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How Biden won, even as much of Michigan went for Trump: 5 election takeaways

Over two days, TV and social media offered breathless takes of the race in Michigan between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump was up big early. Then Biden came back to win by a whisker.

Except elections don’t work that way.


Results are geographic, all cast on Election Day or weeks before via absentee ballots. Only the slow counting process creates a time narrative.

So a few days ago seems like a state that went big for Trump is more clearly a state that remains deeply divided. Rural counties are staunchly Republican. Urban centers are Democratic, and suburbs are increasingly as well, helping propel Biden to victory.

He won by more than 150,000 votes amid a record turnout, dwarfing the 10,704-vote win that Trump scored in 2016.

Bridge has already pointed out that education played a big role in the election, as counties with more college graduates went big for Biden. 

Here are other takeaways from Tuesday:

The Republican brand remains untouchable in much of state

Trump lost, but he gained a larger share of votes in 63 of the state’s 83 counties. In all, he won 73 counties, down from 75 in 2016, as Saginaw, Leelanau and Kent counties flipped to Biden.

In 27 counties, Trump’s support rose by 2 to 4.5 percentage points from 2016. In Montcalm County north and east of Grand Rapids, he won with 68 percent of the vote, up from 63.5 percent in 2016.

Many of these pro-Trump counties, however, have few people. They are the reason his campaign had rallies by Trump and his surrogates all across the state, to increase turnout. 

In many places it worked: Trump got more than 60 percent of the vote in 47 counties, down only one county from his 2016 campaign.

Trump’s turnout may have saved state House for Republicans

Those numbers explain, in part, why Republicans’ 58-52 majority remains intact in the House of Representatives.

Democrats had hoped to flip as many as four seats, but ultimately they picked up two — in Oakland and Kalamazoo counties — while Republicans flipped two as well, in Genesee and Bay counties. 

Trump helped down-ballot Republicans more than Biden helped Democrats, said Brian Began,  a Republican strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest consulting firm in Lansing.

By increasing his margin in Bay County, for instance, Trump helped defeat state Rep. Brian Elder, cementing a “political realignment” that has pushed blue-collar workers toward the GOP, Began said.

With Biden’s narrow win, Democratic “hopes of really kind of sweeping everything went out the window,” Began said. 

“If Biden would have won by 6 points or whatever, Republicans wouldn’t have anything to celebrate, but now they have small victories.”

Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesperson for House Republicans, offered another theory on Twitter, pointing out that many Democrats opted for socially distanced campaigns amid the coronavirus.

Remember that six months where Democrats refused to knock a single door and then got nervous and took a bunch of pics knocking doors the last week of the race?” he asked. 

“Republicans were working their asses off. Might've played a small role.”

Pivot counties no longer?

In 2016, 12 counties that had twice supported Democratic President Barack Obama flipped to Trump: Macomb, Saginaw, Monroe, Calhoun, Eaton, Bay, Shiawassee, Van Buren, Isabella, Manistee, Gogebic and Lake.

Of those, only Saginaw County flipped back, and barely: Biden won by only 284 votes (Trump had won by 1,073 in 2016). 

The rest stuck with Trump, with the president increasing his support in Bay, Shiawassee, Monroe and Lake counties.

In Lake County, north of Grand Rapids, Trump’s victory margin rose from 23 percentage points in 2016 to 26 percentage points. In the other counties he lost just a few percentage points but still won comfortably.

The takeaway: It’s possible those counties may be further out of reach for Democrats.

Third-party decline boosted Biden

In 2016, third-party candidates led by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green Party received just over 5 percent of the vote — 250,000 votes in total.

But this year, votes for third-party candidates dwindled to 80,000 votes and just 1.5 percent of a record 5.6 million votes.

What that meant: As Trump maintained or increased his support in rural Michigan, Biden was getting a percentage point or two that would have  gone to third-party candidates in 2016. 

That allowed him to limit the damage in counties that overwhelmingly supported Trump — and may have provided Biden with the margin for victory.

Consider: There were 167,000 fewer third party votes in 2020 compared to 2016. 

Biden won by 150,371.

Urban, college counties boosted votes by higher turnout

In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won just eight counties. All are home to either a major university or a sizable African-American population.

Those counties all gave Biden even bigger margins as turnout soared. 

But in Wayne County, home to Detroit, he got 323,000 more votes than Trump (587,074 to 264,149), up 11 percent from Clinton’s 290,000 margin. 

The increase mirrors the 11 percent increase in turnout. The same occurred in Genesee, home to Flint.

But while turnout was up statewide, Biden was able to increase his margin of victory and level of support in other counties.

In Kalamazoo County, for instance, turnout increased 14 percent, but Biden’s margin of victory rose 67 percent from Clinton’s in 2016. It was a similar story in Washtenaw County, where turnout rose 15 percent and Biden’s margin increased 30 percent.

But his biggest gain was in suburban Oakland, where he more than doubled Clinton’s 2016 margin, winning 438,147 votes to 328,313.

Kent County, trending blue, flips

Grand Rapids and Kent County have been trending blue for years and the county as a whole went from backing Trump in 2016 by 9,500 votes to backing Biden by 21,000 votes — a 30,000 vote swing.

It wasn’t just Grand Rapids though. Biden won by more than 40,000 votes, well above Clinton’s 27,000-vote margin.

Outside the city still favored Trump, but not as much as 2016.

Trump won the region by 18,000 votes, half his 36,000-vote margin in 2016. The gains in Grand Rapids for Biden were enough to flip the county.

Interestingly, U.S. Senate candidate John James, a Republican who has narrowly lost to incumbent Gary Peters, got 11,038 more votes in Kent County than Trump. 

James got 7,000 fewer votes statewide than Trump, 2,630,042 to 2,637,173.

— Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.

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