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How Michigan explains American politics

How Republicans won Michigan, how they lost it, and what it all tells us.

Adam Freelander is a story editor and producer on the Vox video team, covering the US. Before joining Vox in 2018, he worked as a senior video producer at Quartz covering culture and politics, and worked on the video desk at the New York Times.

The “blue wall” once referred to a group of Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast states that, conventional wisdom said, “always vote for Democrats.” Unfortunately for Democrats, that was wrong, and in 2016 Donald Trump shockingly won three “blue wall” states — including, narrowly, the state of Michigan.

It maybe shouldn’t have been such a shock, though. All three of the “blue” states Trump won had a history of electing Republicans at the state level. Michigan in particular had been fully taken over since 2010 by Republicans, who then spent years gutting unions, restricting abortion, loosening environmental protections, and generally just turning a Republican policy wish list into law. So Trump winning Michigan was, in a way, the culmination of a years-long drift to the right there.

But by 2022, something had changed dramatically. In a midterm election where Republicans were favored, Democrats won every branch of elected government in Michigan — governor, state House, and state Senate. The state Senate in particular had not been under Democratic control since 1984. And Democrats got busy using their new power immediately: repealing much of the right-wing legislation of the previous years, passing strong LGBTQ protections, quadrupling a tax credit for the poor, and allocating a billion dollars for the auto industry to transition to electric cars. Suddenly Michigan was cranking out more progressive legislation than almost any other state in the US.

So to recap: Michigan was once a blue state, except it wasn’t actually, and in fact over time it got pretty red, but then it became an actual blue state. (Again?) Or something like that. Obviously, the truth is that Michigan is a swing state. But the story of each of those swings is key to understanding how US politics has worked in the 2010s and 2020s. And it can tell us a lot about our next election, too. Watch the video above for the full story.

This video draws on a lot of publicly available data. For Michigan election data, we used two useful websites from the Michigan Department of State: election results down to the county level going back to the late ’90s, and a tool that produces election results down to the city/township level. To show national and statewide exit polls over time, we used NBC News’s data — they’re among the only organizations whose granular exit poll results both nationally and statewide going back a decade are still easily accessible. These are their Michigan exit polls from 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022; and these are their national exit polls from 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022.

The average per capita personal income of each Michigan county came from the US’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The question about whether the 2020 election should be overturned came from a May 2022 poll by Detroit’s chamber of commerce. And the data on Middle Eastern and North African Americans came from the 2020 US Census — which was the first one ever to ask about the US’s MENA population.

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