In 'turnout explosion,' Michigan Democratic primary voters set record

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Turnout in Tuesday's presidential primary in Michigan surged as Democratic voters in polling places across the battleground state said they were motivated by a desire to take on President Donald Trump.

The final unofficial total turnout of 2.26 million fell short of 2016's record 2.5 million in 2016. 

But more than 1.5 million voters participated in the state's Democratic primary, in which former Vice President Joe Biden beat Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders by 16.5 percentage points. In a Wednesday morning statement, the Michigan Democratic Party labeled the turnout a "record" and "historic." 

"Last night, Michigan saw a turnout explosion, setting a record for votes cast in a Michigan Democratic primary and increasing turnout by over 28.8% over 2016," Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said in a statement. She added that Democratic voters showed they’re ready to hold Trump accountable in November.

People line up at Grosse Pointe Park's Precinct 4 Tuesday morning as they sign in to receive their ballots.

In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee since 1988 to carry Michigan. He won the state against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes.

Clinton lost Michigan's primary in March 2016 to Sanders. In that race, 1.2 million people voted. In the 2020 Democratic primary, 1.58 million people voted, according to unofficial results tracked by the Michigan Department of State.

In comparison, 682,451 Republicans voted Tuesday in a race dominated by Trump with nominal opposition, according to the unofficial results. Four years ago, 1.32 million people voted in the GOP primary when the party had a competitive race.

"Democrats' motivation to vote is through the roof," said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. "And it really has been since the 2016 election. This is really just a continuation of what we saw in the 2018 election."

In 2018, Democratic voters in Michigan flipped two U.S. House seats that had been held by Republicans and elected Democrats as governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

The turnout in the state's Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday was a record, according to the Michigan Democratic Party. In 2008 — a year when many states saw high Democratic primary turnout — Barack Obama, who went on to win the nomination, didn't contest Michigan.

An analysis of the results showed all 83 counties experienced an increase in turnout for the Democratic primary compared with four years ago. The jumps ranged from 4% to 65%.

Among those near the bottom were Tuscola County in the Thumb, which saw a 4% increase and Genesee County, home to Flint, which saw a 6% increase.

On the other end of the spectrum were northern Michigan's Alpena County and west Michigan's Ottawa County. Republican-controlled Ottawa County, which is home to Holland, had a 61% increase in participation in its Democratic primary compared with 2016. Alpena County had a 65% increase. 

In Oakland and Macomb counties in southeast Michigan — two counties that are key to Democrats' chances in November — Democratic turnout rose 44% and 33% respectively. In Wayne County, the state's largest county, turnout was up 15%.

In Livingston County, a county long dominated by Republicans that's in the battleground congressional district of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, Democratic primary turnout jumped 56%.

Michigan Democrats had been watching "an intense nomination fight with enough titillating twists, turns, characters and comebacks to qualify as a network mini-series, culminating in a two-person battle for the soul of the party they were told they got to decide," said John Sellek, a Republican and CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.

"If there wasn’t a higher turnout after all that, I would have been shocked," Sellek said. "The huge political battles help explain the president’s big numbers here as well. The bottom line is Michigan is deciding everything this year. And all sides are engaged."

Trump's 639,650 votes in Michigan's Republican primary was more than three times the total former President Barack Obama got in the Democratic primary here when he was running for re-election in 2012. It was also more than the 483,753 votes Trump got in the contested 2016 primary.

Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, shrugged off the Democratic results on Tuesday night.

"In the end, it doesn’t matter who emerges from their circus of a primary, President Trump’s record of success will carry him to victory here in Michigan and across our nation this November," Cox said in a statement.

But Democratic voters in multiple polling places in Michigan said it was a desire to find a candidate who could beat Trump that inspired them to cast a ballot Tuesday.

Steven Kirkwood stood outside the Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church Of God in Detroit and said he voted for Biden as other voters moved in and out of the polling place on Tuesday evening.

"I think he might be the tougher fighter," Kirkwood said of why he selected Biden.

Julie Rambo of Southfield also backed Biden. Inside her polling pace at Hope United Methodist Church, a line of about 25 people were waiting to vote at about 5:30 p.m.

"He’s steady," Rambo said of Biden. "I think he knows the world because he spent eight years doing this."

Michigan's March presidential primary was also the first under new voting rules that allowed people to register to vote on Election Day and that allowed people to vote absentee without an excuse. Voters approved the changes to the Michigan Constitution in 2018.

For Tuesday's primary, Democratic and Republican voters combined to cast 876,845 absentee ballots, according to the Michigan Department of State, an 89% increase over the total for the 2016 primary.

From left, Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Gov.  Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker at the Joe Biden campaign event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on Mar. 9, 2020.

While there is still "a lot of race to be run," Biden was able to put together the coalition on Tuesday that he'll need in November to win Michigan, said Hemond, the political consultant who has previously worked for Democrats in the Legislature.

Biden appeared to have won all 83 Michigan counties, according to unofficial results on Wednesday. He was able to win non-college educated white voters, black voters and college educated suburban white voters, Hemond said.

In Michigan's 2016 primary, Clinton won only 10 of the 83 counties against Sanders before losing in the general election.

"The key coalition of groups for Democrats is there if they run an appealing candidate," Hemond said.