The one county that tipped Michigan to Trump, and why ignoring it is not an option
Posted November 17, 2016
While it's a little early to declare with any certainty what tipped the election for Donald Trump, it may have been won in America’s ailing coal, steel and auto manufacturing industrial heartland, where Trump’s promises of economic renewal struck an emotional nerve.
In Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the decisive votes were cast by white men and women without college degrees — a group Trump won nationally by 39 points. Romney won that group by a much narrower 26 points over Obama in 2012.
Trump's 13-point boost with working-class whites without college degrees is a seismic difference. Even a slight shift in a group that large can shake an election.
The tremors were perhaps best seen in places like Macomb County, Michigan, a working-class area north of Detroit on the shores of Lake St. Clair, historically a home for auto workers and a Democratic stronghold with a strong union base.
With over 413,000 votes in a state where the election was decided by 12,000 votes, the county may be said to have single-handedly swung Michigan to Trump.
Many analyses of Trump voters, including one by the Deseret News, have focused on rural backwaters in Appalachia, fading “small towns in Pennsylvania” that then-Sen. Barack Obama described in 2008, where “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them.”
But Macomb County doesn’t fit this picture.
Far from a backwater, this community sits on a lesser Great Lake in a spot pulsing with American industry and trade routes. Unemployment stands at a reasonable 5.2 percent, and median household income is 10 percent higher than Michigan as a whole.
With a national electorate again sharply divided down the middle, the popular-vote loser entering the White House, protests in the streets and a Democratic party reeling from historic losses, it might be argued that a major part of any effort to understand the moment and rebuild political and social bridges needs to start on the edge of Lake St. Clair.
Though much emaciated, the economic heart of this Detroit region is still the auto industry. Obama is still revered there for having bailed out the industry in 2009, and his local message in 2012 was that he had “saved the auto industry and killed Osama bin Laden.”
Macomb County rewarded him for caring, rejecting the cerebral and patrician Romney, whose appeal to “let Detroit go bankrupt” had been much maligned, if misunderstood.
But Macomb County is much more than factory workers with lunch pails, said Doug Ross, 74, a Michigan Democratic activist who represented a neighboring state Senate district for years, later serving as assistant secretary of labor.
“These are people doing all kinds of things earning middle-class incomes,” Ross said. “If you’re looking for trades — for painters, plumbers, electricians — tradesmen who are skilled and well paid, you’ll find them here.”
There’s even a complimentary term for the skilled workers who come out of Macomb. Some call them “586ers,” after the area code, Ross said.
But not all is well in Macomb County.
"These are people who are responding to real economic issues," said Morley Winograd, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
Household income may look good on paper in Macomb County, Winograd said, but the decline of unions and the loss of industry have put workers on edge. Pensions are gone and retirement looming, health insurance costs are spiraling, and core industries remain weak. The slow economic recovery from the crash of 2009 was never really strong here.
"Many of these people are in their 40s and 50s, working harder and earning less, with less job protection, struggling to pay for their kids' education,” Winograd said.
It’s actually not a shock that Macomb County flipped to Trump. In fact, this is not the first time Macomb County has made headlines in presidential elections.
After Reagan crushed Mondale in Macomb County in 1984, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg set up shop there, seeking to understand how the heart of the Democrats' New Deal coalition had gone the other way. Greenberg would return to Macomb repeatedly for the next 20 years, making, in his words, a "career" out of studying it.
Greenberg's analysis focused on social, economic and safety concerns, all of which left openings for centrist Democrats, and it caught the attention of Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, who hired him en route to the White House.
Together they helped forge what became Clinton’s “Third Way,” a successful effort to win back Macomb County Democrats by addressing their hopes and fears without direct concessions to racial animus. Key parts of the Clinton agenda, including mandatory minimum sentences and other tough crime policies, can be traced, at least initially, to Greenberg’s study of Macomb County.
Clinton's Macomb County strategy did not sit well with the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Many saw efforts to win over blue-collar white voters there as racially tinged and morally tainted "dog whistle" politics.
It was thus with obvious satisfaction that Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, wrote a New York Times op-ed after the 2008 election to say "goodbye" to Macomb County.
He would now turn his attention to Macomb's neighbor, Oakland County, a wealthy suburb once reliably Republican but which gave Obama a stunning 15-point victory over McCain in 2008.
Oakland County, he announced, is the “New America.”
“Over the past two decades, Oakland County began to change, as an influx of teachers, lawyers and high-tech professionals began to outnumber the county’s business owners and managers,” Greenberg wrote. “Macomb has been slow to welcome racial diversity, but almost a quarter of Oakland’s residents are members of various racial minorities.”
Democratic strategists now began to see white middle-class voters as increasingly irrelevant to their coalition, said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank, the organizational heir to the original Clinton centrism, which sees its mission as tugging the Democratic party toward the political center.
So when Hillary Clinton hit the campaign trail in 2016, said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, she put the new wisdom into play, focusing on the Obama Coalition, the New America, including minorities, young people and single women.
“They didn’t understand how exposed they were,” Galston said, having turned their backs on a critical portion of the electorate, whose size and passions they now misjudged.
The difficulty, for either party, in trying to figure out what happened in Macomb and to either repeat it or fix it, is that real solutions to the area's systemic economic problems are few.
If President-elect Trump and the GOP are going to turn these voters into reliable Republicans, they’ll first have to deliver on some unpromising promises, beginning with the notion that he can bring back American manufacturing jobs.
"Someone will come up with programs that speak to working-class America," Winograd said. "If the GOP does it, they will be able get past Trumpism and maintain a white working-class constituency."
But forging coherent policies that both appeal to working-class voters and have long-term beneficial impact on the economy is no easy matter.
“What I fear is that the underlying economy is changing, these communities are losing population and jobs, and I don’t think Trump or any policy is going to reverse that,” said Jeffrey Stonecash, an emeritus professor of political science at Syracuse University.
Stonecash said the situation today reminds him of the end of the 19th century, when economic and agrarian upheavals were marginalizing American farmers and skilled craftsmen, hollowing out small towns and driving workers to the cities.
“It was a nasty, brutal transition,” Stonecash said.
In the near term, Galston said, a massive stimulus bill or a tariff barrier against Chinese steel could create a temporary “sugar high” for the steel, aluminum or construction industries.
And the long-term effects of protectionism or raw economic stimulus are likely to be disappointing. “What worries me,” Galston said, “is what happens in three years, when there are no more manufacturing jobs than there were when Trump began.”
“These voters bought Trump’s diagnosis and his prescription,” Galston said. “The diagnosis was that they were being screwed by political elites on immigration and trade. And the prescription was that if he reversed course in those areas and got really tough, the economic trends will reverse and manufacturing jobs will start flooding back to the Midwest.”
“It’s not that Trump wasn’t offering them anything,” Galston said. “He was making them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The problem was, it is very unlikely to work.”
If so, then the riddle of the working-class white voter will resurface in years ahead, with voters are perhaps more disillusioned, but still looking for answers.