This presidential election turned on the turnout.
It was the surge in voters of all kinds — Democrats and Republicans, city dwellers and rural residents, suburbanites and people of color — that lifted president-elect Joe Biden over President Donald Trump.
In neighboring Michigan and Ohio, states whose voters were in lockstep for Trump in 2016, the rise in the number of folks visiting the polls and mailing in ballots led to a split in the outcome this time. Who won each state largely hinged on who energized the people already most likely to vote for them, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
Both states saw historic turnout — for both sides of the political spectrum. In Michigan, the increase in new voters allowed Biden to boost his support in some large suburbs and chip away at Trump’s in rural counties. In Ohio, Trump attracted increased support in most of the counties he won in 2016.
Only three counties flipped from 2016 in Michigan and three in Ohio. In Michigan, Saginaw, Leelanau and Kent counties went for Biden this time. Biden also won Montgomery County in Ohio back from Trump, though Trump surprised by gaining Lorain and Mahoning counties.
Biden’s campaign “won the turnout game,” in Michigan, according to David Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University. Trump won the state by a slim margin in 2016. Biden’s campaign was able to get voters to the polls in the cities and suburbs alike, and he chipped away at Trump’s margins in rural counties.
In Ohio, Biden beat Hillary Clinton’s vote share by only 3 percentage points in the suburbs, which they both lost. That baffled experts who thought he’d ride a blue wave of suburban mom anger over COVID-19 and Trump’s offensive behavior. With only modest gains for Biden in two of the state’s three big metros, Trump’s large gains in rural and industrial areas proved insurmountable.
This kind of election is the new normal, as voters are less persuadable than in the past, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“It’s not like a couple generations ago when LBJ won by 22 points and then eight years later Nixon won by 23 points,” he said. “We don’t have those kinds of wild swings.”
A suburban blue ripple, not a wave
But the reality was a more subtle move to the left in some, but not all, suburban counties. What happened in the suburbs and smaller metropolitan areas of Michigan and Ohio played a big role in Biden winning one and losing the other.
Biden widened the Democratic margins of victory in smaller metro areas including Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, and some large suburbs in Michigan. In suburbs where he and Clinton both did poorly, Biden gained ground compared to her 2016 vote share, according to a USA Today analysis. Overall, Biden increased Democrats’ share of the vote in both smaller metros and large suburbs by 3 percentage points compared to 2016, to 53% and 47%, respectively.
Biden had far more ground to make up in Ohio’s suburbs, where Trump received 60% of the vote in 2016. While Trump’s support stayed flat, Biden’s didn’t increase enough to impact the statewide vote totals.
Biden lost Lorain County in suburban Cleveland, which voted for Clinton four years ago. Turnout was up over 2016, but it favored Trump enough for him to flip it.
Suburban Detroit’s Oakland and Macomb counties show how “the suburbs” are still an inconsistent voting bloc.
Oakland has been moving left in recent years because of changing demographics, Dulio said. Democrats secured every county-wide office in this election except for sheriff, and won a majority on the county commission.
“In 2020, it’s possible that Oakland County has cemented itself as a Democratic county, which would’ve been unheard of 20 or 30 years ago,” Dulio said.
In Macomb County, the election was the exact opposite. Republicans won every countywide office except for sheriff, and secured a majority on the county commission.
“Trump’s base is in many ways like Macomb County,” Dulio said. “And Trump’s base was and is with him. White, working class, non-college-educated. That’s a big part of his base, and they’re with him. And they stuck with him.”
But even in a stronghold like Macomb, Biden narrowed the gap from 2016, Dulio said, with increased turnout efforts by the Democratic Party and his campaign. It also helped that Democrats were fired up to vote against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton wasn’t on the ballot, he said.
The expectation of a blue wave in the suburbs was partly based on changing demographics in many — as younger and more diverse families moved out of urban centers.
Suburban and small metro counties grew faster than urban and rural areas from 2000 to 2018, gaining 11.7 million new residents by drawing former city-dwellers and to a lesser extent former rural residents, according to Pew Research Center.
Pierrette “Petee” Talley, convener of the Ohio Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said the Democrats need to rethink their approach to the state as these demographic shifts happen. But she cautioned that investment by Democrats in the suburbs can’t come “at the expense of abandoning the urban counties.”
“They’ve got to figure out how to do both,” she said.
Talley saw progress for the Democrats in the returns from the Columbus suburb of Delaware County. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016, and although Biden lost, he narrowed that gap to 6.6 points.
Still, Delaware County was the exception.
Compared to Hillary Clinton, Biden was able to win by slightly more in large urban areas, and lose by slightly less in large suburban areas. But Trump expanded on his commanding 2016 margins of victory in rural and small metropolitan areas of the state, erasing any Biden gains.
“We wanted a blue wave this time,” said Delaware County Democratic Party Chairwoman Peg Watkins. “We didn’t get it, but we’re not discouraged that it’s not going to happen because we see that the numbers are rising for us. Our state party has created an initiative for rural counties, but I think they need to do that more and more just as they need to do more and more about working on inclusion issues and fighting racism. It’s just, it isn’t enough.”
Ideas about the suburban blue wave were cemented after the 2018 mid-term when white, college-educated women in particular swung heavily left, with 59 percent voting for Democratic House candidates, compared with just 49 percent in 2016.
Suburban voters overall went from 45 percent Democratic support in House races in 2016 to 49 percent in 2018.
“That suburban transition that we saw in 2018, from being solidly Republican to being Democratic, that didn’t expand at all (in Ohio),” said Nancy Martorano Miller, politics professor at the University of Dayton. “You saw that more starkly other places.”
In Youngstown, where Trump flipped the former Democratic stronghold, Talley wondered if the Democratic Party failed to invest in reaching Black voters who have moved from the city to the suburbs.
Ohio State Sen. Michael Rulli, a Republican whose district includes Youngstown, said it was a “jaw dropper” to see Mahoning County go for Trump. But he said the flip is part of the same decades-long shift in the four-county region that Rulli rode to his own historic victory in 2018 as the first Republican to represent the area in modern history.
“Since like 1987-88, we go from all four counties being sky blue to all four being red,” said Rulli, who runs a family grocery store chain his grandfather opened in 1917. “And I’m going to strip it down and be simple about it. I would say basically, it’s just jobs. Manufacturing jobs.”
General Motors closed its plant in nearby Lordstown last year. Now, Rulli said, people are worried about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
He said voters here are used to politicians on both sides “promising us all these things and just never delivering,” and he senses support among Republican voters stems from that frustration more so than genuine excitement.
“They’re trying to grab for something that’s going to be different,” he said. “And I don’t think that the Republican Party owns this corridor at all. I think this corridor is giving this party a chance. And I tell everyone that’ll listen, ‘If we don’t produce, we’ll be out.’”
Motivating turnout was key
In Michigan, record turnout drove solid gains for Republicans but astonishing jumps for Democrats.
All 83 counties in the state had more votes in 2020 than in 2016. Biden got 520,000 more votes than Clinton received in 2016, according to preliminary results, and Trump was up 365,000 over his 2016 total. The increase helped Biden flip three counties in the state.
Ohio turnout was far less competitive. Despite having more people, Ohio notched half as many additional votes over 2016 as Michigan.
The difference in turnout can in part be attributed to Michigan’s Secretary of State adopting “no excuse” absentee voting, said Michael Traugott, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Ohioans have had that option since 2005.
Democrats needed significant gains to flip Ohio, where Trump won by nearly 450,000 votes in 2016. Instead, Trump increased his winning margin by about 24,000 votes and took the former swing state again.
Democrats gained about as many votes over Republicans in Ohio’s large cities areas as Republicans gained over Democrats in rural counties, USA TODAY’s analysis showed.
And in Ohio’s smaller metros, Democrats lost ground.
That included places like Clark County, home to Springfield, which voted significantly more red than in 2016, and Youngstown’s Mahoning County, which chose a Republican for president for the first time since 1972.
“The story in Ohio,” according to Martorano Miller, “is Trump was able to bring out his voters.”
While Biden did outperform Clinton in some crucial areas, he won by a smaller margin than she did in Cleveland and his gains were minimal in the suburbs of all three big cities — Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Biden won Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County with 66.6% of the vote compared to Clinton’s 66%, but Trump increased his share of the vote by 1.5 points to 32.3%.
“The real issue is Cleveland,” Martorano Miller said. “Turnout wasn’t trending at the same pace (as nationally).” She had theories on why this was the case.
Ohio voters are used to a full-court press when it comes to presidential campaigns. The state has always been seen as such a must-win. In fact, Biden is the first to win the White House without winning Ohio since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
“(Ohioans) like candidates that go door-to-door,” Martorano Miller said. “The Dem Party didn’t do a lot of that for a very good reason.” The party vowed not to hold large rallies out of concern for COVID-19 safety, she said.
But Democratic voters might have felt let down that they weren’t seeing as much attention, while Trump held six large rallies across the state in the two months before Election Day.
Biden’s campaign made three stops in Cleveland since August and additional stops in Toledo, Cincinnati and Alliance. His events were smaller in scale than Trump’s due to coronavirus concerns.
Both camps were in Michigan more often — Biden 10 times since August and Trump 11.
Trump visited suburban Detroit three times but not the city, while Biden’s campaign held eight events in and around Motown.
In the end the increase in turnout was much higher in Detroit’s Wayne County than any of Ohio’s big metros.
Wayne County voter turnout in presidential elections dropped from 2012 to 2016, then bounced back in 2020, Dulio said.
Voters didn’t like Clinton and didn’t show up for her, he said. “And I think that that is probably true across much of the state of Michigan.”
In 2016, more than 75,000 people in Michigan cast ballots but didn’t vote for any presidential candidate, according to Michigan Secretary of State records. Early numbers from 2020 indicate that number was down to about 40,000 in this election.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit and president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, called the election “a hard-fought battle.” He said many organizations worked together to encourage people to vote — deploying phone banks, literature drops, parades to ballot boxes, robocalls and more.
“Everybody — I mean everybody — pulled together on this one,” Anthony said. “And much more so than we did in 2016. And you saw the difference. The numbers were up everywhere.”
Detroit has the highest percentage Black population of any major city in the country at 79 percent, which is why driving voter turnout in that demographic made the difference in Michigan, according to Vincent Hutchings, political science professor at University of Michigan.
“Turnout in Detroit was at record high levels,” he said. Both candidates received more votes in Wayne County, where the city is located, but the increase favored Biden.
Anthony attributed the outcome in Detroit and the rest of the state to two main factors: support for Biden and Harris and frustration with Trump.
“People are tired, frustrated and just really beat-down weary from the treacherous administration that we’ve had to endure for the last four years,” Anthony said.
Racial justice, ethnic impact
Oakland County, Michigan, activist Tameka Ramsey told USA TODAY she believes efforts to mobilize voters played a role in the election results, but that a major influence was racial justice.
“It was a perfect storm with the pandemic, with the death of George Floyd,” said Ramsey, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable for Eastern Michigan, a nonpartisan organization that works to support Black women in every aspect of their lives. “All of those things show people that the promises that this president made he did not honor. He did not keep. And it did not matter if you were white or Black.”
Ramsey said she believes Trump was successful in 2016 because he reached low- and middle-income white voters who needed help but felt unseen and unheard. She said Republicans were trying to “divide and conquer.”
“They talked to poor white people,” Ramsey said. “They made them feel heard. They lifted them up and said that they were different than the poor Black people. Because we all know that if you put low-income people together, they outnumber rich people and then things could change.”
Moving forward, Ramsey said the Democratic Party can’t just campaign on “anybody but Trump”. It needs a message that makes people want to be involved in the system.
“The Democratic Party really needs to do a lot more to engage Black people all the time and not just when they need them,” she said.
Kay Beydoun, second vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said political campaigns shouldn’t underestimate the power and numbers of ethnic communities in the state. Beydoun, who is Arab American, said the Biden campaign made sure ethnic communities in Michigan were involved and active in his campaign. She said voter turnout was high, and she believes the majority of voters in ethnic and African American communities supported Biden.
“Because when you get into a close race, those are the votes that are going to help you get across the finish line,” Beydoun said. “They’re the votes that are going to help you in succeeding and winning your election.”
This summer’s racial justice protests and debates over policing were some of the same issues driving Republicans to the polls in Ohio.
In Ashland County, a rural community about half way between the urban centers of Cleveland and Columbus, the president’s gain was moderate: he increased his share of the vote by 2 percentage points, to 73%. Biden improved on Clinton’s 2016 vote share in the 53,000-person county by less than 2 points.
“We’ve given out just shy of 2,500 Trump yard signs,” said Chris Tunnell, chair of the Ashland County GOP. “That’s more yard signs by far than in any other presidential campaign. The requests for hats, buttons, swag, we’ve never had before.”
Tunnell said the county is deeply religious, with 88 churches covering 427 square miles. Support for police officers runs deep here, Tunnell said. He said so many people were asking for pro-police signs that workers at the county GOP offices started handing out business cards for a local print shop that was selling them. Voters carried those motivations to the polls, he said.
“I think the support this year for Trump is probably a combination of the economy and a reaction to events relating to social issues and protests in the urban areas,” Tunnell said. “Those images on the news have resonated with Ashlanders in a very negative way. And they are concerned that that sort of thing would, you know, spread out and that the policies that they don’t agree with and don’t support would be put into place if Trump’s not re-elected.”
L. William Bolon, a Republican who last week was elected a commissioner in Monroe County, Ohio, said that while President Trump didn’t make a campaign stop there during his 2020 bid, locals still held rallies and a parade to show their support. The president increased his massive 2016 margin of victory in the county by 6.5 percentage points, notching an impressive 54 percentage point lead this time.
The economy was the key issue there.
Bolon said the county on the West Virginia border has been pummeled by the loss of industrial jobs – first the steel mills, then an aluminum plant, then the coal mines. But Bolon said he has seen signs of progress in the last four years. Workers in 2019 broke ground on a gas-fired power plant. There’s talk of building an ethane cracker plant in neighboring Belmont County.
He said many people here – himself included – used to be registered Democrats but now feel the party has left the community behind. About 10 years ago, Bolan switched his registration to Republican.
“The Democrat is no longer for the working class person anymore. It’s for the people in San Francisco, the coast. We’ve become largely the flyover country,” he said. “It seems like we’re put down and they can’t understand why, just because they can’t understand why we don’t think as they do, that there is something wrong with us. And that only fuels the fire up for supporting someone like Trump, somebody that stands up, we believe he stands up for us.”
An Associated Press analysis of the counties with the most COVID-19 cases showed the overwhelming majority voted for Trump, seeming to suggest his base approved of the president’s handling of the pandemic despite people around them getting sick.
But more detailed analysis of those numbers in a study published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics last week shows Trump actually lost support from 2016 in the counties most impacted by COVID-19, even if he ultimately won those counties this election.
“Trump counties got hit most by COVID (per capita),” said study author Leonardo Baccini, because Trump voters are less likely to comply with policies like social distancing and mask wearing.
The study shows Trump lost enough votes in high-COVID suburbs, swing states including Michigan, and urban areas to impact the overall election outcome, Baccini said.
“If COVID-19 cases had been 5 percent lower, Trump would have retained the U.S. presidency for a second term,” the study concludes.
Not everyone agrees. Kondik with the UVA Center for Politics said polling pre-pandemic will likely end up being close to the final outcome of this election once all provisional ballots are counted. A Quinnipiac poll from Feb. 10 showed Biden beating Trump 50 to 43 percent if he became the Democratic nominee.
“That leads me to think COVID had essentially no effect on the election at all,” he said. “People were so dug in.”
Michigan was initially hit harder by the coronavirus than Ohio with hospitalizations peaking in mid-April. But in the month leading up to the election, both states were seeing surges in cases and hospitalizations. The biggest difference going into Election Day was confidence in local leadership.
Despite high profile incidents including a plot to kidnap her, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has remained popular in Michigan. An October Detroit News-WDIV-TV poll showed 59 percent of Michigan voters approved of the job she was doing, which improved to 61 percent when asked about her handling of the pandemic.
In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has an overall better approval rating, but has seen his popularity plummet within his own party over his handling of the pandemic.
“He has a higher approval rating with Democrats,” Martorano Miller said.
Fears that climbing COVID numbers in Ohio could lead DeWine to lock the state down again may have contributed to increased turnout among Trump’s base, she said.
Baccini said his research did not show any evidence that that pandemic had an impact on turnout, but more detailed analysis of that topic is needed, he said.
According to the study COVID-19 was the one issue that did result in some voters switching from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020.
“His mishandling of the pandemic was enough to lose the election,” Baccini said.
Contributing: Mike Stucka, Matt Wynn