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What’s the matter with Monroe County?


Yesterday I looked at the presidential election in Michigan at the county level (TL;DR: Blue counties got bluer; red counties got redder).

Today let’s take a look at a place that exemplifies the trends that got Trump elected and nearly re-elected: Monroe County.

Monroe County is about 25 miles south of Detroit, near the Ohio border. It’s an almost all-white semi-suburb of Detroit and Toledo (95.4% white, 1.9% Black per the 2010 census). Only 19% of the adult population has a four-year college degree (the Michigan state average is 30%; the national average is 31%).

It’s a place where back in the day before the robots took over “everybody” was in the UAW (not really but that’s what it seemed like at the time).

Prior to this year no Democrat had won the presidency without carrying the county since at least the 1940s. I have data going back to 1960 and Monroe voted for the winner in every presidential election since then with the exception of 1968 and 2000. It voted for Bill Clinton and Obama by roughly the same margins by which they won at the national level in each of their four presidential elections, and did the same for Bush II in 2004, while going for Gore in 2000.

Then in 2016 something changed. Trump drew 58% of the vote, compared to 36% for Hillary Clinton. This trend was even stronger in 2020, with Trump getting 61% of the vote, even as Biden won Michigan by three percentage points.

Basically, while about 50% of the white people in Monroe County who voted voted for Barack Obama — a Black man — for president, only about a third of them voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, when each of them was opposed by an essentially open racist and white supremacist.

Of course Monroe County isn’t in any way idiosyncratic, but rather representative of something that happened in this country when Donald Trump ran for president.

To identify that something as a racist backlash across white America to the trauma of this country electing a Black man president is clearly true to a significant extent, but why then did Monroe County, and so many places like it, vote for Obama in the first place?

Is whatever racist alchemy Donald Trump triggered in places like Monroe County something that a less, um, idiosyncratic Republican presidential candidate can brew up again, now that Trump has gotten 74 million plus Americans to vote for open white supremacy?

That seems in many ways like the question of the moment, and of many moments to come.

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