Lansing — Voter turnout was up Tuesday across Michigan but particularly so in counties won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, suggesting heightened motivation among liberal voters who may have sat out the prior year races.
The 29.7 percent voter turnout in Tuesday’s primary election was the highest since at least 1978 and a 6.7 percentage point increase over 2010, the last year Michigan had competitive Republican and Democratic primaries for an open seat.
The turnout jump was highest in counties won by Clinton in 2016, which rose a collective 8.1 percentage points between 2010 and 2018, according to a Detroit News analysis. By comparison, turnout was up 5.3 points in counties won by Trump.
"Turnout was dramatically higher this year than it has been in the past and in a pattern that benefits the Democrats," said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker and editor of The Ballenger Report.
"Democrats were more highly motivated to vote" even though Republicans also had a competitive U.S. Senate primary to decide, Ballenger said.
MICHIGAN'S TURNOUT SURGE
Most Michigan counties experienced gains in turnout rates in Tuesday’s primary compared with the 2010 primary, when there also were competitive Republican and Democratic primaries for an open gubernatorial seat. A handful of counties experienced declines. (NOTE: The News used vote totals and July voter registration data for counties from the Michigan Secretary of State.)
Overall turnout was relatively equal across counties, with 29.9 percent turnout in areas Clinton won compared with 29.5 percent in areas President Donald Trump won.
The reliably liberal Washtenaw County led the state with a 12.8 point surge in turnout, rising from 21.6 percent in 2010 to 34.4 percent. Democratic gubernatorial Gretchen Whitmer won all 83 counties Tuesday night but topped hard-left candidate Abdul El-Sayed by a narrow 0.17 percentage point in Washtenaw.
Voter participation increased 11.5 percentage points in Midland County, a reliably Republican area and home to the GOP gubernatorial nominee. Attorney General Bill Schuette won 80 of 83 counties on Tuesday, including Midland, where he got 69 percent of the vote in the four-way primary.
State House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, downplayed speculation that Democratic turnout portends a “blue wave” in November.
“It was record turnout all across the state,” said Leonard, who is competing to be the Republican nominee for attorney general.
“There’s no doubt I believe Republicans are just as energized as Democrats are. Certainly this is going to be a very close election ahead. It’s going to be a battle, but I fully expect that Republicans will be victorious in the fall.”
Total turnout percentages were highest in Leelanau, Keweenaw and Grand Traverse counties in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, which each backed Trump in 2016.
Metro Detroit, which is home to nearly 40 percent of the state's population, had smaller turnout increases. But the gains are magnified because they involve more voters compared with sparsely populated outstate counties.
Turnout was up 8.2 points to 27.2 percent in Wayne County and 6.5 percentage points to 33.9 percent in Oakland County, which both went for Clinton in 2016. Participation rose 5.7 points to 29.9 percent in Macomb, which went for Trump after backing Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
Overall, 1.1 million Michiganians voted in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, with 585,578 backing Whitmer. Schuette won 499,748 out of the 985,029 votes in the Republican primary.
"If the pattern was more predominant in Hillary-won counties, it stands to reason that's where most of the Democratic voters were and where most of the Democratic potential for improvement was," Ballenger said.
Primary participation is not always a good predictor of general election turnout, Ballenger said, but "it's a possibility" Democrats build on their momentum this fall. Prospects for a 'blue wave" appear to "be coming back."