One of the biggest surprises of the 2016 presidential election — besides the fact that Donald Trump won — was that Trump also won the state of Michigan. The Democratic candidate for president had carried the state every election since 1992 — until Hillary Clinton got 47.3 per cent of the vote to Donald Trump’s 47.5 per cent of the vote in 2016.
Some who know Michigan politics, however, say that the Republican’s 2016 win should have been less shocking than it was. They also claim that, while 2020 isn’t expected to swing the same way as four years ago, there are still twists and turns for which they are keeping their eyes peeled.
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To state the obvious, Michigan is a swing state because it’s split roughly between Democrats and Republicans. Typically, each party will control one house of the state legislature, said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan group that pushes to make sure all people eligible to vote can vote and that all votes are counted. It is a “question as to which party will prevail”.
Michigan’s “politics don’t align too well with the current partisan divide,” said Corwin Smidt, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. “People who don’t have a home in either party — when a slight thing happens, they have extreme swings.” A Democrat could, for example, be moved to start voting for Republicans once the automobile industry crashed; a Republican concerned about the environment could start voting Democratic.
In 2016, Smidt noted, Trump was running similar ads to those put out by Gretchen Driskell, the Democrat running against Republican Congressman Tim Walberg. “One was all about big corporations and the other was about national defence, but it was still jobs and China. It was the same thing.”
“Michigan has a large blue collar workforce and business interests in the auto industry, whose fortunes are greatly impacted by some of the key issues in politics — trade deals, global competition, health care coverage, and tax policy,” Barbara McQuade, a US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan during the Obama administration, wrote in an email to the New Statesman. “Michigan also depends on tourism on the Great Lakes, making environmental issues important here. As a result, a candidate’s views on those issues in an increasingly global and complex world can shape their support in Michigan.”
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Thomas Ivacko, associate director at the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, concurred, noting that Michigan voters “are ready to buck the trend at any given time, and vote for a candidate that speaks to them”. Ivacko wrote that it isn’t just that Michigan voters are mavericks, but that their votes are tied to how the economy is doing and affecting them. “Michigan has long been a boom-and-bust state economically, often leading the nation into and out of recessions. Being ready to change directions politically is likely tied to that.”
Whole sections of the state are also now changing. “The state is not as Democratic as Obama’s victories would have led to believe,” said Noah Arbit, founder and chair of Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. Some parts of the state, like the Grand Rapids region, are becoming more Democratic, but the rural regions are becoming more Republican. Those rural regions are part of what polls famously failed to pick up before November 2016.
The 2016 election result is unlikely to repeat itself in 2020 in Michigan, however. For one thing, “We were unaware in 2016 of Russia’s efforts to attack [the] election. This time, citizens and government officials should be prepared,” wrote McQuade, now a professor of practise at University of Michigan’s School of Law.
There are other, more Michigan-specific distinctions, too. “The loss in 2016,” said Arbit, “was very jarring for a lot of people”. That shock became the electric charge that powered Michigan Democrats, and particularly Michigan’s Democratic women, in the 2018 midterm elections. Two years after the first woman presidential candidate from a major party lost the state, governor Gretchen Whitmer won the gubernatorial race; Dana Nessel became the state’s attorney general; and Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens flipped two Republican congressional seats. Democratic control of the Michigan executive branch was particularly important: per Ivacko, it is the reason Michigan isn’t seeing voter suppression at the same level as other swing states.
Also in 2018, a proposal passed throughout the state that expanded voting rights for Michigan voters. People can now register on the same day and don’t need to have a particular reason to vote absentee. “That really is having a tremendous impact,” said Wang. “Voting absentee is much more convenient — [this] opened up access to a lot of people — they just couldn’t get around having to vote between 8am and 5pm on a Tuesday.”
But if people in Michigan are more aware, informed, energised, and empowered than they were in 2016, they are also set to face new challenges, too.
When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, Michigan was one of the states hardest hit. And while the proposal from 2018 makes absentee voting easier, “there’s not this sort of history and practise of everybody voting absentee,” said Wang. Voters Not Politicians has been trying to spread the word about absentee voting, as well as recruiting enough poll workers so that people can vote safely and so that votes can be counted. They recognise that “there are going to be people who want to vote for whatever reason in person — who hold that ritual really closely,” Wang noted, adding that clerks in Detroit are setting up satellite voting locations throughout the state, allowing a ballot to be filled out absentee but brought to the clerk’s office or satellite voting location. Voters Not Politicians, she said, has also tried to work with clerks to expand the number of drop boxes.
And there is a further dark change. Michigan is not unique in having far-right forces in operation inside the state, but it has been the site of certain high profile protests and plots. In the spring, Michigan residents staged protests at which it was reported that people rhymed “Whitmer” with “Hitler,” the implication being that stay at home orders issued by governor Whitmer were the equivalent of genocide and the invasion of countries, and held up signs reading things such as, “Let MI people go,” the implication being that stay at home orders were the equivalent of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt millennia ago. More recently, authorities uncovered a plot to kidnap Whitmer, overthrow her government, and put her on trial.
Some think the protests and vitriol shown to Whitmer are as much about who is in charge in Michigan as it is the political composition of Michigan itself. “I don’t think you can divorce the fact that you have a strong woman leader telling a lot of folks, men and women, what they have to do in order to save lives in order to defeat this virus,” Arbit said, adding that the language of state legislative leaders against Whitmer has been “inflammatory”.
But there are Michigan-specific features here, too. “Yes, Michigan is fertile ground for extremism,” wrote McQuade, noting the large private militia movement it had for decades. “These are groups of people who arm themselves and train to defend themselves against intruders. With the Covid-19 pandemic, orders to stay home and a president tweeting ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN,’ some may perceive the battle cry they have long been waiting for.”
“Unfortunately we do have to acknowledge that Michigan is home to a number of right-wing extremist groups, and has a long history of being home to hate groups such as the KKK,” wrote Ivacko, adding: “At the same time, Michigan also has a more positive history in terms of race relations, having served as a major route on the ‘underground railroad’ to help slaves escape to Canada in the 1800’s.”
Michigan said no to Hillary Clinton but yes to Gretchen Whitmer; it is working to expand enfranchisement while many states work to take it away and it has people threatening their fellow citizens’ lives. It swings. And, inevitably, it surprises.