Trump or Clinton in Mitten? What past elections tell us

For the first time in years, Michigan is the epicenter of a spirited battle for president. Long a Democratic given, the state has drawn the Election Day attention of both parties, their families and surrogates, with the candidates traveling to Grand Rapids – a Democratic town in a deep red region, on Monday. Below are five keys in the battle for Michigan, based in part on how the state voted in the last four presidential races.

Turnout in Wayne County

In the last four presidential elections, Wayne County has given the Democrat a cushion, on average, of nearly 370,000 votes, creating a base that’s almost insurmountable statewide. But city elections officials said recently that absentee voting is down in Detroit, which may explain the recent attention by former President Bill Clinton to rally supporters late last week. In the last four elections President George W. Bush came closest to winning state in 2004, when he led by 176,000 votes in the other 82 counties. But Wayne County’s pro-Kerry margin of 342,000 pushed the Democrat to a relatively comfortable win. If Trump does incredibly well elsewhere, Detroit-Wayne County could be the deciding county and turnout will be key.

Reagan Democrats' next stand? Destination: Macomb

When Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980, he was lifted by former Democrats who switched parties. Pollsters zeroed in on Macomb County, home to working-class white voters, many of whom were union members. They would ultimately turn much of the county red in local and state elections and some believe that Trump’s success there in the primary – he nearly got 50 percent in a crowded field – hints at his strength in the third most populous county in Michigan. But in the last four elections, only President George W. Bush, in 2004, carried the county, and then he just beat Democrat John Kerry by 6,000 votes. But since then, the demography of the county has changed, with the number of African-American residents doubling. Even the rosiest predictions, say a 55-40 Trump win, gives him just a 62,000 vote margin (using the 2008 high turnout of 419,000).

Oakland County – purple patch?

This county, the second most populous in the state and among the wealthiest in the country, has bled purple – voted for both Democrats and Republicans – for several cycles and has backed the Democrat in each of the last four presidential elections. And it’s toggled between Democrat (Jennifer Granholm won there in 2006) and Republican (Gov. Rick Snyder crushed Virg Bernero in 2010) in statewide elections. It’s almost inconceivable that Trump could win Michigan without winning Oakland County. But Trump has not polled well among well-educated voters and Oakland County has the second highest percentage of residents with a college degree at 44.9 percent; well above the 26.4 percent statewide (and above neighboring Macomb, at 23.8 percent). In the primary, Trump won Oakland with 36 percent of the vote, below his numbers in Macomb (48 percent) and Wayne (41 percent).

West Michigan kingmakers?

There’s little doubt that West Michigan will be solidly red. Kent and Ottawa counties have been reliably Republican, with Ottawa posting some of the largest pro-GOP margins in recent elections among the more populated counties. But here’s the rub: In the primary, Trump did horribly there; getting just 20 percent of the vote in Ottawa and 23 percent in neighboring Kent (placing third in both counties, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich). Many state Republican leaders from the region are stumping for Trump but it’s unclear if West Michigan Republicans will come out in huge numbers for Trump.

Outstate turnout

The 55 most Republican Michigan counties, on average, cast more than 1.5 million ballots in the last four presidential elections. That’s created a 200,000 pro-GOP margin. That would have to increase markedly to wipe out the Democratic strongholds in metro Detroit, Flint and Lansing. If they come out and metro Detroit stays home, it could be a factor in a shock victory for Trump.

Clinton has been ahead in Michigan polls for most of the campaign, though her margins are shrinking. The convoy of Clinton surrogates in recent days reflects her campaign’s anxiety, with memories still fresh of her supposed dominance in the Democratic primaries, only to see Bernie Sanders take the state amid concerns among Democratic primary voters over her past support for free-trade deals and whether Clinton could be trusted.

About The Author

Mike Wilkinson

Mike Wilkinson is Bridge’s computer-assisted reporting specialist. He can be reached here.

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