As close as it gets: Looking back at Michigan’s presidential elections

2016 election followed historical trend

Since 1997, University of Michigan football hasn’t been able to claim a national title, but the Wolverines can still claim the most wins all-time. At 962 wins, Michigan football has 38 more wins than second-place Ohio State. 

University of Michigan | Image by Renee Gaudet from Pixabay

As the 2020 presidential race heats up, we know that Michigan will be closely contested. What many people don’t know is that the two major parties have received almost the same amount of votes in Michigan historically. 

With more than 85 million votes registered for both parties since Michigan was able to cast electoral votes, Republicans hold a slim 1,020,392 vote lead, according to data for U.S. Election Atlas.

That means that Michigan is a swing state — not just in 2020, but historically. It would seem that Michigan, like many midwestern states, has always been a swing state, but it wasn’t so cut-and-dried. Historical data point to times when the state was a Republican stronghold and times when Democrats won the state easily. 

Of course, there have also been nail-biters and even one time when a third-party candidate took the state. The history of Michigan presidential elections probably has as many twists and turns as the election this year will hold.

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Early years as a state

Michigan gained statehood on Jan. 26, 1837. This came months after the 1836 presidential election. 

However, Michigan was able to cast its three electoral votes for Democrat Martin Van Buren over Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison. 

Lewis Cass statue in the U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Four years later, Harrison would win Michigan defeating Van Buren. The Democrats, however, dominated the early years as a state — winning four of the first five elections. 

One of those victories was for Michigan’s own Lewis Cass, who won Michigan in the election of 1848 with a total of 30,742 votes, but ultimately lost the election to Zachary Taylor.

Republican dominance

In 1856, the Republican Party ran its first candidate for president after its founding in Jackson, Mich. John C. Fremont won Michigan, but lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. 

Despite losing the national election in 1856, Republicans were on the cusp of dominating presidential politics both nationally and in Michigan.

Lincoln Memorial | Susan J. Demas

Beginning in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans won Michigan 14 times in a row, securing victories in all but two of those elections nationally. Lincoln won the state twice — first by almost 24,000 votes, and then by a closer margin of less than 11,000 in 1864. 

President Ulysses S. Grant dominated the elections of 1868 and 1872. In the latter election, the Democratic Party supported Liberal Republican Horace Greeley (those votes are not included in the total historical vote for Democrats in this story). The dominance continued into the new century with William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft each winning an election for Republicans.

Bull Moose

One of America’s most dynamic elections was in 1912. 

Taft ran for reelection, but was challenged for the Republican nomination by former President Teddy Roosevelt. The fight over the nomination — which ultimately went to Taft — led to Roosevelt leaving the Republican Party and forming the Bull Moose Party. 

Ultimately, the national election went to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. But for the second time, Michigan gave its electoral votes to Roosevelt. 

The 1912 election is the last time a third party won Michigan.

The New Deal

After losing the 1912 election, Republicans came back and won four in a row in Michigan. Wilson lost the state in 1916 and the next three elections went to Republican Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. | Susan J. Demas

Democrats would finally win their first election in Michigan in 90 years in 1932, with Franklin Roosevelt taking its 19 electoral votes. FDR’s election that year led to the beginning of 20 years of Democratic control of the White House. However, Michigan was not as good to FDR as the rest of the nation.

In 1940, Roosevelt won a historic third term, but Michigan voters were not as keen on the idea as the rest of the nation — as Republican Wendell Willkie pulled it out in a very close election in Michigan.

The New Deal era ended with a narrow victory for FDR over GOP New York Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1944, and then a close win for Dewey over Democratic President Harry Truman in Michigan in 1948. GOP President Dwight D. Eisenhower twice won Michigan in 1952 and 1956.

Modern era

In 1960, Michigan followed the rest of the country with a very close election that ultimately went to Democrat John F. Kennedy. Kennedy won Michigan by a margin of just more than 66,000 votes out of more than 3.2 million cast. 

Four years later, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson set a record for total number of votes for a candidate that stood for 20 years when he cruised to a landslide victory over U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), winning more than 2.1 million votes.

Richard Nixon painting by Norman Rockwell | Susan J. Demas photo

Beginning in 1972, Republicans won five straight elections. Richard Nixon (1972), Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1984) and George H.W. Bush (1988) both won the state and the presidency in their elections. Michigan native Gerald Ford took the state in 1976 by almost 200,000 votes while losing nationally to Democrat Jimmy Carter. 

In 1984, Ronald Reagan beat LBJ’s record for most votes in Michigan, securing 2,251,571 votes, as he coasted to a winning 49 states and reelection.

Michigan moved away from the Republicans in 1992 with Democrat Bill Clinton taking the state in a three-way race that included Bush and third-party candidate Ross Perot. Clinton won Michigan four years later. His vice president, Al Gore, won the state by more than 200,000 votes in 2000, while Democrat John Kerry set a record for most votes in Michigan with his 2004 victory, although neither were elected president.

In fall 2008, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously pulled out of Michigan, allowing Democrat Barack Obama to win the state by more than 800,000 votes. The 2,872,579 votes Obama received that year stands as the most votes ever for a presidential candidate in a single election in Michigan. Obama went on to beat Michigan native Mitt Romney in 2012. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered at Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016 in Fountain Hills, Arizona. | Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The 2016 election was extremely close. Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump both failed to earn a majority of votes cast. Michigan was the closest state in the union with Trump winning by a margin of 10,704 votes. 

The closeness of that race is a good cap to the historical results in Michigan.

How have we voted

After 46 presidential elections, Michigan voters have given Republican candidates 41,568,257 votes and Democratic candidates 40,547,865 votes. 

Taking the total votes cast historically in Michigan for the two major parties, Republicans have received 50.63% and Democrats 49.37% — less than 1 percentage point. 

How about electoral votes? That’s not as close, with Republicans compiling a total of 399 electoral votes in Michigan elections and Democrats winning 247. The Bull Moose Party took 15 and the Whig Party won 3.

Michigan also has voted for the winner of the national election more than it has not. There have only been 12 times that Michigan voted for a candidate who did not win the White House in that election. 

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The first time was when Lewis Cass won his home state yet lost the national election. The most recent instance was in 2004 when John Kerry won Michigan but lost a close election to George W. Bush.

The 2020 election also is expected to be tight in Michigan. But with the total number of votes so close historically, Democrats could take the overall lead if their candidate wins a little bigger than Obama’s margin in 2008. 

The nation will be watching.