Counties Biden won. Infographic by Katelyn Kivel.
Counties Biden won.

These communities for the Biden-Harris ticket show the larger blue tide rising across Michigan. We look at each one.

MICHIGAN—Michigan’s turn away from President Donald Trump was born in 10 counties from the southeastern coast around Detroit to the northern coasts of the Upper Peninsula. 

These weren’t, by and large, the much-obsessed over “pivot counties” that voted twice for Obama and then voted for Trump in 2016. They mostly stayed with Trump in 2020. Instead, the momentum was driven from a few Democratic strongholds and a few traditional battleground counties. 

Each has its own election story to tell.

Infographic by Katelyn Kivel.

Saginaw County

The only pivot county to pivot to Biden, Saginaw has cemented its place as a battleground among battlegrounds. 

In 2016, 48.2% of Saginaw votes went to Donald Trump compared to 47.1% for his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton; whereas in 2020, it was 49.4% for Biden and 49.1% for Trump. That razor-thin margin will likely make Saginaw a hotly contested county in 2024. 

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Saginaw County Democrat Kitty Packard told MLive that Saginaw isn’t changing, Democrats are just starting to show up again.

“People stayed home [in 2016],” she said. “There was a problem with Hillary and rather than vote for her, and some of them did not want Trump either, they just stayed home.”

Kent County

Another major flip, perhaps the largest, came from perennial battleground Kent County. Home to Grand Rapids, Kent hews slightly toward Republican candidates in elections but turned out for Biden this year. 

Kent initially favored Trump, but as absentee votes (which take longer to count) were added to the total the county shifted blue.When all valid votes were counted, 52% of Kent voted for Biden.

While Kent tends to favor Republicans, Biden’s success wasn’t a massive shock, as CBS explained. In 2018, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer carried the county by a similar margin. Whether due to changing demographics or the close relationship between Whitmer and Biden, the 2020 campaign was able to replicate 2018’s success. 

Kalamazoo County

Kalamazoo largely stuck to it’s patterns of voting for a Democrat to the executive branch and a Republican to Congress. But Kalamazoo’s demographics have been changing as young professionals graduate from one of the city’s universities and settle in the county. And young voters tend to vote progressive.

Locals call it the Kalamaglue Effect. Born largely of just the trends that impact people’s lives in young adulthood, major college towns tend to have a ‘sticky’ nature on their young professionals who lay down roots in their community. That effect has been in full force in recent years.

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WMUK, Kalamazoo’s NPR affiliate, pointed to the story of David Feaster who came to the heart of Kalamazoo County for college and never left. He found the area to be affordable and thought his voice was really heard in the community. 

“I ended up meeting a partner, falling in love, buying a house, the things that you do when you feel comfortable and established in a place,” he said.

Photo by Brian Rozman.

Ingham County

A college county, Ingham is home both to Michigan’s capital city Lansing and Michigan State University in East Lansing. 

To say Ingham is a civically engaged community might be an understatement, but it only grew more civically engaged during the 2020 election, where it ranked among the top locations in the state for same-day voter registration. 

The ‘Gander also saw local nonprofit organizations including MSU fraternities and the NAACP helping provide voters with everything from personal protective equipment to pizza as they wanted in lines at East Lansing’s City Hall. 

Marquette County

The island of blue in the Upper Peninsula and the lone Democratic stronghold for Yoopers, Marquette followed it’s traditional voting patterns as well and stood out among the backdrop of Trump voters around it. 

The Upper Peninsula in general tends to be an easy win for Republicans, as St. Ignace Mayor Connie Litzner told Bridge. She said their support for Republicans is rooted in what they like to do, like hunting, and how they want to live: left alone.

But Marquette regularly bucks that trend, tending to vote for Democratic candidates for office. 

Leelanau County

South of the Mackinac Bridge but no less considered “up north” by most Michiganders, Leelanau County is the ‘pinky finger’ of the Mitten, reaching out into Lake Michigan and forming part of the bay around Traverse City. 

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Jim Muennich of Suttons Bay told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that though Leelanau is a more Republican-leaning county he wasn’t surprised with the results, and noted that further down the ballot the county still supported Republican candidates. He also said that he doesn’t believe there was any fraud or cheating in the counting process. 

“This is like the Super Bowl,” he said. “It’s like a blood sport.”

Washtenaw County

Home to the main campus of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw set new turnout records in the 2020 election and saw almost all absentee ballots requested get returned. 

Their record turnout included almost 750 people who registered to vote on Election Day at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) in Ann Arbor.

Lines were long at the start of the day in Ann Arbor but quickly worked themselves down to manageable numbers as the day progressed. That was thanks, in part, to some preparation on the part of Ann Arbor. 

“I am very happy to report that our presence on the University of Michigan campus for the last 40-plus days allowed students the opportunity to register and vote well in advance of Election Day, at a convenient location and time for them,” Ann Arbor city clerk Jackie Beaudry told MLive. “Thanks to our partnership with UMMA, we did not experience the long waits at city hall in the final days of the election.”

Photo by Montez Miller.

Oakland County

Oakland was a bellwether for the Biden campaign as to how his message played in the suburbs. Suburban women were a key demographic fought over by both presidential candidates so Biden’s successes in Oakland spoke to his successes with that demographic overall. 

But the blue tide wasn’t limited to Biden. Only Oakland’s sheriff is an elected Republican in the county. 

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“”In the end, [voters] always get the final say,” Oakland County Executive David Coulter told the Oakland Press. “I respect that and I appreciate the their confidence in the job that I’ve been doing and their willingness to give me four more years to do it. We’ve laid out a lot of direction over the past year and a half, which I think was helpful to give the voters a chance to get to know me a little better and understand what my priorities are.”

This will be Coulter’s first full term as county executive, after being appointed to fill the position in August.

Oakland used to be a solid Republican stronghold but has shifted blue since it broke for Obama in 2008, explains the New York Times. Oakland’s voter turnout impressed this year as well, surpassing it’s 2016 turnout by more than 100,000 votes. 

Genesee County

Home of the Flint Water Crisis, Genesee County has a lasting distrust of lax government protections and lackluster enforcement of environmental quality. The Flint Water Crisis is still an everyday reality more than six years after the day it began. 

Flint residents are resilient, but not without fun. Residents often identify themselves as ‘Flintstones’, a reference to the Hannah Barbara cartoon set in a prehistoric town called Bedrock. 

“The word ‘bedrock’, it’s so easily relatable to anybody in our community because they also can identify with it,” Jason Trice, owner of Bedrock Apparel, told The ‘Gander. “And then when you look at how strong and resilient we are as a city, as a community.”

That strength and resilience showed up on Tuesday, with more than 200,000 Flintstones and other Genesee residents turning out to the polls. 

Photo by Montez Miller.

Wayne County

The home of Detroit and largest population center in Michigan, Detroit had a massive total of absentee and early votes leaving it one of the last places to finish counting votes on Wednesday. 

In August, Detroit got help troubleshooting Election Day problems and for this election worked closely with the Secretary of State to ensure a smooth process. The city assigned most city resources to the counting effort after polls closed. 

Though Detroit saw a post-election protest, both voting and the count itself proceeded smoothly and professionally in Michigan’s largest city, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

READ MORE: An Inside Look at What Actually Happened at Detroit’s TCF Ballot Counting Center

“We understand that the eyes of the nation are on Michigan right now and our voters and these ballots,” she told CBS. “As an election law attorney myself, who spent close to two decades working on election law issues and ran a law school, we’re very familiar with the process and legality of our process and have great confidence in it and we’re ready to defend it.”

Photo by Franz Knight

Detroit wasn’t the only city driving Wayne County’s overwhelmingly Democratic vote. 

Dearborn has a strong Arab-American community and is steeped in multiculturalism. When visiting the city in the late days of the campaign, Dr. Jill Biden pledged Dearborn, and Arab-Americans more broadly, would have their voices heard. And she explained examples of what that means for Dearborn.

“It means providing resources to help your small businesses recover from the crises and creating millions of good-paying jobs,” she said, touting Shatila, a staple business in the city. “But he can’t do it without you. Your community matters to this campaign.”

The Other 73 Counties

Though only ten counties broke in favor of Biden, according to a New York Times analysis a majority of Michigan counties had stronger Democratic turnout than they did in 2016—meaning that though only these ten counties flipped, Michigan in general saw a swell of support for Biden.

Because Michigan’s electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the state’s popular vote and not the person with the most counties won, each county that changed it’s voting percentages in either direction made a difference for their candidates. 

Of those counties, only the middle of the state saw noteworthy rightward shifts, most impactful in Bay County to the west of the Thumb. Those red shifts were more than offset by the major blue shifts on the west side of the state.