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Where Midwesterners struggle, Trumpism lives on

Prior to Election Day, Brookings Metro asked if working-class white voters in struggling Midwestern swing state communities would decide the winner of the presidential race, as they did in 2016.

It almost happened. If it weren’t for a large anti-Trump vote, particularly among African Americans and better-off, better-educated voters, Joe Biden would never have won his relatively narrow victories in Michigan and Wisconsin.

The electoral maps in these states were not altogether different in 2020 than they were 2016. This time around, Biden carried only nine of the Michigan’s 83 counties—up from seven Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. In Wisconsin, Biden won 13 of 72 counties in 2020, up by only one from Clinton in 2016.

These similarities reveal that electoral polarization by community economic circumstances was even more pronounced than in 2016. As a recent Brookings Metro piece on the election noted, Biden’s base resides in more populous, educated, and prosperous communities that are home to the lion’s share of today’s economic action. This pattern certainly held in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Biden won in the most prosperous cities and their suburbs, while Trump held on to the states’ rural areas.

As in 2016, Trump also won numerous struggling older industrial city-regions, which used to be Democratic, blue-collar strongholds. Meanwhile, Biden carried a number of older industrial communities that had turned an economic corner—some that were once squarely Republican.

Table 1 shows the relative incomes and voting patterns of Michigan’s nonrural, older industrial city-regions that have been experiencing long-term population loss, falling incomes, and abandoned housing rates higher than the national average. All but one of these communities have median incomes below the statewide average.

Table 1. Trump increased Republican vote shares in many economically struggling nonrural Michigan counties

Michigan 2019 Income / State Average 2016 Cook PVI Score 2020 Vote Margin
Bay County -11% R +3 R +17
Berrien County -2% R +7 R +7
Calhoun County -18% R +4 R +12
Cass County -8% R +13 R +29
Genesee County -15% D +8 D +9
Isabella County -26% EVEN R +3
Jackson County -18% R +8 R +19
Lapeer County -9% R +14 R +36
Lenawee County -17% R +7 R +20
Midland County 14% R +10 R +15
Monroe County -1% R +7 R +23
Saginaw County -18% D +2 D +1
St Clair County -7% R +11 R +30
St Joseph County -21% R +12 R +31
Shiawassee County -18% R +5 R +20
Tuscola County -21% R +14 R +39
Van Buren County -15% R +5 R +12
Wayne County -10% D +20 D +47

Apart from the African American vote-rich communities of Wayne County (Detroit), Genesee County (Flint), and Saginaw County (Saginaw), Michigan’s economically struggling older industrial centers went decisively to Trump. These are working-class communities that have struggled to replace lost manufacturing jobs, including union-heavy counties such as Jackson, Monroe, and Calhoun (home to the city of Battle Creek, birthplace of Kellogg’s). Workers and voters in these places continued their rightward tilt in 2020, fueled by the economic nostalgia, nativism, and nationalist “Trumpism.” The most recent Cook Political Report ratings—based on 2016 and prior elections—showed these communities trending Republican, but Trump expanded the Republican margin nearly across the board in 2020.

Biden’s votes, on the other hand, generally came from better-off communities. Apart from the aforementioned African American strongholds, Biden won Washtenaw and Ingham counties—thriving talent and knowledge hubs anchored by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. North of Detroit, well-off Oakland County—once reliably Republican—flipped to Biden, as did Leelanau County, a thriving resort and lifestyle community on Lake Michigan adjacent to Traverse City. In fact, the entire prosperous Traverse City region of Northwest Michigan—again, once solidly Republican—got significantly more “blue” in 2020.

Biden also prevailed in several midsized older industrial communities that have found ways to diversify their economies, create jobs in emerging sectors, and attract and keep well-educated residents. These include Kalamazoo, Kent (home to a once-solid Republican majority), and Marquette counties. A former industrial port, Marquette went through tough times and is now a thriving lifestyle community, anchored by a large regional university and a spruced-up Lake Superior waterfront.

Similar political and economic dynamics were at work in neighboring Wisconsin, which also flipped to Biden this election. Trump won the state’s rural areas handily, and also carried older industrial Wisconsin communities still reeling from long-term economic decline. Apart from the African American stronghold of Milwaukee, these are small- to medium-sized manufacturing communities that have steadily lost their traditional industrial base. After trending Republican in recent years, they went even stronger for Trump in 2020 than they did in 2016.

Table 2. Economically struggling Wisconsin communities went strongly for Trump

Wisconsin 2019 Income / State Average 2016 Cook PVI Score 2020 Vote Margin
Dodge County -13% R +13 R +31
Manitowoc County -9% R +7 R +23
Milwaukee County -8% D +17 D +40
Sheboygan County 3% R +8 R +16
Wood County -10% R +7 R +19
Kenosha County -9% D +2 R +3
Racine County -4% R +2 R +4

These trends contrast with the 13 Wisconsin counties that went for Biden. Along with heavily African American Milwaukee County and smaller Rock County (home to Janesville and Beloit), where Black voters came out in record numbers, Biden trounced Trump in thriving Dane County, home to the state capital of Madison and the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. Madison’s tech-driven economy has spilled over county lines, contributing to Biden victories in the surrounding counties of Iowa, Sauk, and Green.

Biden also won resurgent Eau Claire (featured in my recent report A Vital Midwest: The Path to New a Prosperity), Lacrosse, and Portage counties—all economically diverse, regional economic hubs anchored by University of Wisconsin affiliate campuses. Biden also won relatively well-off Door County on Lake Michigan. Like Leelanau County in Michigan, Door County has become a resort, lifestyle, arts, and tourism region. These, along with several Native American-heavy counties in the North, gave Biden the narrow margin he needed to overtake votes out of Wisconsin’s numerous rural counties and communities suffering long-term decline.

In both Michigan and Wisconsin, voting patterns based on the different trajectories of once-similar older industrial communities reveal the underlining asymmetries in economic opportunities and optimism about the future among Trump and Biden voters. These states are a microcosm of a deepening national divide—but they give some evidence that the divide can be healed through long-term economic diversification and transformation.

Jack Farrell contributed to this post.

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