Posted on November 5, 2020

Three Reasons Biden Flipped the Midwest

Tim Alberta, Politico, November 4, 2020


Joe Biden has not yet been declared the winner in his campaign against President Donald Trump. {snip}

But while it’s too early to name a winner, it’s certainly not too early to examine some key results in the places that denied Democrats the presidency four years ago—and that now stand ready to make Biden the 46th president of the United States.


Here are three reasons Democrats are poised to sweep the three critical Midwestern battleground states and win back the White House.

1) Biden kept Trump from running up the score with working-class whites

No single location has received more political attention this year than Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s Biden’s birthplace, a city that’s integral to his brand as a scrappy, middle-class, train-riding everyman. It’s also an ancestral Democratic stronghold: Scranton, and surrounding Lackawanna County, is the embodiment of the old school, labor-anchored Democratic coalition. {snip}

In every campaign spanning Reagan’s reelection in 1984 and Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Democrats carried Lackawanna County by comfortable (and sometimes huge) spreads. And then Trump came along. He didn’t win the county, but he closed the gap, from a 27-point Democratic victory in 2012 to just a 3-point victory in 2016. {snip}

Trump entered his reelection bid with every confidence that he would perform even better in Lackawanna County this year. His team envisioned adding another 5 points or so to his 2016 showing, officially flipping the county and eating further into the Democratic Party’s dwindling base of white working-class supporters.

But the opposite happened. Biden won Lackawanna County by 8 points. Instead of gaining 5 points on his 2016 performance, the president lost 5 points.


It’s easy to chalk up these specific results to Biden benefiting from a home-field advantage. But that would fail to explain what happened in Macomb County.


Home to the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, Macomb has drifted steadily rightward over the past three presidential elections. Democrats carried it by nearly 9 points in 2008 and by 4 points in 2012, only to watch Trump dominate the county with a 12-point win in 2016. {snip}


Trump won Macomb County by 8 points, losing 4 points off his 2016 total. This was arguably the most surprising result in Michigan, and it was highly symbolic to boot: The president’s failure to match or exceed his 2016 performance, in a county tailor-made to his politics, was part of a broader letdown in his efforts to juice white working-class votes across the board.

2) Biden peeled away Trump’s support in conservative suburbs


3) Biden got Black voters to turn out in big numbers

Some things in politics are pretty straightforward. This is one of those things: Clinton lost to Trump because she did not mobilize Black voters.

This was true across the battleground map. But it was especially conspicuous in the three determinative Midwestern states, not only because of their photo-finish results but because of the sizable Black populations in the biggest cities of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Let’s start with Milwaukee and surrounding Milwaukee County, home to the biggest share of Black voters in Wisconsin. In 2012, Barack Obama won roughly 328,000 votes in Milwaukee County. Four years later, Clinton won fewer than 289,000 votes in Milwaukee County. The challenge for Biden wasn’t necessarily to get all the way back to that Obama 2012 number; rather, at the bare minimum, it was to split the difference between these figures. He did that and then some: With all the votes counted, more than 317,000 people in Milwaukee County voted for the Democratic ticket, and Biden needed every single one of them.

It was a similar story in Detroit, a city that’s more than 80 percent Black, and surrounding Wayne County. In 2012, Obama won nearly 596,000 votes in Wayne County. Four years later, Clinton won fewer than 520,000. Once again, the question in Michigan—as in Wisconsin—was whether Biden could push that figure somewhere close to that Obama 2012 number, even if it was unrealistic to get all the way there. In fact, Biden got pretty close. With 100 percent of Wayne County’s ballots tabulated, Biden won 587,000 votes there, far surpassing Clinton’s performance from 2016.

Finally, we have Philadelphia, a city with a plurality of Black voters, and surrounding Philadelphia County. The case against Clinton was less cut-and-dried there. In 2012, Obama won some 557,000 votes in Philadelphia County, and Clinton actually passed that mark in 2016, winning 584,000 votes there. That said, a closer examination of precinct-level data revealed that Clinton’s strong turnout came in whiter and wealthier precincts of the county, rather than its working-class and less affluent neighborhoods. Biden’s team knew that he would need both in order to best Trump in 2020. While there’s still a ways to go in the counting, it appears Biden will blow past both the Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016 numbers in Philadelphia County: He has already banked 477,000 votes, and with hundreds of thousands of votes from the area still outstanding, he figures to get well into the 600,000-vote range once all is said and done.

Using only the biggest cities and counties gives an incomplete window into Black voter turnout, but the numbers track with smaller Black-majority areas as well. In Flint, Michigan, for example, and surrounding Genesee County, Democrats went from winning nearly 129,000 votes in 2012 to some 103,000 votes in 2016. This year? Biden topped 120,000 votes in the county.