Biden won Detroit — but Dems have more work ...

Biden won Detroit — but Dems have more work to do to boost voter turnout

Why the city delivered fewer votes for Biden than Clinton, the suburbs’ role in the story of minority turnout and what comes next for Dems.

Democrats canvass to engage voters and increase turnout in Detroit ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at Detroit Action’s Just F*ckin Vote festival, Oct. 18. Credit: Dan Cox, courtesy Detroit Action

A day after the presidential election, when Michigan was called for President-elect Joe Biden, celebratory social media posts praised Detroit for its role in delivering a decisive victory in the swing state. 

“Let it never be forgotten that Detroit showed up when America needed it. The blackest city in America. Put some respect on its name and it’s people,” tweeted “Veep” actor and Detroit native Sam Richardson. 

But the data shows a more complicated picture of Biden’s Detroit victory. As unofficial results rolled in, we learned the Motor City’s voting patterns had not in fact dramatically changed since the previous presidential election. Voter turnout had only grown by about one point. And while Biden won Detroit by an overwhelming 94.5% — almost 234,000 votes — he still received nearly 1,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. 

Political experts and grassroots organizers we spoke to noted demographic changes in the region and highlighted the importance of the minority vote from communities surrounding Detroit. But they also suggested the Biden campaign failed to excite Detroit voters and connect with them about pressing issues in their daily lives. Most agreed: if Michigan Democrats want to sustain their wins in the coming years, they need to pay closer attention to the state’s largest voting ground — starting now. 

“If you’d asked me before the 2020 election what would be a key to Biden winning Michigan, I would have said that turnout in Detroit would have to go up,” said Tom Ivacko, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. “Instead it was flat, and I think the Democratic Party has to be concerned about that.”

Minority turnout isn’t just a Detroit story

Democratic political strategist Adrian Hemond, CEO of Lansing-based political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said the real turnout story was everywhere else. 

“Turnout in Detroit looked very normal, and voters delivered huge margins for President-elect Biden and Senator [Gary] Peters, but it was turnout everywhere else that was exceedingly high,” he said, pointing to suburban communities in Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw Counties where Biden registered significant gains over Trump and his predecessor. 

Voting patterns in Metro Detroit as a whole paint a more accurate picture of the minority vote amidst Detroit’s demographic changes in the last decade, said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that steered a major get-out-the-vote campaign in the city. 

According to a coalition of Black-led grassroots organizations including Detroit Action, Black voter participation in Wayne County rose three points from 2016 to 2020.

Biden won 67,630 more Wayne County votes than Clinton did in 2016, 90,912 more in Oakland, 49,244 more in Macomb and 28,647 more in Washtenaw.

“Detroit city is facing a population decrease because of a number of different macro factors, whether it’s foreclosure or the ramifications of the recession, there is a flight out of the city and those things have had an impact on the electorate,” Snyder told Detour. 

Hemond also cautioned against using Detroit city as the proxy for understanding how communities of color voted in Michigan. While 78.6% of Detroit’s population is Black, that’s just a little over a third of the Black population statewide.

To be sure, predominantly white suburban voters in various parts of the state showed up in large numbers to swing the state, but minority voters in southeast Michigan also played a key role in delivering Biden’s win. 

While the latest census data will depict these migration trends more accurately, it’s apparent that more affluent, college-educated people of color are now moving to suburbs as much as white voters do, he said. 

U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for 2016 showed the Black population declining in Wayne County as a whole, while Macomb and Oakland counties recorded increases in their Black and Asian populations. 

“The suburbs in Southeast Michigan, particularly the Wayne County suburbs and the southern Oakland County suburbs, are frankly not as white as they used to be, and so that’s part of the story of minority turnout — it’s not just minority turnout in the city of Detroit, which was reasonably normal, but it’s all the minority turnout outside the city of Detroit,” Hemond said.

This election was all about Trump

Adolph Mongo, a veteran Detroit-based political expert and radio host, told Detour that Detroiters who did come out to vote, did so to vote out Trump, more than to support Biden particularly.

“It was a victory for the Democrats — even if you win by 1 vote you win — but it certainly wasn’t a mandate [compared to 2016] and that tells us we just got to do better,” Mongo said.

Most presidential elections for an incumbent have been a referendum on his first term, said Hemond. “And people had very very strong feelings about Donald Trump, they either supported him very strongly, or they opposed him very strongly and [that’s] what drove the high levels of turnout in this election,” he added.

In fact, the Republican Party didn’t even adopt a new platform this year, Ivacko pointed out. “They really made policy issues secondary to President Trump and his approach to governing.” 

Overall, while Trump lost by a wide margin in Metro Detroit, he did register some gains in terms of raw votes. In Detroit alone, he still won 5,000 more votes than he did in 2016. 

“Now what worked for Trump was straight up fear-mongering — he really talked to his base,” Detroit-based political expert Steve Hood told Detour. “I really think him coming into the state…especially in the days before the elections, really helped his campaign — landing in Air Force One and all that stuff — people saw that and that really turned his base out.”

Trump also managed to raise support among Black voters, Ivacko pointed out. Nationally, NBC’s exit polls showed that 80% of Black men supported Joe Biden, down from 82% for Clinton in 2016 and significantly lower than support for former President Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.

Snyder said this in part has to do with the Trump campaign’s communication strategy. 

“I think a lot of the folks who did vote for Trump are racist, but I also do think that in this particular moment, Trump’s campaign was able to be better at branding and offer a simpler message to voters than the Biden campaign. And that’s where we need to look inward and figure out how do we also simplify and start at Ground Zero,” Snyder said. 

“Their spin on the pandemic was not that the pandemic is the problem,” he pointed out. “Their argument was that the pandemic is getting in the way of the economy, and that played into economic anxiety that a lot of folks feel, especially Black voters.”

detroit action staff members at voter turnout event in detroit
Detroit Action staff members at the Just F*ckin Vote festival, aiming to raise voter turnout in the city. Credit: Dan Cox, courtesy Detroit Action

Strategists suggest Biden’s ground game was weak in Detroit 

In Detroit, especially, the Michigan Democratic Party’s heavy reliance on anti-Trump messaging was not enough to woo Detroiters. 

“People that live in a city that don’t have water, that don’t have a job, that don’t get police protection — they’ve not voted for Donald Trump, they’ve not voted for anyone because they don’t feel like anyone cares about them or that any of this will matter to their lives,” said Mongo. He compared the showing this election to 2008 and 2012 when Obama drew voting lines around the block at several precincts in the city. 

Nicole Small, vice chair of the Detroit City Charter Commission, attributed the flat voter turnout to a lackluster Democratic ground game in the city. 

“There’s one thing about the city of Detroit — you have to touch the voters — they want that type of engagement, and here, we struggled to get yard signs all the way up until October. It was a ghost campaign,” she said. “People who had been voting Democratic for decades were calling me and saying, ‘Nicole, could you give me a yard sign? What is going on? Who’s running this campaign?’”

Small was initially focused on raising awareness about Proposal N, the $250 million blight bond on the Detroit ballot, but started to actively engage voters for the presidential election in September when she didn’t see a robust initiative or engagement plan from the Michigan Democrats and Biden campaign. 

This disconnect with voters was particularly on display when Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris came to town. Small said they mainly stuck to canvassing in more affluent neighborhoods of the city, like in Northwest Detroit. 

“They didn’t really touch the east side or an area like Brightmoor — where people have been really impacted by water shutoffs, or lead in the water, or displaced by unaffordable housing and unemployment, and aren’t getting the extra $600 stimulus money — those are the poverty-stricken areas they should have gone to,” Small said. “They should have talked to the families that have been shut off from Detroit’s resurgence, who don’t know how they’re going to survive this pandemic.”

Snyder too felt that while the Democrats successfully distinguished Biden from Trump, they didn’t do enough to help him stand out within the Democratic party. 

“They have not done a really great job of saying how the Biden administration will be different from the Obama or Clinton administration, and I think those are things that concern a lot of voters, like what are [we] doing differently, compared to all the other times, because this is the most important election of our lives?’” said Snyder. 

Black organizers picked up the slack

On Nov. 12, several Black-led Michigan organizations held a press conference on the historic Black voter turnout in Michigan. Detroit Action, Mothering Justice, Michigan United, Michigan Liberation and MOSES said the Democrat win in Michigan comes on the backs of the hard work of grassroots organizations more than the party’s own campaign efforts. Across Wayne County, they said voter participation among Black voters rose from 58% in 2016 to 61% in 2020 — an increase of 86,000 voters. 

“When you think about the work that our organizations collectively did, we spoke to more people in Michigan than the Democratic Party,” Snyder said at the meeting. 

He later told Detour the numbers prove Black and brown voters — and Detroiters — will show up and vote, but that it will require careful planning to increase that number and eat into the vote share that Trump received. 

“That’s what our community organizations really have to think about — is how do we build the pipeline and the infrastructure to get the folks that weren’t interested in this election, how do we engage them and what are the things that they care about that they want to see talked about,” Snyder said. 

Mongo wonders how, moving forward, Democrats will involve communities of color and affirm their promises to voters. 

“If it wasn’t for Black people, Biden would have been a three-time loser, and Black people voted out Trump because we couldn’t imagine another four years of this. So my concern is, is it just lip service they [the Democrats] are gonna pay us again, or are they really gonna make us a major part of this administration,” he said.

Alison Saldanha is a reporter and Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.