Is Michigan a red state or a blue state?
“It’s a purple state,” you might say! But sorry, I’m not going to let you off so easily. You have to pick the red pill or the blue pill.
As a Michigan native, I’d say Michigan is a blue state. Not that this assessment requires any particular local knowledge. It has voted Democratic for president all but once since 1992 (it voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016). Its governorship has bounced back and forth more, but its current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a Democrat and a clear favorite for reelection, according to the FiveThirtyEight 2022 midterm election forecast. Democrats have also controlled both of its U.S. Senate seats since the 2000 elections. The state legislature is Republican-controlled, but Democrats should be competitive this year after redistricting. So it’s a close call, but I’m going with Michigan as a “blue state.”
But according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean index, Michigan is Republican-leaning. Specifically, it’s 1.2 percentage points more Republican than the country overall.1 It’s close, but Michigan’s partisan lean nods toward “red state.”
So, who’s right in this case? Me or the algorithm?
Well, I’m a wee bit biased here, but I think I’m right. Michigan is more a blue state than a red state, and the distinction reveals something important about the balance of power in politics today and the strategies of the major political parties.
FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean index classifies Michigan as Republican-leaning because it has been less blue than the country as a whole in recent elections. Case in point: In 2020, now-President Joe Biden won Michigan by 2.8 points, less than his 4.5-point margin in the national popular vote.
Then again, the national popular vote might not be the best baseline. After all, it depends in part on states where Democrats win by huge margins, without getting any additional benefit in the Electoral College. For instance, Biden won California by more than 5 million votes. But suppose he’d won it by only 1 million votes. It would still be a comfortable margin, but in that case, Biden would have won the national popular vote by only 1.9 points, and Michigan would have been to the left of the country as a whole, without changing the Electoral College outcome at all.
This is somewhat complex, so let me state my hypothesis as clearly as possible — there are two of them, really:
- Parties are trying to win control of the presidency and Congress. But since the popular vote doesn’t determine control of these, parties don’t actually care about the popular vote. Therefore, measures like FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean index that are calibrated based on the popular vote may be flawed.
- Republicans currently have a structural advantage in many of America’s political institutions. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Republicans will win more than half the time.
Let’s start with that second point. One important but easy-to-overlook facet of American elections is that each party wins about half the time. Over the past 40 years, for example, Democrats have controlled the presidency for 18 years (two years and counting for Biden, eight each for former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton) while Republicans have had it for 22. Also in the past 40 years, Democrats have held the U.S. Senate for just short of 20 years,2 and Republicans for just slightly more than 20 years. The House? Democrats have been in charge for roughly 20 years and the GOP for 20.
It’s true that Republicans currently enjoy a structural advantage in the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, such that they can expect to win both with less than half of the popular vote. (They also had an advantage in the U.S. House for most of the 2010s, although that has been reduced somewhat following redistricting.) But I don’t think it necessarily follows that Republicans can expect to win those offices more than half the time.
After all, Republicans haven’t done a great job of winning these offices recently. They lost the presidency in 2020. They don’t control the Senate — and they may not get it back this year. The FiveThirtyEight forecast now shows Democrats with a 70 percent chance of keeping control of the Senate.
That said, some votes are more valuable than others. In a presidential election, for instance, the marginal vote in Michigan matters a lot more than the marginal vote in California. And in the Senate, a voter in North Dakota has a lot more power than one in Texas, since Texas has the same number of senators despite having more than 37 times the inhabitants. This creates a significant bias in the Senate toward white, rural voters, who are overrepresented in low-population states, and moreover, Republicans in the Trump era have adopted a particularly potent strategy of catering to those voters.
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Put another way, the upshot of the structural bias toward Republicans may not be that they can attain some permanent supermajority, but rather that they are able to win elections half the time despite advancing policies that are significantly to the right of the median voter, especially on issues like abortion, gun control and environmental regulation. It’s likely not a coincidence either that these issues have strong urban-rural divides, which speak to the GOP’s current advantage in the Senate.
And yet it’s not as though Republicans are in some untenable position. Their structural advantages give them a much bigger margin for error, and so they still have decent chances in the Senate despite nominating a poor slate of candidates. They’re also favored to win the House according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. And they have plenty of hope of winning the presidency back in 2024.
It may seem strange to talk about the parties in such an abstract manner, as though they’re rational actors pursuing some game-theory-derived Nash equilibrium. Indeed, this description leaves a lot to be desired. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are not simple entities. Although there are formal party structures such as the Republican National Committee, in practice, much of a party’s power rests with current, former and aspiring elected officials, along with donors, other public figures who are influential within the party and, of course, the voters. These groups’ objectives don’t always align, and sometimes that can result in outcomes such as nominating subpar candidates to key Senate races or having a former president interfere in a midterm in unhelpful ways.
But if neither party is particularly happy with its situation — well, that’s sometimes what an equilibrium looks like, in the same sense that both sides often walk away feeling a little unhappy after a tough negotiation.
Still, this has considerations for our partisan lean index. The implication we frequently take from it — in fact, this is an assumption built into our various forecast models — is over the long run, such as if you play out the next 40 years given current party coalitions, the popular vote for Congress and the presidency will be tied in an average year.
I don’t think that’s the correct implication, though. My assertion here, instead, is that each party will continue to win elections about half the time even though Democrats are likely to continue to win the popular vote more than half the time.
Since 2016, for instance, Democrats have won the popular vote for the presidency by 2.1 points (Hillary Clinton) and 4.5 points (Biden). They also won the popular vote for the U.S. House by 3.1 points in 2020 and 8.6 points in 2018, but lost it by 1.1 point in 2016. This is a crude method, but if you average those five figures, you wind up with Democrats winning the popular vote by 3.4 points on average.
Here’s what our partisan lean index would look like in a year where Democrats win the national popular vote by 3.4 points. Note that a state like Michigan — along with Nevada and Pennsylvania — now rates as slightly blue rather than slightly red. Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida are still red-leaning, however.
|State||Partisan Lean||State||Partisan Lean|
|New York||D+23.4||South Carolina||R+15.2|
|North Carolina||R+1.4||North Dakota||R+33.8|
That all seems fairly intuitive relative to how recent elections have gone — more so than the implication that Michigan is a red state. To be clear, this is not an official change to our partisan lean index; it’s just me playing out the logical implications of an idea.
It’s also not a prediction for what will happen this year, but still, these figures may be more in line with how future elections will play out — both in theory and in practice.