Democratic candidates battle for '99 percent' pedigree in Michigan

Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are highlighting their credentials on combating inequality ahead of tonight's debate in Flint, Michigan, and the state's Tuesday party primary.

Dave Kaup/ Reuters
Kansas Democratic Party official Kelly Atherton counts Senator Bernie Sanders' supporters as they cast votes in the state's March 5 caucus for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee at Emporia High School.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spent the weekend competing for progressive votes in Maine's caucus and Michigan's primary, stressing job protection and inequality as both teams looked for a more decisive victory after Super Saturday's largely unsurprising results.  

On Sunday night, the two Democratic candidates will debate in Flint, Michigan, where the months-long water crisis has offered a focal point for the candidates' messages on inequality. Paired with Detroit's beleaguered auto industry, the two cities have become a testing ground to see whether Mrs. Clinton can convince blue-collar workers that she'll protect them and whether Sen. Sanders can win votes from the black community. 

By the time they face off, results will be coming in from the Democratic caucus in Maine, a state that many expect will go to Sanders to continue a mostly-white New England trend: The Vermont senator's progressive politics won him New Hampshire, Vermont, and a super-close second in Massachusetts, where Ms. Clinton won 50.1 percent to his 48.7 percent. 

"If we win Maine, we move another step forward toward a political revolution in this country," Sanders told a Portland crowd March 2, saying that he'd win if voters "come out in large numbers and demand that we create a government that works for all of us and not just the 1 percent." 

But Maine Democrats' 25 delegates and 5 superdelegates pale in comparison to the prize offered in Michigan, one of the largest states to vote so far, with 130 delegates and 17 superdelegates. 

As of Sunday morning, Clinton held at least 1,121 delegates, buoyed by victories on Super Tuesday and Super Saturday, when 71 percent of Louisiana Democrats added to her winning streak in Southern states. But Sanders took home weekend wins in Nebraska (57 percent) and Kansas (almost 68 percent), and now has at least 481 delegates. At least 2,383 are needed to win the party's nomination.

For Democrats hoping to lock in Clinton's nomination and start focusing on the general election, a Sanders win in Michigan to top his weekend victories could say "hey, maybe we shouldn't be closing the door yet," Democratic strategist Joe Trippi told Politico.

But the progressive appeal behind Sanders's victories so far, largely propelled by young and white voters, may not stand up to Clinton's own policies to boost economic opportunity and tackle racial inequality, brought to the forefront by crises in Flint. 

"Hillary is running for president to put everybody in the picture," former president Bill Clinton told Detroit canvassers on Saturday, emphasizing her proposed "exit tax" for companies moving overseas, and plan to make college more affordable. Clinton, who says she now opposes President Obama's Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), emphasized similar themes and the importance of unions in a Friday visit to a Detroit auto supplier, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Job protection and affordable education are two of Sanders' trademark topics, as he's trying to remind Michigan voters. A new "For jobs. For us" ad emphasizes his more longstanding opposition to TPP. 

The Vermont senator has also harshly criticized the Flint water crisis, calling for Republican Governor Rick Snyder to resign. But both candidates have accused the state of responding more slowly than they would have if Flint were a majority-white city, and Clinton's quicker response may have made a lasting impression.

"You can tell that from their perspective, it's a very important signal of affiliation with the African-American community nationally and in Michigan," Matt Grossman, director Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, told the Associated Press. "The fact that she consolidated that support despite a pretty aggressive outreach from the Sanders campaign and a change in focus by the Sanders campaign, too, suggests that the overall message – 'I care about Flint' – is working."

Polls predicted Democratic Michiganders would choose Clinton, including a Detroit Free Press poll showing strong support among white voters as well as black voters, who make up about 14 percent of the state's population. According to the poll she leads Sanders at 55 percent and 66 percent, respectively. 

An Epic/MRA poll in late February found that likely Michigan Democratic primary voters considered Clinton better qualified, particularly on terrorism issues, and predicted she had a better chance of winning the general election, at 72 percent to Sanders's 17 percent. Even when it came to one of his strongest talking points, "will be a more progressive President," likely voters still favored Clinton, 45 percent to 42 percent. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the day of the Democratic primary in Michigan. It will take place on March 8, a Tuesday. 

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