Donald Trump astonished much of America at 2:30 EDT Wednesday morning, November 9, 2016, when major television networks called Wisconsin, and then, the election for the Republican nominee. The shock lifted and the post-mortem diagnoses on Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss flooded from political pundits and news organizations. The Upper Midwest was Clinton’s Waterloo, many concluded.
Joe Biden will win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—and it may not even be close. Biden possesses at least a 20% chance of winning Wisconsin by over 10 points and Michigan by more than 15 points, according to FiveThirtyEight. To understand what the Biden campaign did to earn this lead, I will focus on Michigan, my home state, and describe how the climate has shifted since 2016.
Four years later, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are poised to perform well in this region. There are a few reasons for this. First, President Trump’s term in office has not provided Michigan and the surrounding states’ manufacturing industries with the jobs and production promised. COVID-19 rages in Wisconsin. A Democratic governor in Michigan enjoys surging approval ratings—and a disturbing plot to kidnap and assassinate her alarmed many state Republicans as the group’s plan cited the President’s rhetoric. But most importantly, the Biden campaign has yet to repeat Clinton’s mistakes.
Politically Michigan has been an old, sturdy, and blue lighthouse—not since 1988 had a Republican candidate won the general election. President Obama carried the state by double-digit margins in both 2008 and 2012. The polls prior to the 2016 election revealed a durable, if not significant, lead for Hillary Clinton in the state. She led by 3.6 percentage points in the final polling average (though at one point her lead widened to 12 points in mid-October). Michigan—along with Wisconsin and Minnesota—appeared to be locked in, so much so that Clinton did not spend significant campaign time in the states.
But by the morning after the election, President-elect Donald Trump emerged victorious in Wisconsin, barely lost Minnesota, and mustered such a strong outing in Michigan that the race remained uncalled. Ultimately, on November 28, Michigan canvassers certified Trump’s victory. The margin? 10,704 votes—a share the size of Lincoln Township, where I reside. It was a bewildering outcome to many, but the palpable warning signs for the Clinton campaign had been utterly overlooked. First, enthusiasm was non-existent for the former Secretary of State’s campaign. Bernie Sanders squeaked past her in the Michigan primaries, as his message of economic populism and connections to organized labor resonated with the heavily blue-collar, somewhat unionized voter base. Many Michiganders found Clinton’s technocratic and neoliberal approach to politicking unappealing as the state’s economy floundered relative to the rest of the nation. Conversely, as Sanders’ populism energized many on the left, Trump’s rightward populism attracted many moderate Democrats and independents to the Republican Party. Debbie Dingell, a Democratic congresswoman in Michigan’s 12th Congressional District, warned party leaders that many of her unionized, auto-worker constituents (once unabashed Democratic voters) could swing Michigan’s 16 electoral votes to Trump.
She was ignored.
Furthermore, Clinton yard signs—an unscientific display of support—were conspicuously missing from small towns like mine. The crippling consequences of NAFTA were pinned on Clinton thanks to her waffling support of it while her husband, Bill Clinton, was in office. Critically, Hillary Clinton was heavily disliked, even by Democrats in the state. Donald Trump was disliked, but less. 1 in 7 voters believed neither candidate was qualified for the presidency. 69% of those voted for Trump. 15%—an incredibly minute share—of voters in this group voted for Clinton. In Michigan, and in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, Clinton’s disastrous performance now appears easily explained. The Clinton campaign left many Midwestern voters feeling unrecognized, unenthused, and left behind in place of the urban coasts. Trump argued he was her antithesis, and just enough voters acquiesced.
The political climate is very different today. In 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governorship by double digits, even winning staunchly conservative Kent County, where Michigan’s second-largest city lies. Her campaign stressed bipartisanship, populism, and “common sense” policies—fixing the state’s battered road and rural infrastructure was her top priority. Disillusionment with the federal government’s coronavirus response has reared its head and accordingly sunk President Donald Trump’s approval ratings in the state. Michigan reached a jarring 24% unemployment rate in April, only recovering to 8.5% by September. The president’s verbal tirades launched at the governor have done little to improve his political standing among Michigan voters. On October 9, the FBI foiled a bizarre kidnapping and assassination attempt against Governor Whitmer, resulting in a rebuke from the governor toward the president. President Trump lashed out, saying that she had done a “terrible job” while arguing that she “wants to be a dictator”. Trump’s attacks on a popular governor cannot have helped his sinking approval.
Joe Biden stands to benefit from this turbulence. Polling averages give former Vice President Biden—who has deftly played the role of a steady-handed yet low-key challenger—a lead of 7.8 points in the state, double that of Clinton. He has avoided the technocratic attitude of Clinton, and yes, visited the state itself, making a vital appearance in Grand Rapids on the day of President Trump’s positive COVID-19 result. Recent Biden campaign spending in the state is substantial, dwarfing Trump’s by a nearly 5-to-1 margin. Biden took cues from Whitmer’s campaign, emphasizing rural investment, domestic production, and manufacturing. Many commentators argue that a Biden administration would be the most progressive since FDR. He proposes a sharp increase in the minimum wage, strong trade union support, and centering trade policy on American supply chains. In Michigan, where union engagement is disproportionately large and some conservatives even support progressive ideals (cannabis was legalized by voters in 2018 and support for environmental regulation around the Great Lakes is sky high), Biden’s team has made the conscious decision to compete.
The enthusiasm gap of 2016 doesn’t appear to exist this year. From what I’ve seen, yard signs are abundant. In my local, conservative-leaning area, Biden signs roughly outnumber those of the Trump campaign. White women, who were major contributors to Trump’s midwestern victories, have largely defected to the Biden camp, both anecdotally and statistically. I have spoken with several white, middle-aged women who voted for Trump in 2016 but now detest him and will vote for Biden. To many swing voters in Michigan, Trump is “rude,” “manipulative,” and “angry.” This is in stark contrast to 2016, when many viewed him as an “outsider,” a “straight-shooter,” and “passionate.” Biden offers more normalcy than the president and presents a “presidential” image to voters who are seeking a reversion to the past.
After all, the vote counts matter most. Trump cannot afford to lose any 2016 voters after his tight margins in Michigan and Wisconsin. But the polls show mass defection, as a New York Times poll of Michigan and Wisconsin found that, of voters who switched their vote from 2016 to 2020, Biden leads that group by a whopping 43 percentage points. Support for Trump has eroded among his voter base in the past four years and the addition of first-time and more liberal young voters to the electorate will ensure a Biden victory in Wisconsin and Michigan. Resultantly, Biden would receive 26 electoral votes on top of Clinton’s 2016 map of 232 (assuming he wins each state that Hillary won, which FiveThirtyEight suggests has a 75% chance). Then, if Biden wins at least Arizona and one of ME-2 or NE-2, which are both likely, or just Pennsylvania, Biden will emerge victorious in November. President Trump’s path to reelection, meanwhile, faces enormous electoral obstacles.
Major gaffes, news developments, or swings in sentiment in the final week could still upend the race. President Donald Trump seems impervious to controversy and frequently vanquishes long odds and cynical predictions. However, the president is losing badly in the states which carried him to victory four years ago. The Biden campaign has largely evaded the ghosts that haunt Hillary Clinton, and campaign ambassadors such as Governor Gretchen Whitmer look to provide a boost for Biden that Clinton never received. 67 million Americans have already cast their votes as of October 26, providing an ounce of durability to Biden’s national and state polling positions. The glut of favorable factors in the upper Midwest makes a Biden win and a Trump loss incredibly likely.
In this chapter of the Electoral College, the voters on the shores of the Great Lakes will decide this election. Just like the waves of Lake Michigan, this electoral wave will be blue.