The 2020 election has revealed some interesting trends in Michigan politics. Once a part of the “Blue Wall” of states that reliably went Democrat for presidential elections, the state has garnered a reputation as a swing state since 2016.
As part of the weekly series MichMash, Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth look at two neighboring counties that exemplify just how divided voters in the state are becoming.
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The metro Detroit counties of Oakland and Macomb sit right next to each other just north of the city. They are both changing rapidly when it comes to politics, and they’re on almost the exact opposite courses.
Wealthy Oakland County had long been a Republican stronghold, but it’s quickly turning blue both in terms of local races and how it votes in national elections. In recent years, Democrats have flipped all but one county wide-seat and now control the county commission. President-elect Joe Biden won Oakland County by 14 points this year, compared to eight points in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.
Macomb County was center stage after the 2016 election. It’s the home of the “Reagan Democrat” and has been considered a bellwether for the entire state of Michigan. It has been at a political crossroads for decades, but it has become more and more Republican in the last two elections. It helped Donald Trump win the White House four years ago, and he got 40,000 more votes in Macomb County this time around, although his percentage of total vote stayed about the same due to the high turnout of this election.
“The loser, the clear loser, Donald Trump had some coattails, including like on something like the Macomb County Commission. I mean, that is really interesting, nitty gritty local politics right there.” - Rep. Andy Levin (MI-9)
Congressman Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) represents Michigan’s Ninth Congressional District, which straddles the southern portions of both Oakland and Macomb counties. He pushes back a little bit on the idea that Macomb has become more entrenched politically, noting that Biden actually closed the gap on Trump in 2020 in terms of the percentage of the total vote. But he admits Republicans were able to make gains there despite a national victory for Democrats in the presidential race.
“Joe Biden nationally won the popular vote by over five million votes more than Barack Obama won in 2012, I heard, against [Mitt] Romney,” Levin says. “Joe Biden won a clear majority of the Electoral College, and yet the loser, the clear loser, Donald Trump had some coattails, including like on something like the Macomb County Commission. I mean, that is really interesting, nitty gritty local politics right there.”
In this election, Republicans won a majority on Macomb County Commission for the first time ever, and they will control four out of five county wide seats. Before the 2016 election, Democrats controlled all of those countywide seats, indicating that the shift to the right seems to be happening pretty quickly.
There are a lot of potential explanations for this, including major demographic changes in both Oakland and Macomb counties. But these are two examples of something that’s happening all over the state — increasing tribalism by geography and the fact that there are fewer and fewer places we can look to, like we used to look to Macomb County as a bellwether of Michigan politics.
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