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How Joe Biden reclaimed Michigan for the Democrats

President Trump lost the support of seniors and white college graduates in Michigan this year — clearing a path for Biden's projected win.
Voters wait in line outside the municipal offices before polls close on Election Day in Shelby Township, Mich.David Goldman / AP

DETROIT — A record surge of voters — along with softening support for President Donald Trump among some voter groups — has returned Michigan to its former status as a blue state, giving Joe Biden a projected victory that is crucial in the presidential race.

Trump won Michigan four years ago — the first Republican presidential candidate to have done so since 1988 — by 10,704 votes. The margin was so narrow that Trump would have needed to expand his base this year to counteract Democrats who were energized to turn out their supporters in cities like Detroit.

"He needed to run up the numbers in these outstate areas," said Corwin Smidt, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, referring to rural and suburban areas that tend to vote Republican.

Instead, the NBC News Exit Poll of early and Election Day voters found that Trump lost ground with seniors and white college graduates — two groups that supported him four years ago but backed Biden this year.

Smidt noted that Trump appeared to win most of the same counties he did four years ago but with narrower margins.

In Macomb County, for example, the suburban county north of Detroit that's often seen as a bellwether because it usually backs the winner in statewide elections, Trump won by 8 percentage points in the unofficial count, less than his 11.5-point margin four years ago. It’s a pattern Smidt saw in other traditionally Republican suburban counties.

Biden, meanwhile, won strong support from Black voters and voters under 30, the exit poll found. Voter turnout in Detroit, a majority-Black Democratic city, appeared to be higher than it was four years ago, when many Detroit voters said they weren't inspired to vote for Hillary Clinton. City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Tuesday night that 53 percent to 55 percent of Detroiters had voted, compared to 48 percent in 2016.

This year, Biden worked hard to turn out the Black vote in Michigan.

Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, who could be the country's first Black and first female vice president, campaigned heavily in Black communities. Harris was in Detroit on Tuesday. Biden held a rally with former President Barack Obama in a city park over the weekend.

And many Detroiters said they were more motivated to vote this year because they've been alarmed by Trump's policies and leadership style.

"He woke us up. He woke everybody up," said the Rev. Gary Bennett, who stood outside a Detroit polling place Tuesday urging voters to support candidates endorsed by the Black Slate, a local political organization.

In 2016, many said they wanted to give Trump a chance, Bennett said. But it was different this year.

"Everybody's running scared because they don't want Trump to have another four years," Bennett said Tuesday. "The elephant is in the room, and you can smell the peanuts on his breath."

NBC News projected Wednesday afternoon that Biden would win Michigan after election workers across the state finished tabulating a record number of absentee ballots.

Trump said he was winning Michigan in the early hours of Wednesday, when ballots counted in the first hours after polls closed showed him in the lead, but a large number of absentee ballots still needed to be tabulated.

High voter turnouts tend to help Democrats in Michigan, and this year's election broke records, both for the total number of votes cast and for absentee ballots.

Absentee ballot numbers shattered records both because voters feared exposure to Covid-19 in polling places and because a 2018 ballot referendum made it significantly easier for people to vote absentee.

This presidential election was also the first in Michigan in which voters could register to vote right up until Election Day — a change that drew 18,000 new voters to polls Tuesday, most of them in Democratic strongholds like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.

Polls before the election showed that female voters in particular were turned off by Trump's antics and behavior, said Bernie Porn, a veteran state pollster who runs the EPIC-MRA poll. "He has an extreme personality. He acts like a jerk."

Voters fill out their ballots at a school gymnasium on Election Day in Lansing, Mich.
Voters fill out their ballots at a school gymnasium on Election Day in Lansing, Mich.John Moore / Getty Images

Biden tried to highlight personality differences, airing TV ads in Michigan that featured him talking directly to voters, selling himself as a kinder, more trustworthy candidate. That played well in a state where voters typically don't go for brash or outrageous, Porn said.

Trump campaigned hard in Michigan, visiting the state multiple times in recent weeks, including rallies here on Monday. He has consistently enjoyed support from white voters without college degrees, including autoworkers who’ve seen their fortunes fall with the decline of the industry. But some expressed reservations about his leadership style, including voters like Cindy Swieczkowski, 70, who retired from her job in a law office last year.

She's a longtime Republican from Macomb County who supported Trump four years ago but was unsure whom she would vote for even as she stood in line to vote near her home in Sterling Heights.

"I don't like his style," she said. "He's caused a lot of fighting in the country."

She prefers Trump's policy positions, especially on the economy, she said, "but I think Biden is more level-headed."