's how
WASHINGTON – Heading into the 2020 election season, Michigan’s voters are in a state of flux.
Nothing seems certain any more: At the top of the ticket, some traditionally Republican counties, especially the fastest-growing ones, have been trending more toward Democratic candidates. Some Democratic counties, especially those shrinking the fastest, have been tending more toward the GOP.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by the slimmest of margins — less than 1% of the vote — as more than 75,000 Michiganders who otherwise voted refused to cast a ballot for any presidential candidate. But two years later, that level of apathy was turned on its head, as Michigan saw record turnout for a non-presidential year in 2018’s midterm elections.
Taken together, it makes it difficult to predict what will happen next year, when Michigan and the rest of the Rust Belt will again be key to whether Trump wins re-election.
“They’re making decisions irrespective of party,” Lansing political consultant John Truscott said of Michigan’s voters. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty. It’s the same at the national level. People are frustrated, upset.”
The confusion doesn’t end there, either.
Trump’s election came as a surprise, given that the last Republican presidential nominee to win Michigan was in 1988. But last year, the Trump-backed candidate for governor — Bill Schuette — not only lost to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, he saw a bunch of counties that supported Trump swing to her.
And while many Michigan counties have seen stronger job growth in the first two years of the Trump era than they did in the last two years under President Barack Obama — which you would expect would work in the president’s favor — he remains deeply unpopular, with fewer than half of those surveyed giving him good marks as president.
It leaves many questions: Was 2016 an aberration? Will 2020 be different? Did the midterm last year signal a definitive move toward Democrats, or will that depend on who is nominated next year? And as some parts of the state gain population and others lose it, is Michigan being realigned in such a way that it could affect how its voters are represented not only in the White House but in Congress and in Lansing?
There are no solid answers. But here are some of the changes worth considering as we get closer to the election:
Trump’s rise saw parts of the state turn redder
Across Michigan, the last two elections seemed to indicate changes in the direction voters are casting their ballots. In the Upper Peninsula as well as in the Thumb and along the I-75 corridor in the northern Lower Peninsula, voters in the presidential and gubernatorial elections over the last three years have become, on average, more supportive of Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, in Detroit’s western suburbs, in some parts of west Michigan and in the northwest Lower Peninsula, voters have become somewhat friendlier toward Democratic candidates in those recent elections, compared with how they voted on average in the previous nine elections.
Metro Detroit remains the most vote-rich part of the state but is just as schizophrenic: It remains a Democratic enclave but parts of it are moving in different directions, with Oakland County becoming more supportive of Democrats and Wayne County somewhat more supportive of Republicans as Detroit shrinks. As for Macomb County, it appears to swap between the two depending on the candidate.
"It's known as being (one of the most important) ticket-splitting areas of the whole United States," Susy Heintz Avery, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University, said of metro Detroit. "It’s a diverse population and it takes its elected political people very seriously."
Election trends are far from perfect at determining how a county will vote in future elections because that depends a lot on who is nominated and the conditions — locally and nationally — under which an election occurs. And several of these counties were substantially different in how they voted in 2018 versus 2016.
But these trends can indicate where a party may be having challenges or seeing opportunities. And if Michigan is as close as it was in 2016, those changes could play a key role.
For instance, Kurt Metzger, a prominent metro Detroit demographer and mayor of Pleasant Ridge, says a Democratic nominee looking to win back Michigan should be spending time Up North in "Grand Traverse and Leelanau (counties). Don’t go to the Upper Peninsula. Spend a lot of time in southeast (Michigan) and in Grand Rapids — Kent (County) is the big change."
“Forget the rural votes,” he added. “I’m sorry. They’re going with Trump no matter what.”
Overall, the shift — on a county-by-county average — has been more toward Republicans than Democrats and it shows that in some areas where Democrats once had more sway, such as in the Upper Peninsula, they no longer do.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The faster growing the county, the more Democratic it's becoming
While most of Michigan’s 83 counties have trended somewhat more Republican on average in the last two elections, not all of them did.
Instead, the state’s fastest growing counties showed a clear trend in the opposite direction.
Taking the 10 fastest growing counties together, Republican statewide candidates for president and governor — the top two statewide races in the last two elections — saw a drop in their election margins compared with their Democratic challengers on average.
Many of those differences were stark, too.
For instance, in Livingston County, voters backed former Gov. Rick Snyder by a 37-point margin in 2014. That was down to 17 points for Schuette in last year’s election. And while Trump won all the traditionally Republican counties in 2016, in at least three of them — Kent and Ottawa in west Michigan and Leelanau in the northwest corner of the state — he performed worse than Republican nominee Mitt Romney had in 2012.
“It has everything to do with demographic changes,” said former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, explaining that, across the state, growing student populations in some areas and a renewed interest in city living is resulting in political change. “That wasn’t as true 20 years ago as it is today, that’s for sure.”
In other parts of the state, the change is different: In Grand Traverse County in northwest Michigan, population has jumped nearly 20% since 2000, even as manufacturing jobs have dropped precipitously. But total employment in an area that has seen its tourism scene grow by leaps and bounds is up nearly 12% in that time, with most of the jobs in education, health services and the leisure industry.
Trump's campaign, which staged a big rally in Grand Rapids in March, says there are no problems on the horizon, maintaining, “Michigan loves Donald Trump.” But if the trend continues with fast-growing counties that have been traditionally Republican giving more support to Democrats, it could destroy his chances of winning here again.
As for the overall trend in some traditionally Republican counties seeming somewhat more supportive of Democrats, growth seems to explain the change more than anything else: Variations in age, wages and education attainment don’t appear as indicative as much as a county simply having more people.
Many of those counties — like Ottawa and Livingston — are still Republican strongholds and could continue to be so, even if the GOP winning margins have been down somewhat.
But they could also move in the opposite direction: Oakland County, the second-largest county in the state and still one of the 10 fastest growing in Michigan, was once considered more reliably Republican, too. It has backed every Democratic presidential nominee since 1996, however, even as it has voted for the GOP nominee in some — but decidedly not all — gubernatorial elections.
In 2018, it gave Whitmer a 17-point victory over Schuette, the biggest margin it has given a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in at least 20 years.
Could Livingston County, just to Oakland County's west, be next?
“There’s no question that we’re going against the tide if you just look at the map,” said Livingston County Commission Chairman Donald Parker, a Republican. “We’re literally surrounded by blue counties.”
And it’s true: With Ingham to the west, Genesee to the north, Oakland to the east and Washtenaw to the south, Livingston is a red county in a sea of blue. But that is changing.
Parker marks it up to a nearly 22% growth rate in the last two decades, saying that the more people you have move in, the more diverse — politically and otherwise — they’ll be. He believes Republicans — including Trump — will find ways to maintain their appeal. But he recognizes the challenge.
“The fact that we’ve been able to retain these margins as long as we have is astonishing.”
As for shrinking counties, they’re more supportive of Republicans
You can’t look at growing counties and the changes seen there without looking at the other end of the spectrum: Michigan’s fastest-shrinking counties seem to be trending in the other direction, away from Democrats and more toward Republican candidates.
Many of these counties — the 10 fastest shrinking counties in the state — are already small and, as such, they don’t have as many voters to sway the outcome of elections. But one of them, Wayne County, is the biggest county in the state, and as Detroit shrinks, so does the county.
That should concern Democrats, given that Wayne County and Detroit have long provided a deep reserve of Democratic voters they could count on to overwhelm Republican support coming from elsewhere in the state.
That Democratic support was there, for instance, in 2018, as Whitmer beat Schuette by 43 percentage points in the county. But two years earlier, Trump — while still losing to Hillary Clinton in 2016 in the county by more than 37 percentage points — still did better there than any other presidential candidate going back two decades as turnout was down, significantly, especially in Detroit.
In turn, that meant there weren’t enough votes to counter Trump’s much better numbers in neighboring Macomb County, where there was a 16-point swing from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
It’s not just Wayne County, however. The trend has been seen in some traditionally Democratic areas, especially formerly blue-collar ones, around the state.
Take Genesee County, where Flint is located, for instance. Amid sharp job losses there in recent decades and population loss of nearly 7% in the last 18 years, Trump lost by about 10 percentage points — but that’s far better than the 28 percentage points Romney lost by in 2012.
Or look at neighboring Bay County, long a Democratic stronghold. Trump built a 13 percentage point edge over Clinton — the first time in decades a Republican nominee had won there — and even though Whitmer beat Schuette in the county last year, it was by less than 3 percentage points.
State Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, who represents the area, says it, like a lot of formerly industrial areas in Michigan, remains Democratic — but it depends on the candidate.
“In 2016 … every other Democrat (in the area) received the same margin they always did. I’d say my county rejected Hillary Clinton,” said Elder. “If you’re a blue-collar, working-class Democrat, you’re going to do well in Bay County,” he added.
Which raises a lot of questions for Democrats in 2020 and who they will nominate. Will it be someone seen as more moderate, like former Vice President Joe Biden — whom Elder thinks could “carry every precinct in Bay County” against Trump? Or will it be someone further to the left, say Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, whom Elder sees as having more trouble winning? Or is it someone else entirely, out of a field of two dozen Democrats, and the nomination race barely begun?
It’s anyone’s guess, but pollster Ed Sarpolus thinks he has a good idea.
“The bottom line is (the Democratic candidate) can’t be way to the left. You’re going to turn off a lot of moderate and independent Democrats,” he said. And that, he continued, is where the votes still are.
How can Trump be in trouble with an economy this good?
It’s worth wondering, though, why any of this is a question for Trump at all, since the economy — as he and his Republican allies say repeatedly — has been, by any fair measure, doing well.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average, a measure of the strength of the U.S. market, is up 30% since Trump took office and some 5.4 million jobs have been created. Nationwide, wages for private non-farm employees are up about 2.2%, when adjusted for inflation, since January 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And that same economic tide is lifting boats in Michigan, with 85,000 or more jobs being created — though that trend clearly continues from Barack Obama’s second term. Unemployment has continued to remain low and was at 4.1% in April. Wages, as of the fourth quarter of last year, the most recent period available, were up almost 5% from the fourth quarter of 2016, though figures adjusted for inflation weren't available.
Looking at Michigan’s counties, too, there has been improvement. While job growth overall in the state has remained consistent with 2015 and 2016, many remote counties that have been struggling — and that voted overwhelmingly for Trump — have seen job creation at levels they didn’t see in the last two years of the Obama administration.
Data compiled by Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., even showed that some counties that backed Clinton saw a slowing in job creation as compared with Trump counties — though many larger ones that supported him, including Macomb and others, saw at least a modest slowdown in the most recent figures that were available.
But Muro said that while Trump has promoted manufacturing jobs as the centerpiece of economic gains, there has been “a slowing in manufacturing this year.”
“There’s a lot of effort to link this (job growth) to trade or manufacturing fortunes,” he said, “but when you’re looking at great job creation, you’re talking about how the domestic service sector is doing.”
“Whether this changes the atmosphere of the election,” he said, “who knows?”
A winning economy, by most political models, is supposed to make it far more likely that a president will win re-election.
But Trump still faces headwinds in Michigan and elsewhere. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, which aggregates and analyzes polling data, Trump’s job approval rating, on average, was 41% by this week , compared with 54% who disapprove of the job he’s doing.
That’s the worst of any president at this point in his term since Jimmy Carter.
And unlike Carter, who saw his approval rating much higher than his disapproval rating earlier in his term of office, Trump’s approval has never soared above his disapproval scores since taking office — and his disapproval numbers have been far higher for virtually his entire term.
It’s the same, it seems, in Michigan.
And that may indicate Trump has some serious problems in Michigan.
Many of Trump's critics contend that economic gains are just a continuation of what began under Obama, despite Trump's efforts to take credit for them. But it's still hard to deny the job creation and market improvement over the last two years.
Democratic investigations, the continued fallout from the Mueller report — which, while finding no conspiracy between Trump and the Russians in the 2016 election, stopped short of exonerating him for possibly trying to obstruct the inquiry — and his relentless attacks on Twitter of those who disagree with him could also be holding his numbers down. But even at the best of times for Trump, his approval numbers have barely budged.
Heintz Avery, meanwhile, says she doesn't believe the polls. She also believes there is "still a lot of anger on the Democratic side" over the 2016 election that ignores his accomplishments.
"I don’t think the president gets as much credit as he should," she said.
Key to 2020: Will any candidate be popular enough to get a vote?
Whether people like Trump or not, though, may not matter much as to whether he wins re-election in Michigan and across the U.S.
He was hardly an overwhelmingly beloved figure in 2016 and was widely expected to lose to Clinton that year in Michigan and elsewhere. Looking only at the popular vote, he lost by almost 3 million votes, even as he won the Electoral College handily.
Instead, in Michigan and some other key states, Clinton’s unpopularity, including in some stalwart Democratic regions, simply outweighed Trump’s own. In fact, many more people than is usual went to the polls and refused to vote for either one of them or any other presidential candidate.
For instance, the last time the presidency was open, in 2008, only 37,314 people who went to polling places in Michigan failed to cast a vote for president, or about three-quarters of 1% of the total. In 2012, that number was up to 49,940, or just over 1%.
In 2016, it was 75,335, or more than double what it was in 2008.
And the biggest concentrations of those votes were in the areas where you would expect it to hurt the Democratic candidate most: In Wayne County, where more than 10,000 people didn't vote in the race, nearly four times what it had been in 2008, and in Oakland, where the number was even higher, topping 13,000 people.
So, it’s easy to understand why, with a field of some two dozen Democratic candidates ready to run against Trump, there is so much discussion around “electability.”
In metro Detroit, which still accounts for about 40% of the vote in a given statewide election, Clinton had the lowest level of support seen among Democratic candidates in 20 years, despite winning in Oakland and Wayne counties.
Ultimately, she got about 114,000 fewer votes out of metro Detroit than Obama did in 2012 and still nearly won the state, losing by less than 11,000 voters — or about three-tenths of a percentage point — overall. Half-a-percentage point more to her, half-a-percentage less to Trump, and she would have won Michigan.
But will it — can it — happen again?
Truscott, the Lansing consultant, says there may be lots of people who don’t like Trump but, to his way of thinking, the Democratic Party’s tack to the left — with sweeping environmental plans like the Green New Deal or attempts to enact a government-paid insurance system for every person in the country — may leave it with a nominee who may be unacceptable to a lot of voters.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the energy more demanding liberals are bringing to politics, leaving it open for debate whether, in the era of Trump, a lot of voters may be willing to try just about anyone else. After all, there are reasons to think 2016 was as much, if not more, about perceptions than policy. And there are those who think the president — with his Twitter rants, his insults, his desire to break political norms — is his own worst enemy.
“Here’s what it comes down to,” said Truscott. “Can he run an effective campaign and say, ‘Look at all I’ve done, look at all the results but look past me.’ Can he sell that message? With his personality, I don’t know if he can.”