“Building the party” is a mantra often heard around Michigan Democratic Party circles these days and it is easy to understand why. Looking at national election data, Michigan is as blue as you get in the Midwest, having been in the Democratic column since 1992, with two Democratic senators in office since the 2000 elections. Indeed, the last two Republican presidential candidates didn’t make much of a serious effort in Michigan in the last two months of their campaigns. Naysayers might mention that Michigan has had a majority Republican delegation in five of the past six sessions of Congress, but one could make a case that state Republicans did an excellent gerrymander in 2001 and 2011 to make this possible.
Michigan’s national reputation as a Democratic bastion does not apply to on the state level. Indeed, Democrats have performed quite poorly in recent years. Democrats have not controlled the State Senate since 1984 when two Macomb County Democrats were recalled in their support of James Blanchard’s budget policies. While Democrats controlled the State House through 1992 election, they have run the chamber only six years (1996-8 and 2006-10) in the twenty two years since. The Michigan Supreme Court has had a majority of justices supported by the Republican Party since 1998, although Democrats gain a court majority from 2009 to 2010 with the support of Republican Justice Marilyn Kelly. Only in statewide races have Michigan Democrats performed anywhere close to their national reputation, yet they still have largely fallen short with the exception of the State Board of Education and Regent elections. Republicans have won four of the past six gubernatorial races, five of the past six Secretary of State races, and the last three Attorney General elections.
Democrats continued under performance in Michigan’s state politics since 1990 has come at a time when Michigan transitioned from the era of Fordist manufacturing to a post-industrial landscape where the state’s became more dispersed. In 1960, Michigan’s 20 largest communities were home to more than 3,309,313 people, or 42% of the state’s total population, but by 2010 these same 20 communities only were residences to 22.3% or 2,208,322. Figure 1 shows just how drastic the population decline was. Detroit accounts for 86.8% of the total population loss, but only six of the 20 subdivisions gained residents and of these only Ann Arbor and Warren added more than 40,000 residents. With the exception of Detroit and Flint, communities that lost residents overwhelmingly did so between 1960 and 1980, and stabilized somewhat in the thirty years that followed.
Communities that gained the most residents between 1960 and 2010 tended to be communities in metropolitan southeast Michigan that captured Detroit’s fleeing residents. Only two communities outside of metropolitan Detroit were among the top twenty (Georgetown Township in Ottawa County and Kentwood in Kent County).
Michigan’s population dispersal has reduced the state’s population density. While Michigan’s overall population density increased slightly from 138 persons per square mile in 1960 to 174 by 2010, the addition of 2,115,250 new residents during the same time period meant that much of the population growth went into new development on the outskirts of the urban fringe. The table below shows communities with the highest population density back in 1960. When viewed next to the 2010 population density figures, you can see what a beating the urban core of Michigan took in the past fifty years. The dispersal reduces the economic and transportation networks possible with high density. In 1960 Metropolitan Detroit could have arguably supported a dense commuter rail network, as numerous communities had population densities greater than 4,000 people per square mile minimal density needed for effective mass transit. However, the de-densification of communities such as Detroit and Highland Park in the decades since makes the implementation of mass transit much less cost-effective.
The dispersal of Michigan’s White population from urban areas was matched by two smaller-sized migrations of Black residents. The first relatively minuscule migration was from historic rural Black areas of western Michigan (such as Lake, Van Buren, and Cass Counties) into other urban centers in Michigan, especially Benton Harbor, Flint, and Detroit. The second and larger migration was the movement away from core urban centers, especially in Detroit and Flint, to the surrounding suburbs. Most of the Black population movement has flown to working class suburbs on the periphery of established urban centers. Suburbs such as Harper Woods and Eastpointe literally changed overnight, while other communities such as Oak Park and Lathrup Village have steadily attracted new Black residents over decades.
In contrast to the movement of Black Michiganders, Hispanics have concentrated outside of Southeast Michigan and are spread throughout Michigan. Only 10% of the total Hispanic population resides Detroit and only make up 6.8% of the city’s total population. While county subdivisions with the greatest increase in the Hispanic share of the total population are listed below. Interestingly, rural communities in western Michigan are home to large sizable Hispanic populations, largely due to the reliance farming communities have on migrant workers who have historically been Hispanic. However, large Hispanic communities have moved to urban centers and suburbs in western Michigan, including Grand Rapids and Holland. Kent County in particular has a large Hispanic population that is just under 10% of the total population.
Michigan population dispersal since the birth of modern Michigan politics points to a larger failure of the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) to win county level races since 1964. While this failing transcends the tenure of Mark Brewer, the continued inability of the MDP to perform well in areas with growing numbers of Democratic voters testifies to the party’s weakness on the local level. This local weakness will hinder the party in the coming decade, especially as it seeks to win crucial races in 2018 and 2020.
The 1970 gubernatorial election provides an example of this population dispersal. In this election incumbent Republican Governor William Milliken beat Democrat Sander Levin by a 45,000 vote margin, winning 49.2% of the two party vote. Leven pulled a 103,000 vote edge out of Wayne County and 17,000 vote lead in Genesee, but Milliken countered this edge with a 31,000 vote lead in Oakland County and a 27,000 vote edge in Kent County, as well as winning Washtenaw and Ingham Counties by 21,000 votes. If one assigned a Democratic candidate the same county level vote percentage with the 2010 population, the Democratic share of the total vote drops from 49.2% to 47.3%, and the vote deficit increased from 44,409 to 222,022. The steady population decline in Wayne and Genesee Counties in the past few decades has drained the Democratic candidates of the edge they need to win statewide races.
Winning local partisan races is crucial to building the state party for two reasons. First, voters identify with their local candidates, who often use their first race as candidate for township office or the county board as a stepping stone for higher elected office. If a party doesn’t recruit candidates for local races, it becomes much harder to find good candidates for higher level races, and the absence of local candidates to identity with allows the opposing party to portray the absent party in broad stereotypical terms. Secondly, local partisan races are crucial for determining county level redistricting of the county board of commissioners.
Michigan state law (MCL 46.401-46.408) requires that each county must create a county apportionment board following the release of US Census data in years ending with a “1”. The Apportionment Commission consists of the County Clerk, County Treasurer, Prosecuting Attorney, and the county chairpersons of the Democratic and Republican parties. State law requires that each county have five County Commissioners (depending on each county’s population state law requires more commissioners), and that the districts must follow traditional redistricting standards as established by state law. The plan must be approved by a majority of the members, and since each party receives a vote from their party representative, winning two of the three countywide races for the Prosecuting Attorney, County Treasurer, and County Clerk generally determines who draws the map and the number of county commissioners.
These three races also provide an indication of the county party’s strength. Candidates for these positions run in presidential election years, and those that run above national and state level candidates should be identified as rising stars. A Democrat that pulls 45% of the vote in Allegan County while running for a county level position will have loss the races, but have also ran 9% above the Democratic baseline in the county in 2012, and should be considered other races. County level candidates that trail national Democrats or the Democratic baseline point to a decline in the county’s historical Democratic identity, something that has happened throughout the Upper Peninsula over the past four election cycles.
Unfortunately for the MDP, the dispersal of Michigan’s population has not resulted in Democratic gains in county level races since 1971. As shown in Table 1, following the 1968 election Republicans controlled county level redistricting in 63 counties, compared to 18 for Democrats (2 had split control). In 1981 and 1991 Democrats controlled 22 counties, while they controlled 23 in 2001 and 2011. Figure 2 shows that Democrats controlled 12 counties in all five redistricting cycles between 1971 and 2011, with seven in the Upper Peninsula and the remaining five in metropolitan Detroit; in contrast, Republicans controlled 51 counties in all five redistricting cycles (including Oakland County, which saw its Democratic control of county level positions usurped by a Republican State Legislature) located throughout the state. Of the twenty remaining counties, ten are slipping away for their Democratic roots and have been controlled by the GOP in the past two redistricting cycles, while six are becoming increasingly Democratic (including Ingham and Washtenaw). The remaining four counties of Muskegon, Jackson, Calhoun, and Menominee are bellwether counties that are difficult for either party to pin down firmly in one camp or the other.
Tables 2 through 6 show partisan control of County Prosecutor Attorney, Treasurer, and Clerk offices in each county in the election that determined which party controlled the office for redistricting. For the 1971 redistricting cycle, this was the 1968 election, for the 1981 cycle the 1980 election determine control, the 1991 cycle was established by the 1988 election, the 1998 election determined control of the 2001 cycle, and the 2008 election set the state for the 2011 cycle.
Many county-level Democratic organizations have largely left Republicans unchallenged in these races. Page after page of research notes show Republican candidates being unchallenged, and this a trend that has continued to county commission seats throughout the state. Much of Michigan remains hostile political territory for Democratic candidates, as Table 7 shows that the Michigan Democratic Presidential share of the two party vote has always trailed the Democratic Baseline share of the vote in these elections.
More relevant to long-term strategic thinking is the Presidential/Gubernatorial and Baseline data shown in Tables 8 and 9 respectively. Each table looks at the county level Democratic share from nine elections from 1996 to 2012 and calculates an average share from the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections to determine an average Democratic share of the vote. The counties are listed from the highest average Democratic share to the lowest. Of the counties under Republican control, perhaps the most vulnerable to a Democratic takeover in the coming decade are Kalamazoo (52.0% Pres/Gov and 52.7% Baseline) and Isabella (50.5% Pres/Gov and 51.2% Baseline) counties. While more of a stretch, Eaton (48.3% Pres/Gov and 49.2% Baseline) and Calhoun (47.2% Pres/Gov and 50.3% Baseline) Counties are also tempting targets for Democrats to target in the next four election cycles with the hopes of controlling these counties by 2020.
Consider the impact of targeting races in these four counties. In Isabella County, Democrats currently have a 4-3 majority on the county commission board. Winning county level races in 2016 and 2020 would help make Democratic more competitive to take the 99th State House seat, a prize that has escaped the party for years. In Kalamazoo County, taking a majority on the county board of commissioners is plausible in 2014, but winning the Clerk and Treasurer races that were narrowly lost in 2012 would provide Democrats with a redistricting majority in 2021. Building the county party would make Democrats better positioned to win State House District 61, and to win the open 20th State Senate District in 2014. In Eaton County, Democrat Theresa Abed won the 71st State House seat in 2012, and could be a strong Democratic candidate to run for the open 24th State Senate seat in 2018 once Rick Jones is term limited. In Calhoun County, Democratic gains could help further put House District 63 in the play, and keep District 62 in Democratic hands once Kate Segal is term limited. In both Eaton and Calhoun Counties, Democrats control the Treasurer seat of the three county-level positions, and would just need to win one more seat in 2020 to control the 2021 county level redistricting. Winning partisan control in these four counties and a county commissioner majority in Oakland County would expand the local Democratic presence in local races, and help the party expand its base outside its historic core areas.
Mark Brewer’s leadership of the MDP over the past 16 years is very much up for discussion. Michigan has increasingly become Democratic for national elections, even while its population has become increasingly dispersed since 1992. However, during this time frame the MDP has been unable to build its infrastructure on the local and county level, a failing that explains in part its inability to win races at the state-level. Significant and targeted investments of financial resources and voter targeting, along with candidate recruitment are needed to make the MDP more competitive in future elections, especially in 2016 and 2020.