What Michigan’s Lopsided Primary Results May Portend for the General Election

by Dante Chinni March 11, 2020

Bernie Sanders had a tough Tuesday night this week with primary losses in several states including Mississippi, Missouri and Idaho. But viewed through the American Communities Project the Vermont senator’s defeat in Michigan looked especially problematic with a key segment of the electorate: blue-collar voters.

Sanders lost every county in the state this week, but he faced especially hard hits in the counties in the ACP that tend to hold large populations of white voters without college degrees. In Michigan, those groups include Graying America, Rural Middle America, Working Class County, and the Middle Suburbs.

In each one of those county types, Sanders actually received fewer votes than he did four years ago — even as the number of votes cast climbed sharply. At the same time, former Vice President Joe Biden won many more votes than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 primary.

Three Key Trends

The numbers suggest a few important trends as the primaries roll on and general election season nears.

  • First, the Sanders campaign’s hopes of bringing together young, college-age voters and older, working-class voters into one big movement seems unlikely.
  • Second, the 2016 phenomenon that showed Sanders did well in the kinds of communities that ultimately voted for Donald Trump in November seems to have fizzled.
  • Third, the Michigan results, especially the bump in turnout in these counties around the state, suggest that Biden might be the candidate to bring blue-collar voters back to the Democrats in 2020.

Parsing Results of Three County Types

The numbers show stark splits.

In 31 Graying America counties in Michigan, scattered around the northern half of the state, about 15,000 more voters turned out in this year’s primary compared to 2016. But at the same time, the number of votes for Sanders fell by about 7,500 compared to 2016, while Biden’s numbers beat Hillary Clinton’s by more than 15,000.

In the state’s 17 Working Class Country counties, about 20,000 more voters turned out in 2020 than did in 2016. But Sanders got about 9,800 fewer votes from those counties than he did in 2016. At the same time, Biden beat Hillary Clinton’s numbers by more than 21,000.

And in the state’s 19 Rural Middle America counties, there were 58,000 more votes cast in the 2020 primary than there were in 2016. Sanders received 14,000 fewer votes than he did 2016. Biden received 51,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Those three county groups are largely rural and small-town communities, and in every one them, 67 in all, Sanders saw a drop — in each his 2020 tally was lower than his 2016 number.

On the All-Important Middle Suburbs

But Sanders’s blue-collar troubles extended beyond rural communities. His vote totals dropped across Michigan’s six Middle Suburb counties as well.

Those counties produced 57,000 more votes than they did in 2016, but Sanders received 13,500 fewer votes than he did four years ago. Biden, meanwhile, improved on Clinton’s tallies by more than 42,000 votes.

To be clear, Sanders didn’t do well anywhere in Michigan. Biden won every county. But in other county types in the state, Sanders at least saw small upticks in votes. The Sanders losses in these blue-collar counties were noteworthy.

Sanders’s blue-collar drops and, perhaps more important, Biden’s big increases in these places over Clinton’s 2016 vote may prove especially significant as the primaries continue.

Michigan was one of three Great Lakes states that Trump flipped in 2016 to win the election. In terms of demographics and community types, the state has a lot in common with the other two states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As we have noted on this site, the Middle Suburbs were especially crucial to Trump’s victory in 2016.

If Biden continues running up Michigan-like margins in those county types elsewhere, the message in the votes may be as much about November as it is about primary season.


Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

Learn More