The Corner

Why Michigan Matters—and What to Watch There

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — along with both of their running mates and star surrogates — have all descended on Michigan in the past week. The state has long been considered safely in the Democratic column; it last delivered its electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate in 1988. Trump has never led Clinton in a single nonpartisan poll there. And President Obama carried the state by 9.5 points in 2012. So why all the sudden attention?

Here are three reasons to explain Trump’s last-minute push in the state, and four counties to watch tonight that will determine whether he’s successful.

1. Pennsylvania is no longer in play. Trump’s team long ago determined that their best shot at winning the White House would be breaking through the “blue wall” in Pennsylvania, a critical piece of his electoral-math equation. Even though the state hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1992, the strategy made sense: Pennsylvania is home to a disproportionate number of working-class whites and would prove easier to flip than other battleground states with bigger minority populations. If he could carry Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, on top of wins in Florida, Ohio, and some combination of smaller states, Trump would win the presidency. But for all the enormous amount of time and money his campaign invested there, the numbers in Pennsylvania never really moved: Hillary Clinton has led in every nonpartisan poll of the state since early July, and over the past month her cushion has shown no sign of dissolving. With Pennsylvania no longer looking like a viable option, Trump’s team scrambled to put together Plan B — and shift their emphasis to another large state that could, on top of wins elsewhere, get them over the 270 hump. Michigan makes perfect sense, because . . .

2. It could be the site of a perfect demographic storm. The most appealing thing to Trump about Michigan isn’t its high number of non-college whites, or its history of “Reagan Democrats” crossing over to the GOP, or the fact that he steamrolled through its March 8 primary while Clinton suffered her most surprising defeat of the primary season. No, what’s most appealing is the fact that enthusiasm among black voters for Clinton is lagging nationwide — and if they don’t turn out at expected levels, Michigan is a state that could suddenly be in play. It has several heavily-minority urban centers (Detroit, Lansing, Flint) where President Obama ran up huge margins en route to winning the state by 16 points in 2008 and by 9.5 points in 2012. If there’s a dramatic dropoff in black turnout — not a slight dropoff, a dramatic dropoff — things could get tight in Michigan precisely because of the demographic, economic, and political realities I wrote about on the night of the state’s March 8 primary:

According to exit polls, half of Republican voters there were whites without a college degree. Trump dominated among that group, winning 46 percent. . . . On a key question for that demographic, a majority of all Michigan GOP voters, 55 percent, said trade with other nations “takes away U.S. jobs.” Trump won 45 percent of those respondents. . . . Those numbers stand in stark contrast to Clinton’s performance Tuesday night. Bernie Sanders, who trailed in many recent Michigan polls by more than 20 points, stunned the political universe by winning the state Tuesday. . . . A plurality of Michigan’s Democratic electorate, 36 percent, were whites without a college degree. Clinton lost those voters badly to Sanders, 58 percent to 41 percent. An even bigger majority than in the GOP primary — 58 percent — said trading with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs,” and Sanders won those voters by double digits, once again taking 58 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent. 

In short: Trump’s message on trade has a unique resonance in the state. That said, Michigan has been solidly Democratic for decades on the breadth and sturdiness of its electoral coalition: a supermajority of blacks, a good chunk of Metro Detroit’s college-educated suburbanites, and a decent share of the state’s sprawling class of white, non-college, blue-collar workers. There’s no question that Trump is going to overperform with that third group. The second group will likely drift somewhat leftward, though not nearly enough to compensate for the rightward movement of the third group. That leaves black voters, the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition, as the question mark. There’s no doubt they’ll vote overwhelmingly against Trump; the question is how many of them will vote, period. Unlike in other states, it’s impossible to know until Election Day. Which brings us to . . .

3. There’s no early voting. Democrats are worried about Michigan because they have one day — 13 hours, actually — to get their voters to the polls. Unlike in many other states with several weeks of early in-person voting, Michigan is one and done. That’s always going to introduce some volatility (and induce some partisan anxiety) but it’s especially nervewracking for a party whose coalition is underpinned by historically low-propensity voters. There was little concern in 2012 because Obama was still atop the ticket. Not only was he incredibly popular with black voters; he bailed out the Detroit automakers and remained untouchable in the state because of it. Those dynamics have zero bearing on this race. Clinton has generated little enthusiasm in the black community and she’s deeply distrusted by many of the union Democrats who voted for Sanders in this year’s primary. That’s a combustible mix: If lots of black voters stay home and lots of labor Democrats defect to Trump, Michigan will turn into a toss-up.

How likely is that? Not very. Again, Trump has not led Clinton in one nonpartisan poll of the state. She’s ahead by 3.6 points in the RealClearPolitics average. Trump figures to perform better than Romney — a Michigan native who launched his 2008 campaign there, but whose “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” contributed to his defeat — but it’s very difficult to see the Republican nominee overcoming a decades-in-the-making Democratic advantage.

That said, we won’t know until polls close at 8 p.m. ET. Keep an eye on these counties and you’ll know which way Michigan is trending:

– Wayne: It’s easily Michigan’s biggest county and is anchored by Detroit, a city that despite a recent influx of young white college graduates is still more than 80 percent black. This is where Clinton needs to build up a massive lead (by turning out a massive number of voters) to feel comfortable tonight. Obama carried Wayne County in 2012, 73 percent to 26 percent, and won roughly 595,000 votes. Keep that last number in mind Tuesday night: If Clinton can bank 505,000 votes there – roughly 85 percent of Obama’s number — she should be in good shape. (Obama carried Michigan by roughly 450,000 votes in 2012; losing some 90,000 in its biggest county is survivable.) If that numbers drops significantly, however, say into the mid-400,000 range, it could be big trouble for Clinton. There’s already an ominous trend that has Democrats anxious: While early absentee voting has spiked across Michigan, it has dropped in Detroit. A final thought here: Don’t be surprised if Trump races to an early lead in Michigan, since Wayne County’s votes are always reported late.

– Oakland: Home to the vast expanse known as “Metro Detroit,” it’s Michigan’s second-biggest county and the site of a swelling population of affluent, white, college-educated voters. Romney underperformed terribly in 2012, losing Oakland County by eight points (a margin of roughly 53,000 votes). Obama won just under 350,000 votes there in 2012; if Clinton suffers a dropoff among blacks in Wayne County, she could look to compensate with an uptick of white suburbanites in Oakland County. It’s imperative that Trump, who has consistently performed worse than Romney did among college-educated voters, limit his losses here if he hopes to have a chance. If he lets Clinton add to Obama’s tally — anywhere approaching 400,000 votes in Oakland County — it’s nearly impossible to see him winning the state.

– Macomb: Michigan’s third-biggest county is where the fabled “Reagan Democrats” were discovered in the 1980s, and it remains a bellwether for the state. Obama carried Macomb County narrowly in 2012 — besting Romney by four points and about 16,000 votes — and it’s an area where Republicans have traditionally overperformed when they win statewide races. If, in fact, Trump is going to benefit from a surge of non-college whites who have either voted reliably Democratic or sat out recent elections, Macomb County is ground zero. Not only must he win handily; he’s got to drive an enormous increase in turnout. Romney won roughly 192,000 votes in Macomb County; for Trump to be competitive in Michigan, that number probably needs to jump well into the mid- to high-200,000 range.

– Kent: Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the west side of the state. (The previous three counties are all clustered in southeast Michigan.) The state’s fourth-most populous county is home to its second-biggest city, Grand Rapids, and is generally considered safely Republican: Romney carried Kent County by eight points and 24,000 votes. But it’s also a deeply religious and culturally conservative area of the state, and Trump struggled mightily there during the Republican primary, finishing in third place and taking just 23 percent of the vote in Kent County compared with his 37 percent statewide. And in the months since, public polls of Michigan have consistently shown the Republican nominee badly underperforming on the state’s western side. This is a huge hurdle for Trump on Tuesday: If he doesn’t match Romney’s total of roughly 158,000 votes in the GOP’s friendliest big county, it bodes poorly for his chances of catching Clinton in the statewide tally.

My prediction: Black turnout drops enough to make things interesting, but not enough to give Trump a chance. He’ll come closer than Romney, but still lose the state by four to seven points.

(And, as with my electoral-map prediction, please feel free to tar-and-feather me on Twitter if I’m wrong.)