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Analysis: Michigan turnout favored Biden; Legislature results mean same balance of power in Lansing

person voting
Katie Raymond
A record number of Michiganders voted in the 2020 presidential election.

A lot of the dust has settled from Election Day in Michigan, but not all of it.

Michigan Radio's resident political expert Zoe Clark joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to look at what we can learn from the results. 

Staying ahead of an unusual schedule

The Associated Press called Michigan a win for Democrat Joe Biden on Wednesday. And later in the night, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters Michigan was done counting votes and all results would be coming shortly by individual counties. That was ahead of her earlier predictions. For weeks, Benson had warned that results might not be available until Thursday or Friday. 

Clark says the planning and preparation allowed for a quicker turnaround.

"Really hard work by volunteers and by county clerks. I think it's probably fair to say that Benson was hedging her bets by saying Friday. Never hurts to be on time and under budget," she said.  "It will take weeks before we get the official results. The state officials still have to certify them."

In the presidential race, turnout was key

In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by fewer than 11,000 votes. Clark says one key metric in comparing that campaign to the 2020 presidential race in Michigan is turnout. 

"It was less 'Donald Trump won Michigan' than 'Hillary Clinton lost Michigan,'" Clark says. "That was because we did not see the turnout that we had seen [from] the Obama coalition in ‘08 and ’12. That changed. We saw a historic turnout both across the country we're seeing [in 2020 and] here in Michigan, too. A lot of this also had to do with the fact that Michigan approved no-reason absentee voting two years ago."

Status quo in Lansing

Some pundits had predicted that if Biden landed a huge win in Michigan, the state House of Representatives could see enough seats flip to give Democrats a majority. That didn't happen, and now Republicans will continue to control both the state House and Senate for the next two years while Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer finishes her first term.

There's been a lot of tension between Whitmer and the legislature's leaders. Clark says there's a good chance we could see more of the same in Lansing. 

"One of the things to keep an eye on is how those relationships have intensified under COVID," Clark says. "But we are going to continue with divided government for another two years."

Peters edges out James in Senate race

The race for the U.S. Senate was a tight one and very expensive. Incumbent Democratic Senator Gary Peters won reelection by a slim margin over his Republican challenger John James. 

"Gary Peters was an incumbent, which usually helps candidates. But this was his first race for reelection," Clark says. "John James is a Republican, sort-of superstar making a name for himself. He ran two years ago against sitting Senator Debbie Stabenow. And so one of the things of note was that his name recognition was so much higher than usual challengers are. I don't think we've seen the end of him."

Lauren Talley contributed to this story.

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview at the top of the page. 

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Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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