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Opinion: Election recap: How Macomb and Oakland counties are shifting

David A. Dulio and John S. Klemanski

Now that the dust has (mostly) settled from Election Day, we can begin to do a deeper dive into the results and what they mean for our region and state. In southeast Michigan, the diverging political fortunes of Oakland and Macomb counties is a good place to start.

These two counties have played an important role in statewide election results and will continue to do so in election cycles to come. Each is moving in a different direction politically and becoming more solidly in support of opposing party camps.

Now that the dust has (mostly) settled from Election Day, we can begin to do a deeper dive into the results, the authors write.

In 2020, Oakland County continued its shift toward the Democratic Party that has been underway for years. The county used to be a reliable and large tranche of votes for the GOP; that is not the case any longer. In the early 2000s, Oakland was still voting for GOP candidates for countywide offices, sometimes by large margins.

At the federal level, however, Oakland had begun to swing to the Democrats as John Kerry carried the county by a slim margin over George W. Bush in 2004. Fast forward to 2012 — Barack Obama’s reelection year — when Republicans and Democrats split the countywide offices, while Obama won by roughly 8 points.

By the 2020 election, the Democratic shift may have been completed as Democrats swept the county at both the federal and county level (with the exception of sheriff). The most notable change here is in the county executive contest where, absent Patterson’s dominant presence, Democrat Dave Coulter captured the executive’s office.

Of course one could argue he also was able to leverage some incumbency advantages such as name recognition, having served in the office since he was appointed after Patterson’s passing.  At the federal level, Democrats continued their successes, comfortably carrying the presidential and U.S. Senate contests in the county.

Next door in Macomb County the opposite dynamic has been taking place, although the county’s shift has been more recent. Even as recently as 2012, Democrats were winning countywide offices; they also comfortably carried the presidential and U.S. Senate contests. While not experiencing the same demographic changes that Oakland has experienced, Macomb voters have had a more identifiable history of swing or split-ticket voting that occurred up into the 1980s and 1990s.

By 2020, however, it was the GOP that swept the county, including the presidential and senatorial contests. Donald Trump’s 2020 margin of victory in Macomb was slightly less than it was in 2016 but he garnered almost 40,000 more votes, although Republican victories for some of the county offices were by small margins. Interestingly, the only exception is sheriff — the same exception present in Oakland County results.

Why have these shifts taken place?

In Oakland, the shift may be due more to demographic and population shifts than political factors. Census data are clear in showing the county becoming more diverse demographically, and this usually brings with it political change as those in minority groups tend to vote more for Democrats than Republicans.

However, the political force of Trump’s candidacy also played a role. Many voters in suburban areas in Oakland County were turned off by Trump’s personality and style in 2020 more so than 2016. Interestingly, this may be more of a Trump effect than an overall GOP effect, as Senate candidate John James outperformed Trump in percentage of all county votes cast (43.8% to 42.3%) and raw votes (334,569 to 325,916). This possibly signals that many Oakland County voters are at least open to GOP candidates.

In Macomb County there may be a different cause for its shift toward the Republican Party: Trump’s candidacy. In 2016 Trump came to Michigan and campaigned on issues that spoke directly to many voters in Macomb County, including trade (i.e., NAFTA) and jobs (especially manufacturing jobs). This clearly resonated with voters in the county and it shows in the vote shifts between 2012 and 2016 (and 2020).

Will Macomb stay in the GOP camp? It is hard to say until we know if the GOP sticks with some of the policy positions that Trump advocated. But the county may not swing as frequently as it has in the past, and may not serve as a bellwether county in Michigan any longer.

Whatever happens in the future, the political power of southeast Michigan is substantial and Oakland and Macomb are a big portion of that. Their changing and varied political shifts and dynamics likely mean that Michigan will continue to be a competitive state in statewide contests.

David Dulio is director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement, and professor of political science at Oakland University. John Klemanski is professor of political science at Oakland University.