The entire presidential campaign is descending on Michigan. Donald Trump — whose campaign aides reportedly make decisions by tooling around on 270towin.com — has made a last-ditch stand, prompting a feverish scramble by Democrats, who have dispatched Hillary Clinton, her husband, and Barack Obama to hold rallies in the state. Right-wing lunatic Ted Nugent asked the crowd at a Trump speech, “Is the real Michigan ready to take Michigan back?” And then right-wing lunatic Donald Trump boasted that he had been honored as the state’s “Man of the Year,” puzzling reporters.
Michigan is a state that has certain casual demographic and regional markers that make it easy for outsiders to assume it is fertile ground for Trump: Midwest, white working class, Rust Belt. I was born and raised in the state, an experience that can (with equal plausibility) either be credited as familiarity or discounted as bias. I am here to tell you that Michigan is not a Trump state.
Like many blue states, Michigan has a Republican-controlled legislature, owing to low non-presidential turnout and packed-in urban voters, and it sometimes elects Republican governors. It has voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, by an average margin exceeding 9 percent. Of the most recent 20 polls of the state, Hillary Clinton leads in 18, with two ties. It is not experiencing any special economic distress that would threaten this pattern, with an unemployment rate at 4.6 percent.
Nor does Trump have any particular connection to the state’s culture. It is true that Michigan has a cohort of economically populist but racist white swing voters. George Wallace received 10 percent of the vote in the state in 1968. Pollster Stanley Greenberg embedded in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb, where he learned that racially resentful “Reagan Democrats” believed the Democratic Party had grown too closely identified with black interests. But whatever disaffection for the national Democratic agenda shown by the state’s voters had halted by the 1990s (or, perhaps, was halted by Bill Clinton). Macomb County voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Unlike Ohio, which is culturally divided between its northern and southern parts, the latter of which consists of Appalachian coal country, Michigan was settled by Yankees. Its political cultural resembles Upper Northwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but unlike those neighbors, it has large cities with significant African-American populations. Michigan Republicans in the 20th century reflected the best parts of their party’s bygone progressive traditions, trying to conciliate labor with business, supporting reasonable tax and regulatory policies, and strongly endorsing action on civil rights.
Governor George Romney proposed resolutions at the 1964 Republican convention denouncing extremism on the left and right, and supporting civil rights. Both were defeated, and Romney went on to oppose Goldwater after he won the nomination. Romney’s lieutenant governor, William Milliken, succeeded him in 1969 and stayed in office until 1983. Milliken broke from the national party’s increasingly extreme direction, endorsing a series of Democratic national candidates until his local Republican Party finally repudiated him this summer for his disloyalty. For all his catastrophic failures in Flint, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, was able to win because he ran as a data-centric moderate (“one tough nerd”) in the state’s old tradition.
Democrats are pouring last-minute resources into the state as a precautionary response to Trump. The same dynamic took place four years ago in Pennsylvania, where the Mitt Romney campaign launched a desperate final offensive, prompting a mirror response by the Obama campaign. But these maneuvers should not confuse people about the qualities and generally sound judgment of my native state. Trump might win Ohio, sure, but as any good Michiganian can tell you, those people are animals. The “real Michigan,” contra Ted Nugent, is not a state for racist demagogues.