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How Metro Detroit voters shifted in the 2020 elect...

How Metro Detroit voters shifted in the 2020 election

From a resounding Biden victory in Oakland County to turnout gains across the board.

Voting is an act of democracy. It’s also a snapshot in time, when we get a glimpse into what’s happening in our region. After the marathon covering the election last week, Detour staff took a step back to look at how the presidential election went across Metro Detroit, and what’s changed since 2016. Here’s what we found.

Oakland County rode the blue wave — with more than just the win for Biden. 

“It was a resounding victory, there’s no doubt about it,” Vaughn Derderian, chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party, told Detour, ticking off the wins for blue, from President-elect Joe Biden and on down the ticket. “We didn’t lose any of the seats we won in ‘18. We didn’t lose a majority on County Commission. Dave Coulter was elected County Executive,” he added. And yes, Joe Biden won Oakland County by 14 points

While liberal-leaning cities like Berkley and Ferndale helped deliver the once-Republican county for Biden, Derderian pointed out a “donut hole-sized area in Pontiac” that had noticeably low turnout during the 2018 midterm elections. This year, community organizers and Dems like Vaughn ran voter registration drives and knocked on doors throughout Pontiac, contributing to double-digit turnout increases in several Pontiac precincts. “The community said: we are not giving up,” Derderian declared. “We are not giving an inch of ground. The way that we won is that we all showed up when it counted.” 

Metro Detroit saw high, high turnout — on both sides.  

Although Biden won more votes than 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton across Metro Detroit, more voters also came out in support of President Donald Trump. 

Biden took 587,074 votes in Wayne County, more than 67,000 more votes than Clinton received in 2016. But while Trump trailed behind in this Democratic stronghold, he still won 35,000 more votes here than he did four years ago. In reliably blue Washtenaw County, Trump gained about 6,000 additional votes than in 2016, but Biden also gained. He won the county by more than 46 points, compared to Clinton’s 41-point win. 

Macomb still went for Trump — but with a big shift.

The data from Macomb County might be the most surprising. Yes, we’re talking about the land that birthed the “Reagan Democrats,” home of seemingly endless GOP rallies this season. Trump won Macomb County by 7.9 points, and recorded a growth of nearly 40,000 more votes this season — but that’s a significant narrowing of his 2016 lead of 11.6 points. Voters on both sides headed to the polls in high numbers, and the county cast 22% more votes in the presidential race than in 2016.

And Biden outright won or gave Trump a run for his money in East Side communities like Center Line, Clinton Township, Eastpointe, Mount Clemens, Roseville and Warren. Yup, Biden won Warren. “The president’s failure to match or exceed his 2016 performance, in a county tailor-made to his politics, was part of a broader letdown in his efforts to juice white working-class votes across the board,” writes POLITICO’s Tim Alberta.  

Detroit’s turnout was a little higher than four years ago — but lower than in 2012 and 2008. And surprisingly, Trump gained.

On Election Day, City Clerk Janice Winfrey gave an optimistic prediction of 53–55% turnout, but official numbers failed to deliver. Voter turnout in Detroit this year hit 49.6%. That’s higher than 2016, but lower than 2012 (51%) and 2008 (53.2%), when Obama’s election marked “a 20- or 30-year high” for the city.

Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Michigan State University, told Bridge Magazine that Detroit’s turnout this year is in line with recent federal and state elections. Nationwide, turnout in this year’s election is the highest in recent history with 148 million votes have been tallied so far. That’s nearly two-thirds of eligible American voters, and the highest turnout since Richard Nixon was elected in 1968. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s the highest turnout ever.

Biden’s overwhelming support in Detroit helped turn the tide of the election in Michigan, which he won with just 50.5% of the vote. But the 5.06% of Detroit voters who chose Trump is up from 3.11% in 2016, an increase of almost 5,000 votes.

Biden received about 1,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Despite the uptick, Trump has made several claims about election fraud in Detroit and his campaign has continued to file suit against the state

The under-30 age group voted early, and overwhelmingly supported Biden.

The change to voting habits this year was significant for young voters. As of Nov. 7, 2020, election data from Tufts University showed 13% of Michigan votes came from young people (ages 18-29). They also supported Joe Biden by more than 27 points. 

University of Michigan professor and college voting trend expert Edie Goldenberg told the Detroit Free Press there are two reasons why younger voter turnout was higher this year: First is the 2018 passage of Proposal 3, which allows Michigan voters the option to register before or on Election Day and the ability to vote absentee without a specific reason. Across the state, early voting among young Michiganders grew nearly sevenfold (or 688%) compared to 2016. 

Second, Goldenberg said college students are more engaged about major issues like the environment, racial injustice and education. Issues like unemployment, COVID-19 and student loan debt were among the factors pushing first-time, Gen-Z voters to the polls. Some young Metro Detroit voters felt inspired by their parents’ passion for voting, while others were eager to move away from the divisive climate created by the Trump administration. Mark Gearan, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, said, “Young Americans are seeing first-hand how their government impacts their day-to-day lives and they are ready to make their voice heard in this election.” 


Allison Jacobs, Maggie McMillin and Alison Saldanha contributed reporting.


Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit

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