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What The Michigan Primary Says About What Could Happen In November


Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up wins last night in Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and Michigan, the state with the most delegates. Michigan has symbolic importance for both campaigns. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won the primary there in 2016. And later that year, Donald Trump was the first Republican in decades to win that state in the general election.

To talk about what the results from Michigan last night might signal for November, we called up Zach Gorchow. He is the editor of Gongwer News Service, and he joins us from Lansing, Mich.

Hi there.


SHAPIRO: To start, can you give us an example of a Michigan county that went big for Sanders in 2016 and Biden won it this time around?

GORCHOW: One that really jumps out - and it's a very small number of votes, but the percentage change was so big - was a little county in Michigan's upper peninsula called Luce County. Sanders won that county by 26 percentage points four years ago, and he lost it by 24 percentage points this time. I mean, that is...


GORCHOW: ...An astonishing 50-point swing. Now, again, we're talking about a very small number of voters, but this was indicative of a lot of counties across the state.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Like, what's going on in Luce County that might reflect something larger about the state?

GORCHOW: You know, it's a county that I think - clearly Hillary Clinton was very toxic. These are white, working-class voters, not high income, tend to be mostly folks with high school diplomas, not college degrees. Biden clearly is acceptable in a way that Hillary Clinton wasn't. And I think that's probably true of a lot of these more rural counties around the state which were so essential to Sanders' victory four years ago.

SHAPIRO: And were they also essential to Donald Trump's victory in the general election? I mean, do you sense that this is a larger shift?

GORCHOW: So they absolutely were critical. He put up unheard-of margins in these counties four years ago. I am not convinced that this somehow signals some kind of a shift of these areas back to the Democrats. You know, if you look at the 2018 midterm, these were areas that got redder, more Republican, even as Democrats were sweeping the state of Michigan. So it would really surprise me if Democrats suddenly made big gains out there.

SHAPIRO: So if we ask the question, was 2016 a shift in Michigan against Democrats or against Hillary Clinton specifically, do last night's results give us any indication?

GORCHOW: I think what we saw last night is a continuation of this realignment that's happening in Michigan and all around the country, where areas that are - tend to be a little higher income, tend to have lots of voters with bachelor's degrees are shifting hard to the Democrats. These were the voters who carried Democrats to a big victory in Michigan in 2018. And these were areas where Biden won by much greater numbers than Hillary Clinton did four years ago.

So we're talking about, you know, suburbs of Detroit like Oakland County, the Grand Rapids area. These were areas where Biden ran really, really, really well much better than Hillary Clinton. These also are areas where Democrats seem to be ascendant.

SHAPIRO: So if I understand you correctly, it's not that the pendulum in 2016 swung towards Trump and is now swinging back towards Democrats. This is a fundamental long-term realignment where wealthier historically Republican voters are shifting towards the Democrats, and more blue collar historically Democratic voters might have shifted long-term towards the Republicans.

GORCHOW: I mean, if you look back at the first Obama midterm, Republicans in Michigan started winning in places they had struggled in rural, white working class, sort of ancestral union Democratic areas. And then with the election of Trump, now we're seeing Democrats making big gains in these one-time Republican areas. The fact that Joe Biden is almost certain to be heading the Democratic ticket seems likely to continue that trend, and it's going to be fascinating to watch.

SHAPIRO: Zach Gorchow is editor of the Gongwer News Service in Michigan.

Thanks for speaking with us.

GORCHOW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.