Low level of student voter turnout could have impacted Michigan outcome

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - 6:25pm

In an extremely close race nationwide, for a period of time Election Day all eyes were on Michigan, but the state ultimately wasn’t the one to hand President-elect Donald Trump his victory. However, many of the trends seen in the state around turnout and voter enthusiasm are similar to those in the other close states that did hand Trump his win.

After the Associated Press called the race, declaring Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump the president-elect at 2:30 a.m., Michigan was still counting votes from several counties. It continues to be in a deadlock, with Trump leading by just 11,837 votes, which would be a 0.3 percent margin of victory.

If Trump wins the state, he will be the first Republican to do so since 1988. The race in Michigan became tighter in recent days as the candidates and their surrogates visited the state, but in the months leading up to the election Clinton maintained a lead over Trump in the state, and her campaign considered the state to be an almost guaranteed win.

However, especially toward the end of the campaign, Trump challenged those assumptions, claiming in his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids Monday that he would win the state, propelling his victory in the election as a whole.

"If we win Michigan, we will win this historic election and then we truly will be able to do all of the things we want to do," he said at the time.

While the state did not ultimately secure Trump’s victory, the rapid changes in the state over the last few days before the election mirrored those in the states that did, such as Wisconsin.

Communications Studies Prof. Josh Pasek, an expert in public opinion and polling, said the race both in Michigan and across the country came down to a matter of turnout. The counties Clinton won, he said, had a lower turnout in groups that tend to favor her — such as minorities and young people — than she needed to win.

“The big notes have been that more white voters — in particular blue collar and rural — have voted in this election than in the past,” he said. “We did see that if Hillary Clinton wanted to win Michigan, she needed to turnout slightly better numbers than she did in the cities of Ann Arbor and Detroit than she did,” she said. “She didn’t do that, and it stops there.”

In Washtenaw County, which houses the University of Michigan, voter turnout was 65.6 percent. However, in the four precincts that feature many student voters, with polling locations in the Michigan Union and Michigan League, voter turnout ranged from 42.8 percent to 49.71 percent.

Overall, voter turnout was noticeably higher in the more rural areas outside of Ann Arbor, according to a Washtenaw County map. Most voters in precincts in and near Ann Arbor voted for Clinton, while the areas farther from campus in the county cast more votes for Trump.

While the majority of students supported Clinton throughout the election season, according Michigan Daily election surveys, students didn’t appear very enthused about either Clinton or Trump while waiting in long polling lines at some locations on campus. Compared to 2012, when the youth, Black and Latino voters enthusiastically re-elected President Obama, this year seemed different.

Pasek said it is possible that if all students at the University had voted in the election, Clinton could have secured enough votes to win the state.

“There probably were enough non-voting students at the University of Michigan to be darn close in making up the difference between Trump and Clinton,” he said. “I think there is a case to be made that if you had gotten perfect University of Michigan turnout, Michigan would have had a much better chance of going Democrat.”

Democrats attempted to encourage the student vote on campus through Get Out the Vote efforts by campus organizations such as the University’s chapters of College Democrats and Students for Hillary, and campus visits from surrogates such as Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and President Barack Obama, who drew a crowd of 9,000 the day before the election.

However, Pasek said these efforts were not enough to overcome the traditionally low turnout numbers among young people.

“An enthusiasm difference makes a big difference,” he said. “The more people are hearing from surrogates they want to hear from, the more they want to turn out, and that is clearly the case for students, but we did see that Hillary Clinton still needed better turnout numbers.”

In her concession speech, Clinton appealed to young people, asking them to not give up hope because of her loss.

“To all of us, and to the young people in particular, I hope you will hear this. I have, as Tim said, I have spent my entire life fighting for what I believe in,” she said. “I've had successes and setbacks and sometimes painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional, public, and political careers — you will have successes and setbacks too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it.”

Pasek noted, however, that Clinton’s loss may deter voters from participating in the electoral process future.

“I think losing does diminish future participation,” he said. “When people first vote in an election and they win and feel like they made a difference, that is much more empowering than being on the losing side. It probably will for most college students mean that they will vote less often in the future.”

Beyond student concentration, turnout among other demographics in counties statewide also had a large impact on the state’s overall vote, similar to other late-emerging battlegrounds.

Wayne County, which houses Detroit, had an even lower voter turnout rate than Washtenaw at 58.8 percent. In the city of Detroit turnout reflected that of Ann Arbor at 48.5 percent.

In contrast, Trump saw unexpectedly high turnout numbers nationwide, including in many Michigan communities, from his core demographic: working class white men.

LSA junior Nick Kolenda, the president of a Students for Sanders group active on campus during the Democratic primary, wrote in an email interview that he felt the Democrat Party’s shift toward the center on trade affected the outcome.

“Trump will likely have won due to high rural and white-working class support which has become reactionary over the past decades,” he wrote. “Clinton and the center Democratic party's neoliberalism/trade policy caused Clinton to underperform in the upper Midwest. The white working class, having been frightened off of socialism and unions, believed that a strongman could make their lives better.”

Throughout her time campaigning, Clinton and her surrogates made appeals to white working class voters through visits and speeches with union workers, but it was Trump’s message of change that swung their vote. According to the CNN exit poll in Michigan, 39 percent of voters said a candidate’s ability to bring change is the most important quality, with the number rising to 83 percent among Trump supporters.

Pasek said the white working class vote has been shifting to the right for several years now as globalization impacts that group more than any other.

“We’ve seen increasingly over the last few cycles additional challenges for the Democrats in holding union members,” he said. “Blue collar industries in general are areas that are getting hit more with globalization. On some level, the election ends up being a referendum on globalization in general and whether we should be having trade deals or be more isolationist.”