Swing state: Michigan voters critical to presidential, U.S. Senate race outcomes

November 3, 2020

Faculty Q&A by Michigan News

Remote video URL

The country will pay close attention to what happens on Election Day in Michigan, where voters in this battleground state could determine the outcome of the presidential race and who represents them in the U.S. Senate.

Jonathan Hanson, lecturer in statistics at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy, says the outcomes in this historic election are unknown during the pandemic—especially if all ballots are not counted on Tuesday.

Describe Michigan's electorate and the state's importance in the presidential election.

Democratic votes tend to come from the state's larger population centers, especially in the southeast region. In Metro Detroit, there are Wayne and Oakland counties, where Biden will likely run ahead of Trump by around 350,000 votes. The counties with large universities, as well as the Flint area, are also major Democratic strongholds.

Republican votes, by contrast, tend to come from the outlying parts of the state. Trump won 75 of the state's 83 countries, generally by fairly small margins that added up enough for him to win in 2016. The counties that produced the most votes for Trump were Macomb and Monroe—both are places with many blue collar, noncollege-educated white voters who are Trump's core base.

Voters in Michigan know that this is a crucial state. With Trump winning the state in 2016 by only 11,000 out of 4.8 million total votes, it's clear that every vote counts. There have been constant campaign advertisements on television and radio, and the candidates or their representatives have often visited Michigan.

Why did Michigan turn sharply in Trump's favor during the 2016 presidential election vs. Hillary Clinton?

Although unemployment was low and declining throughout the Obama administration, wages have been stagnant. With manufacturing jobs going overseas, many families are struggling to get by. Trump's message was that unfair trade deals allowed other countries to take advantage of America and illegal immigration was costing people jobs. These messages were appealing to his base.

What factor could tip the scale for one candidate since Biden and Trump have both made late campaign visits to Michigan?

Even before the COVID virus came, Trump was headed for a very tough reelection battle. His approval rating seems to be anchored at around 42% throughout his presidency. He was never really challenged by any significant crisis. Then COVID hit.

As we approach the election, the number of cases is climbing to record daily levels, a reminder of how poorly he has managed this crisis.

Trump has casted doubt over the election's legitimacy and asked supporters to "watch" the polls. Are you concerned about voter intimidation and voter suppression at the polls?

This is a significant concern. The Michigan Secretary of State, who is the head of elections, unsuccessfully tried to ban the carrying of weapons into polling stations. On the other hand, about half of voters have already voted by mail, and it seems to be Republicans that are more inclined to vote at the polls on Election Day.

There is a strong possibility that the country will not know who won the presidential race on Election Night. If the results are contested, do you fear political violence nationwide and in Michigan?

There are scenarios in which things could spiral out of control. Much depends on whether Trump would accept defeat. The Republicans have sent very strong signals that they plan to use the courts to try to stop the counting of mailed-in ballots, and the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court has shown a surprising willingness to intervene in state election administration. If that were to happen, there could be very large protests against Trump. We've already seen many militia members show up at these protests with weapons, getting into an altercation and killing protesters in Wisconsin.

There seems to be a countless number of advertisement buys for Michigan's U.S. Senate race candidates. Why is this happening? 

The Senate race between (Democrat) Gary Peters and (Republican) John James is one of the most hotly contested races in the country. It's only one of two Senate seats where Republicans feel that they have a chance to defeat a Democratic incumbent. And one of the critical issues that will be decided in this election is control over the U.S. Senate. And among all of the things that we're looking at, the one that seems to be the most up for grabs in terms of the competitiveness of a lot of different races. The national attention has been focused on Michigan and fundraising dollars have been flowing in. This will be the most expensive senate race in Michigan's history—and that's why we're seeing nonstop commercials on television.

In general, what do you expect on Election Night? 

One of the things that I think is most important about this election is that we allow time for the votes to be counted correctly and properly. There's not a hurry. The media like to declare a winner on Tuesday night, (but) the vote counting process could go on for some number of days—and especially this year with the pandemic when so many people have mailed in their votes. It just takes a lot longer to process those ballots, so let's just hold our breaths. Be patient. Let the vote counting happen. Some politicians may be out there, demanding for the process to be accelerated or cut short. We should just be happy that our democracy is working as it should and are all our votes count.