Trump vs. Biden: Here's how every region of the state plays its part in the race

Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press

Michigan has long been a conundrum politically. 

Among the Rust Belt states, it's known to be more favorable to Democrats, because of the influence of Detroit and its suburbs, relative to the rest of the state. No Republican has been elected U.S. senator from the state since 1994 — and he was voted out after one term. Until Donald Trump, no Republican presidential nominee had won Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks to a crowd at Eastern Market on Nov. 4, 2016.

And having won by about two votes for each of the state's precincts, Trump's 10,704-vote victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago wasn't exactly resounding.

"The basic voting patterns in Michigan have been blue. It's a blue state," said Michael Traugott, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. 

Except, of course, when it's not.

Going into the Nov. 3 general election, both Democrat Joe Biden and President Trump have Michigan on their minds, wondering what color the state will be this year. Both they and their surrogates have been holding rallies in key areas — in west Michigan, in and around Saginaw, in metro Detroit. Both are trying to make sure the right voters — their voters — turn out amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and a skyrocketing amount of voting by absentee ballot. 

And as every Republican knows, you start out in Michigan from a relative disadvantage: a huge Democratic voting bloc in southeastern Michigan, which is decisive if it turns out.

Governor Rick Snyder waves at the crowd before his State of the State address in the House of Representatives Chamber at the State Capitol in Lansing on January 23, 2018.

But Republicans have obviously been able to win in Michigan. Rick Snyder won the governorship twice and Republicans controlled the secretary of state and state attorney general jobs for 16 years before Democrats flipped them two years ago. Both chambers of the state Legislature have been controlled by Republicans for a decade, though there are plenty of Democrats who will argue that's the result of gerrymandering. 

Then there is Trump, who was able to draw heavily in 2016 from formerly Democratic industrial areas where job losses have hit hard and pull big margins from rural areas to stitch together a coalition just big enough to overcome Democratic support for Clinton that was down, relative to Barack Obama's 2012 win, pretty much everywhere.

"This was not something Republicans were used to relying on," said John Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Relations in Lansing and former state director of Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Michigan. "It wasn't conceivable you could drive turnouts at those levels (in those areas of the state) and counter what your losses might be in metro Detroit."

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Most of those Republican wins, besides Trump's razor-thin victory, were in off-year elections, when low propensity voters, often clustered in and around urban areas, were more likely to sit out. This year, however, turnout is expected to be high, if not at record levels. Biden has a lead of 48%-39% in the most recent polls by EPIC-MRA of Lansing, which does work for the Free Press. But after the experience of 2016 and Trump's upset over  Clinton, few are prepared to entirely count out the president. 

Even if Trump faces headwinds, especially in metro Detroit, it's possible that he can either tamp down support for Biden there to levels he can overcome with a strong showing elsewhere, or find new pockets of support, especially in west Michigan, to make up for the possibility of a Democratic wave in Oakland and Wayne counties.

Coming off Democratic gains in 2018, when the party swept the three top statewide offices, it looks like a tall order, to be certain. But it will come down to how well both he and Biden are doing in various regions across the state, relative to the race four years ago. With that in mind, here's a look at all of those regions — using the geographic breakdowns employed by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for clarity's sake:

Metro Detroit

To begin with the obvious, it’s difficult to impossible to win in Michigan without doing relatively well in metro Detroit, which typically accounts for about 40% of the statewide vote. As a region, it clearly is far more favorable ground to Democrats than Republicans, though former Gov. Rick Snyder managed to win the tricounty region (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne) outright in 2010.

The key to winning the state while losing in metro Detroit overall is keeping Democratic strength below a certain threshold. Said Sellek, "You have to account for and plan for a baseline turnout that you have to overcome in southeastern Michigan."

For instance, Snyder won his second term in 2014 while losing in metro Detroit overall to Democrat Mark Schauer. But Snyder kept it close enough —  losing 52%-47% — to maintain his advantage across the rest of the state. In 2016, Trump lost the region to Clinton 56%-40%. It was a wide gap to be sure but far better than the 62%-38% drubbing Obama gave Romney in the region in 2012.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd during a Get Out the Vote event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on March 9, 2020.

Looking at presidential and gubernatorial elections over the last few decades, it appears that anytime a Democrat gets better than the 56% Clinton got in metro Detroit, he or she has won statewide. John Kerry, for instance, got 58% and beat incumbent President George W. Bush in Michigan in 2004. And remember that while Clinton lost, she did so by a tiny margin, just two-tenths of 1%. If Biden can do even a bit better than that, it would suggest he’s got a good chance of winning the state. Of course, it’s always possible this will be the year in which those historical trends are turned on their ear with waves of support for Trump in other parts of the state — but that would indeed be a sea change in Michigan politics.

As of right now, it looks like Biden is in good shape to hit that number, though it's not a certainty. The Free Press looked at the three most recent EPIC-MRA polls — one in September and two in October — and averaged support for Biden and Trump in each of the state's regions. 

It found that Biden led Trump 54%-34% in metro Detroit on average. That might sound like — and might turn out to be — good news for Trump, since it's below the 56% level of support. But there are a couple of important caveats to that. First, the margin of error for that number is larger than the plus or minus 4 percentage points to be used when considering statewide totals because the sample size is smaller. (That's even more true for the other regions that have even smaller sample sizes.)

Second, it's also a fair bet that, given the Democratic leanings in the district, the 9% of undecided voters on average in the polls could break more toward the Democrat than the Republican. In the firm's final poll before the 2016 election, for instance, Clinton led Trump 48%-35% in metro Detroit with 11% undecided. She wound up beating him there 56%-40%.

If the undecided voters broke the same way this year and the polls were as accurate as in 2016, Biden would clear the 56% threshold easily.

A flotilla of boats supporting President Donald Trump passes by Veterans Memorial Park in St. Clair Shores in June.

So how does Trump win Michigan? He needs to begin by winning big again in Macomb County — four years ago he won it by nearly 12 percentage points after Obama had won it for two elections in a row. He also needs to keep turnout low in Wayne County, where in the last election he was aided greatly by two factors: First, Clinton got some 76,000 fewer votes out of the county than Obama had four years before, with the number of Black voters in Detroit down significantly. Secondly. a large number of voters — nearly 11,000 in Wayne County — went to the polls but sat out the presidential race altogether.

Biden, meanwhile, is looking at a three-part plan: First, he needs to bring Trump’s margins down in Macomb, if not win it outright. Second, he’s working on getting people in Wayne County, especially African Americans in Detroit, to turn out. And third, he’s hoping to turn out suburban voters in Oakland County, who, while backing Clinton four years ago, also had a huge number of voters — 13,476 — who didn’t vote for any presidential nominee. Two years ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer got more votes out of Oakland, the state's second largest county, than Clinton, a remarkable achievement for an off-year election and one that suggests a fired-up Democratic electorate. 

Trump supporter Nelson Westrick, left, of Utica and his son Nelson Westrick Jr. hold their flags while standing in support of President Donald Trump outside a Vote Now car rally at Macomb Community College in Warren on Oct. 5, 2020.

Said Traugott, "The Democrats won't be snuck up on like they were in 2016. ... You can tell from the flow of early voting in Michigan that more people will have access to the ballot in 2020 than they did before and turnout should go up ... which should favor the Democrats."

Outer metro

As we’re defining it here, this region is a sort of catchall of several counties, which, in some important ways, aren’t very much alike at all. Washtenaw is anchored by a Democratic bastion in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan; Genesee, Monroe and St. Clair counties are all former industrial centers, and have more in common with some parts of western Wayne, southern Macomb and the Bay region than they do Ann Arbor. Livingston County is a changing exurb, with strong housing and income growth. Lenawee County prides itself on its scenery and small-town living. 

What they all have in common is they either touch, or are no more than one county away, from the big counties of metro Detroit.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd during a Get Out the Vote event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on March 9, 2020.

On balance, this has been good territory for Democrats, largely because Genesee, where Flint is situated, and Washtenaw are the largest two voting areas and are predominantly Democratic. (Monroe, which has been somewhat of a swing area, went for Trump in 2016 after backing Obama in 2008 and 2012; most of the rest of the area has been reliably Republican.)

While losing in the region overall, Trump still did well relative to Republicans in other years. Even though Washtenaw was the only county in the state where Clinton did better than Obama had four years before. Trump only lost the region overall to Clinton 48.5% to 46%, far better than the 14 percentage point loss Obama tagged Romney with in 2012. 

Democrats could look to this region to claw back more votes. Whitmer won this region 55%-42% two years ago. What's more interesting perhaps is how areas like this, when broken apart, show how Michigan is changing depending on which areas are growing or shrinking. Growing areas tend to become slightly more Democratic friendly and shrinking ones somewhat more Republican, relative to the past.

Livingston County backed Trump by 30 percentage points and Romney over Obama in 2012 by 23 points. But Whitmer closed that gap to 17 points two years ago to former state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn said he has seen it in other work he has done for his clients. "We are seeing more receptivity toward bond proposals and tax issues (in some exurbs). ... If they were considered as safe (for Republicans) as they have been in the past, you would not be seeing that."

But as some of these areas become relatively more Democratic-leaning, others — such as Genesee and Monroe — have become friendlier to Republicans as they've seen industry leave.

It makes for an unsettled region: Polling averages have shown Biden up in this region by a wide margin, though, again, the margin of error on such a small sample would be large. But Democrats have done big in this region before making such a turnaround possible.

But it will be a blow to Trump's chances if Biden approaches Obama's 14-point margin in 2012.

Bay region

We're defining this geographic region as the counties in the Thumb (excepting St. Clair, which is included in Outer Metro) and Arenac, Gladwin, Midland, Bay and Saginaw counties. As a region, it has tended slightly more Republican-leaning — Romney won there 50.5% to 48.4% for Obama in 2012 — with two big exceptions, Bay and Saginaw counties, former industrial centers with a socially conservative, blue-collar population that still typically voted for Democrats. Overall, the region makes up about 7% of the electorate.

People record and cheer on President Donald Trump as he is seen exiting Air Force One on a monitor for overflow during a campaign stop at Avflight Saginaw in Freeland on September 10, 2020.

In 2016, Trump scored big with these voters and it was one of the keys to his success.

He beat Clinton in the region 58%-37%, running up big margins of 30%-45% in many of the counties, especially those in the more rural parts of the Thumb. More significantly, he flipped Bay and Saginaw counties, which moved from backing Obama in 2012 by 5 percentage points and 11 percentage points, respectively, to backing Trump by 13 points in Bay County and 1 point in Saginaw. 

No Republican candidate for president had won either of the counties since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

That’s a giant change and it resulted in Trump getting some 22,000 more votes out of the region than Romney did. If Trump is going to win in Michigan again, he’s going to be counting on getting those votes and more out of this part of the state, which explains why he held a big rally outside Saginaw in September. Biden, meanwhile, is counting on being a more likeable candidate than Clinton was in this area, much as Whitmer was two years ago: She lost the region overall, but by 8 points, not 21. And both Bay and Saginaw counties swung back into her column.

Randy Badgerow, chairman of the Bay County Republicans, acknowledged that the 2016 result came as a surprise to him, "mostly because this area's so heavily Democrat. It’s such an automotive union-type area that I was just surprised." But he thinks Trump is positioned to win it again.

The polls show the region as unsettled with a larger-than-expected percentage of undecided and potential third-party voters. It’d be a huge swing if it actually backed Biden overall, given the partisan lean of the region overall. But Trump needs a very strong showing here to replicate his 2016 victory; otherwise, he’ll need to find a lot more votes somewhere else in the state. 

It’s also worth noting that Clinton lost more votes relative to Obama in 2012 — nearly 35,622 — than Trump gained in this region.

North region

It’s safe to say no region of the state was as attuned to Trump’s 2016 campaign as Up North. While it had been trending more Republican generally — Romney beat Obama in the region 54%-45% in 2012 — it really turned out for Trump four years ago, when voters there gave him a resounding 59%-36% victory, a whopping 23 percentage points.

By way of reference, we’re looking at the northern region as anything north of an east-west line that runs along the southern borders of Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw and Iosco counties, including the Upper Peninsula. Geographically, it’s huge — 34 counties — but it’s mostly rural and accounts for just about 8%-9% of the statewide electorate. Grand Traverse and Marquette are its largest counties.

President Donald Trump reacts after speaking during a campaign rally at Muskegon County Airport on Oct. 17, 2020, in Norton Shores, Mich.

Its strength for Trump four years ago exemplified how he was able to remake the political map of Michigan. 

"The massive levels of turnout Trump drew in counties from Clare north... these margins were just piling up to unseen levels," Sellek said.

While there clearly has been some movement in pockets of this territory toward Democrats — Whitmer came within a hair’s breadth of winning in Grand Traverse two years ago and flipped neighboring Leelanau County — there’s no question just how strong this area was for Trump in 2016. The total vote for president in 2016 increased more than 49,000 votes — about 14% — and nearly all of those, 47,156, went to Trump, an enormous advantage.

Recent polling suggests Trump may do it again this year, leading in the average of the most recent polls 52%-36%. What’s less clear, however, is how much more he can pull out of it: The parts that  are growing, such as Grand Traverse, are trending more Democratic. 

That said, this is a region where polling has suggested far more people are less concerned about the threat of COVID-19 — and far more interested in getting the economy restarted — than in other parts of Michigan and where Whitmer is generally less liked than Trump. That very much sounds like it continues to be Trump country and will likely respond in kind this election.

Central region 

Central Michigan, defined here as the counties running south along a swath from Osceola and Clare counties to the Indiana-Ohio line (follow M-66 and U.S. 127 north to south, and you’ll get the idea) is a mix of rural communities and small towns, heavy industry with General Motors plants in Delta Township and Lansing, state government and Michigan State University in Ingham County and an older industrial area in Battle Creek in Calhoun County. It typically accounts for about 12% of the state’s turnout in a given election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden laughs with  U.S. Sen. Cory Booker before speaking to a small group while making a campaign stop at Berston Field House in Flint on March 9, 2020.

Over some recent years, it has been something of a swing area, despite large swaths of more conservative territory. As a region, it backed Obama twice — by 55%-44% over Republican John McCain in 2008 and by a much-closer margin, 50%-48% over Mitt Romney in 2012. But for a big double-digit margin in Ingham County for Obama, however, Romney probably would have taken the area eight years ago. And it did back Snyder in both of his elections. As such, it was ripe for a big win by Trump in 2016. 

Four years ago, Trump won it by 10 percentage points, 52%-42%, and while some 15,000 more voters came out that year, the significant change was how many dropped Clinton — she got 44,000 fewer votes than Obama had — while Trump picked up more than 30,000 votes. The change was apparent all over the region with the exception of Ingham. But nowhere more so than Calhoun County, which went from backing Obama over Romney by 2 percentage points to supporting Trump over Clinton by 12.5% (which is similar to what happened in a much more famous swing county, Macomb).

Calhoun had backed Republican presidential nominees previously but not since President George W. Bush in 2004 and, even then, it was a much tighter race. As such, it's no surprise why Trump held his first official campaign rally in Michigan last December in Battle Creek — and on a day when the Democratic majority in the U.S. House and former Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who represents the district, were voting to impeach him on accusations he asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden. The Senate would later acquit.

A Biden supporter waves a flag as he watches Jill Biden walk up to the podium at a voter mobilization event at Shatila Bakery in Dearborn on Oct. 20, 2020.

As with some other parts of the state, this region swung back toward the Democrats in the 2018 gubernatorial election, as Whitmer took back a handful of counties — including Clinton, Eaton and Isabella, though not Calhoun — so it’s possible Biden could claw back some of Trump’s gains. But Whitmer won here by just 2 percentage points, making it equally possible that Trump can again do well in this region. With its split between progressives in Lansing, older industrial areas in and around Battle Creek and small-town conservatives, it’s hard to say where it will go, but Trump needs to do well here to stay ahead.

West Michigan

You can say west Michigan — defined here as the seven counties along Lake Michigan north from the Indiana border as well as Cass, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Kent, Newago and Lake counties — is reliably Republican. Going back to the 1998 election for governor, the Republican candidate at the top of the ticket has won each time regionally with one exception: Obama in the landslide of 2008.

Four years ago, it was no different for Trump, who won here 52%-41% over Clinton. The surprising thing was that his winning percentage was a point less than Romney’s had been in 2012. And while Trump showed his reach in the more rural parts of this region and even made some impressive gains in Democratic-leaning areas such as  Lake and Muskegon counties, he did worse overall than Romney in two Republican bastions, Ottawa and Kent counties.

Generally speaking, there is no reason to believe that Trump won’t win in this part of the state again. If anything, his polices to cut taxes and regulations in order to spur the economy would be expected to resonate  in an area that has largely embraced pro-business measures. And while Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a divisive figure nationally and in Michigan, she’s well known in west Michigan and has deep ties to the GOP there.

But there is still a strong element of social conservatism associated with the Dutch-American community in west Michigan, which may or may not be ready to fully embrace a president as demonstrative and controversial as Trump.  His surrounding himself with people like DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence — not to mention putting two and possibly three conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court — certainly can’t hurt him. But there is also a streak of libertarian independence shot through this region, as evinced by Amash's stand against Trump. Many in the region also recall Republicans like Gerald Ford and Paul Henry who were known for a more collaborative style than the president's or the current levels of partisanship in Congress.

And this could be a decisive area.

Two years ago, Whitmer lost the region overall but won in Kent County, where Grand Rapids is situated, and that helped propel her to the governorship. There has been reason to believe the area, which is growing, is trending more Democratic. That could spell trouble down the road.

Once the Republican formula for winning statewide was to hold down losses in southeastern Michigan, then "turn to west Michigan and hope that was going to carry you home," as Sellek put it. But Kent County in particular — as it gains in affluence — is beginning to look more and more like Oakland County as its Democratic-lean has become more pronounced. 

"Republicans until recently didn't think they had to turn out the ground game in west Michigan — they thought it would turn out itself," Sellek said.  "That's no longer the case. That's going to be a battleground for the foreseeable future."  

Some handicappers are saying the race to replace Amash between Peter Meijer, the Republican heir to the eponymous grocery store chain, and  Democratic lawyer Hillary Scholten is a toss-up. 

Even if Trump wins in west Michigan, as would be widely expected, he can’t afford to see a drop-off in a region that accounts for about 19% of the statewide vote. This is a region where he and his campaign would want to pick up votes, if anything, to protect against the likelihood of an increased turnout among Democrats who didn’t come out four years ago, especially in Wayne and Oakland counties. Since he already hit huge numbers in many of the more rural regions of the state, this region may offer him his best opportunity to increase his totals.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Oct. 17, 2020, in Muskegon.

Which explains why he and his surrogates have been targeting the region. Last week, he was in Muskegon, aiming to kill two birds with one stone, speaking both to west Michigan's traditional Republicans and blue-collar voters in what had been a traditionally Democratic county.

There are those who argue that the regions themselves don't matter so much and that winning or losing in Michigan is simply a matter of whether Democrats turn out their voters or not. It's true that, as a rule, Republicans have a much more narrow deviation in terms of how many vote than Democrats do. In 2004, President George W. Bush got 2.3 million votes in the state, more than any other Republican top-of-the-ticket nominee in the last 20 years. In 2008, Barack Obama got 2.9 million votes.

Another school of analysis, however, says Michigan has become less tied to partisan leanings and more about its preference for specific politicians. This week, Corwin Smidt, a Michigan State University political science professor, posted an analysis of voter registration and found that it's possible — though even he is skeptical — that the number of voters could hit an astronomical 5.9 million. Given that just over 5 million voted in the 2008 presidential election, it's a leap at best but even if it's less than that, it would seem to bolster Democratic hopes. 

But Smidt isn't certain. Much of the increase is in areas where the partisan lean in the last two presidential elections has been better for Republicans. And older Democratic bastions such as Wayne County continue to lose population and some, such as Bay County or Calhoun County, are moving toward Republicans. On the other hand, other areas that are growing, such as Kent or Livingston counties, may be moving toward Democrats, though it's unclear how quickly they are doing so. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives to talk with supporters in Southfield on October 16, 2020.

"Michigan has been a swing state," he said. "The truth is, there are a lot of what-ifs that could be played out. If Biden replicates Whitmer's support in places like Oakland and Kent, definitely (Biden wins). However … we’ve also been a swing state so it's hard to say (he) can easily replicate that result.

"The demographics of the state really haven't changed in 20 years," he added. "What's changed is voters don't fit in as much with their party as they used to."

Contact Todd Spangler attspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@tsspangler. Read more onMichigan politics and sign up for ourelections newsletter.