The Ripon Forum

Volume 54, No. 6

December 2020

Why Macomb Stayed Red

By on December 9, 2020


Upon reflection, the results of the 2020 presidential election in Macomb County were not terribly surprising. After all, this is Trump Country in many ways. Macomb has many residents (and voters) who fit into categories that are part of what might be a new coalition the Republican Party.

White, manufacturing sector workers without a college education live throughout the county, and less than 25% of Macomb residents have a bachelor’s degree; this compares to 28% for the entire state. In terms of issues that drove Trump’s victory in Macomb, 2020 was in some ways a repeat of 2016.

Trump and his campaign (through ads and surrogates) repeated the messaging that was successful in 2016 on issues such as international trade and trade deals, Michigan’s economy, and relations with China. This worked again, but it should be noted that the campaign’s messaging did not focus much on what a second term would include in terms of specific policies under President Trump. In the end, that was not needed to carry the County. However, while Trump carried the County again, he did so with a slightly smaller percentage of the vote and a tighter margin of victory (53.3% to 45.4% in 2020 vs. 53.6% to 42.1% in 2016). He did garner almost 40,000 more votes in Macomb than he did four years before.

Trump’s successes in Macomb during the last two cycles may signal a longer-term partisan change in the County.

Also, while Trump improved his vote total in 2020, Joe Biden picked up over 49,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He did so in part by making an effort to appeal to the Industrial Belt voters that the Democrats lost in 2016. One example related to this attempt occurred in September, 2020, when Biden visited a Warren, Michigan automobile plant to talk about the automobile industry and the need to protect American jobs. Biden echoed much of Trump’s America First messaging that appealed to voters in Michigan including, “Make it in Michigan” and “Buy American.” Biden also had legitimate “pro-automobile” credentials as part of the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry after taking office in 2009. But it was not enough to overcome Macomb’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump.

Importantly, Trump’s successes in Macomb during the last two cycles may signal a longer-term partisan change in the County. Macomb has long been considered a swing and bellwether county; for many elections, the County’s majority supported the eventual winner in both presidential and gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Macomb has had a history of supporting Democratic candidates in down ballot races – even when voting for Republican presidential candidates. The County was made famous in the 1980s with the identification of “Reagan Democrats” – voters who voted for Ronald Reagan but then also voted for Democrats for other offices in those years. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by four points (51.6% to 47.6%) in the County and Democrats also won the U.S. Senate race (by 22 points), as well as countywide contests for prosecutor (20-point margin), sheriff (15-point margin), clerk/register of deeds (30-point margin), and treasurer (16-point margin). In 2016, even while Trump carried Macomb by more than 10 points, Democrats won the race for sheriff and prosecutor (the GOP captured the offices of clerk, treasurer, and public works commissioner.)

The county that was once famous for Reagan Democrats may now be home to the Trump Republicans.

By 2020, however, the shift to the GOP in presidential years was nearly complete. In addition to Trump, U.S. Senate candidate John James carried the County by 5.5% and the GOP swept the countywide offices, with the lone exception of sheriff. The county that was once famous for Reagan Democrats may now be home to the Trump Republicans. County election results for State Board of Education seats (considered to be a good measure of “base party” voters, absent party registration figures) reveal this possible shift. When Obama won the County in 2012, about 35% of voters voted for the Republican State Board of Education candidates.1 However, in 2016 that base party vote increased to about 41%. By 2020, the base party vote increased to about 44%. Not only has the Republican base increased in Macomb over the past three elections, the current party base is very close to exceeding half of the voting population.

One caveat is important here: Democrats did well in Macomb in the 2018 midterms. Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s race in Macomb by about 3.5 points; Debbie Stabenow won her Senate seat by about 1.5 points. Democrats also carried the County in races for Michigan secretary of state and Macomb County executive. The GOP candidate did win Macomb in the attorney general contest. In addition, a couple of other important pieces of context are needed to qualify these results. The GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bill Schuette, was not like Trump in many ways. Suffice it to say, he was more of an “establishment” Republican; he did not generate the excitement in the base like Trump did.

Looking to the future, voters in Macomb continue to worry about the decline in manufacturing jobs, but also are concerned about the coronavirus pandemic and health care in general. They are hoping that President-Elect Biden and Congress can work together to solve these problems.

David A. Dulio is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Oakland University, while John S. Klemanski is a Professor of Political Science at Oakland University. This is the fourth in a series of essays about Macomb County that Professors Dulio & Klemanski have authored for the Forum since the 2016 election.

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