Four years ago, Trump won the presidency on the outskirts of three states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – with a total of 77,744 votes. To use poker terminology, it was a kind of “inside straight,” a type of hand that seems to be brought together by luck rather than skill.
The story is not that Trump’s luck seems to have run out. The story is that Biden is ready to beat him with the exact same hand.
Wisconsin has counted all the ballots, and the end result puts Biden in the lead with around 20,500 votes – almost a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin with 22,748 votes.
In Michigan, the final ballots from highly democratic districts in Detroit are still counting. These will cushion Biden’s current leadership of 120,000 votes somewhat. Regardless of the final number, Biden appears destined to win the state by a few percentage points four years after Trump promoted Michigan with just 10,704 votes.
Pennsylvania will take the longest of the three to complete its count. Until Wednesday evening, Trump was still holding onto a shrinking lead of around 190,000 ballots. But with nearly a million ballots outstanding – the lion’s share of those coming from dark blue boroughs in Philadelphia and elsewhere – Trump’s lead is expected to shrink in the next 24 hours, then vanish entirely. How much Biden could ultimately win is unclear. But it may not be much more than Trump’s winning lead of 44,292 votes four years ago.
When examining the election results from these states, I am intrigued by some similarities with the 2016 elections, which makes me all the more impressed by the key differences between the two campaigns and how the movement on the fringes of certain voting groups can tell the difference between a second term for Trump and a new Biden -Government will matter.
Here are three reasons Democrats are ready to sweep the Midwest’s three critical battlefield states and win back the White House.
1) Biden stopped Trump from scoring with working class whites
No location has received more political attention this year than Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s the birthplace of Biden, a town that’s an integral part of its brand as a seedy, bourgeois train driver. It’s also an ancestral democratic stronghold: Scranton and surrounding Lackawanna County are the embodiment of the old-school democratic coalition. Because of this, both Trump and Biden made regular stops in the area to pay attention to voters there and to saturate the local media market with ads and earned media.
In every campaign that included Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, Democrats carried Lackawanna County through comfortable (and sometimes huge) spreads. And then came Trump. He didn’t win the county, but he closed the void, from a 27-point Democratic win in 2012 to a 3-point win in 2016. That breakneck blow of 24 points caught the attention of every Pole in Pennsylvania .
Trump was in his re-election, confident that he would do even better this year in Lackawanna County. His team planned to add another 5 points to his appearance in 2016, officially flip the county, and continue to penetrate the dwindling base of white working-class supporters of the Democratic Party.
But the opposite has happened. Biden won Lackawanna County with 8 points. Instead of gaining 5 points for his performance in 2016, the president lost 8 points.
With Pennsylvania again destined to determine a percentage point or less, each of those lost votes in Lackawanna County will haunt the Trump campaign.
It is easy to pass these specific results on to Biden who is enjoying a home advantage. But that wouldn’t explain what happened in Macomb County.
Another symbolically important place, the Detroit suburbs, tried to test the president’s theory of how to boost his vote count in 2020. Trump’s team anticipated losses in upscale college voters and was determined to make bigger margins in civil communities like Macomb County’s.
Macomb is home to the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s and has moved steadily to the right in the last three presidential elections. Democrats wore it nearly 9 points in 2008 and 4 points in 2012, only to see Trump dominate the county with a 12-point win in 2012. There was real reason for optimism among Republicans in southeast Michigan that Trump could add another 3 or 4 points to that spread that fills in its margins in friendly territory.
Instead, the opposite happened – once again -.
Trump won Macomb County by 8 points and lost 4 points from 2016. This was arguably the most surprising result in Michigan, and it was highly symbolic: the president’s failure to match or exceed his 2016 performance in a county tailored to his policy , was part of a wider disappointment in its efforts to juice white working class voices across the board.
2) Biden peeled off Trump’s support in conservative suburbs
The suburbs outside of Milwaukee make up the most conservative metropolitan area in the country. Each of the three counties that surround the city – Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, the “WOW” counties – has voted Republicans with double-digit margins in every presidential election since 1968. These counties are each wealthy, exceptionally well educated, and north of 90 percent white.
In 2016, the president wore the WOW counties with yawning edges. Washington was decided with 40 points, Waukesha with 27 and Ozaukee with 19 points. (The Ozaukee result was particularly interesting: it was the closest race in generations, and yet no Democrat there had broken 40 percent of the vote in half a century.)
Four years later, Biden filled the void in all three. Trump won Washington with 38 points, Waukesha with 21 points and Ozaukee with 12 points. Biden’s share of the vote in Ozaukee? You guessed it: 43 percent.
In a vacuum, those sums don’t seem remarkable. But taken together – as an image of a suburb of Milwaukee and as a broader snapshot of affluent white suburbs in the Midwest – they are the difference between a President Trump and a President Biden.
According to the final (if not yet confirmed) election results in Wisconsin, Biden carried the state with just over 20,000 votes. With such a small loss, any number of things are key to the outcome. However, it’s hard to argue that Trump’s slip up in the suburbs of Milwaukee wasn’t the integral part of his Wisconsin defeat.
The same reality was evident in Michigan.
Livingston County, which is located on the outskirts of Detroit and Ann Arbor, has long been the most trusted source of Republican votes in the state. Four years ago, Trump had surpassed the ultra-conservative county by 30 points, and his team was hoping to match that feat in 2020.
However, there was reason to doubt it. Certain Livingston County’s dorm communities have grown wealthier over the past decade, attracting higher educated and high income households. Republicans wondered if Trump’s struggles in the more general suburbs would carry over to deeply conservative suburbs like Livingston County.
Sure enough. Trump carried Livingston County with 22.5 points against Biden. It’s a healthy margin no doubt, but it’s a dramatic drop in his performance against Clinton four years ago.
Edges are important in tight races. The story of 2020 in the Midwest and elsewhere was that Biden belittled the president’s margins in the conservative suburbs where Trump’s team believed he was safe.
3) Biden got black voters to sign up in large numbers
Some things in politics are pretty simple. This is one of those things: Clinton lost to Trump for not mobilizing black voters.
This was true on the battlefield map. However, this was particularly noticeable in the three defining states of the Midwest, not only because of their photo-finish results, but also because of the sizable black populations in the largest cities of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Let’s start with Milwaukee and the surrounding Milwaukee County, which is where most of Wisconsin’s black voters live. In 2012, Barack Obama won approximately 328,000 votes in Milwaukee County. Four years later, Clinton won less than 289,000 votes in Milwaukee County. The challenge for Biden wasn’t necessarily going back to that Obama 2012 number. Rather, at least the difference between these numbers should be divided. He did that and a few more: With all the votes counted, more than 317,000 people in Milwaukee County voted for the Democracy ticket, and Biden needed every one of them.
It was similar in Detroit, a city that is more than 80 percent black, and the Wayne County area. In 2012, Obama won nearly 596,000 votes in Wayne County. Four years later, Clinton won less than 520,000. Once again, the question in Michigan – as in Wisconsin – was whether Biden could get that number anywhere near this Obama 2012 number, even if it was unrealistic to get all the way there. Indeed, Biden could only Come all the way there. At this point, about 15 percent of Wayne County’s ballots are outstanding. But Biden has already won 568,000 votes there, far surpassing Clinton’s 2016 performance.
Finally, we have Philadelphia, a city with large numbers of black voters, and the Philadelphia County area. The Clinton case was less dry there. In 2012, Obama won around 557,000 votes in Philadelphia County, and Clinton passed that mark in 2016, winning 584,000 votes there. However, closer examination of the district-level data found that Clinton’s high turnout was in whiter and wealthier districts of the county as opposed to the city proper. Biden’s team knew he would need both to defeat Trump in 2020. While there is still some work to be done, it appears that Biden will beat both Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016 numbers in Philadelphia County: he has already referred 458,000 votes, and with hundreds of thousands of votes pending from the area he expects to get well into the 600,000 vote range.
Using only the largest cities and counties provides an incomplete window for black voter turnout, but the numbers are also shown with smaller black majority areas. In Flint, Michigan and the Genesee County area, the Democrats won from nearly 129,000 votes in 2012 to around 103,000 votes in 2016. This year? Biden received 120,000 votes in the county.
To win the presidency, Biden never needed the turnout and support of Obama-era black voters. All he needed was a significant improvement in Clinton’s performance in 2016.
He got just that – and with it, most likely, a four-year term as president.