In Rust Belt, Bernie Sanders 'seems more down to earth'

As Illinois voters head to the polls Tuesday, more appear to have come to the same conclusion as a Nabisco bakery employee in Chicago, with Hillary Clinton's once-commanding lead dwindling.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vermont, speaks during a campaign rally in Chicago. As the Democratic presidential candidates hurtle toward the South Carolina primary Saturday and looming March contests, their contrasting pitches are on full display, with Hillary Clinton touting her regional expertise and personal ties on the ground, while Bernie Sanders focuses on his broader message of tackling income inequality and political oligarchy.

Barbara Cimbalista has worked at the Nabisco factory on Chicago's southwest side for 32 years, running the machines and doing quality checks for the company's largest bakery in the United States.

While she says she's "not really political," she began paying attention to the presidential primary election after the maker of the Oreo cookie announced that it would cut 600 jobs from the factory, starting in March, and move production down to Mexico.

Both Democratic candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and GOP front-runner Donald Trump have all thrown their support behind the Nabisco workers in an attempt to win the working class vote here. But Ms. Cimbalista says that she is supporting Senator Sanders of Vermont, because he's against the North American Free Trade Agreement and "seems more down to earth."

"He doesn't go for the companies like this one that are moving jobs to other countries," she says. "He has been on protest lines and to me he seems like he's for the middle class person."

More and more Illinoisans seem to be coming to the same conclusion as Cimbalista ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. While several polls earlier this month showed Mrs. Clinton with a comfortable lead in Illinois, a new CBS News poll  showed Sanders winning 48 percent of “Democratic likely primary voters” compared with Clinton’s 46 percent.

After his upset win in Michigan March 8, Sanders’s appeal appears to be resonating more broadly in the Rust Belt, with Public Policy Polling declaring, “the Democratic contests in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri are all toss ups.” 

Many are comparing the seeming change in voter sentiment in Illinois to Sanders’s surprise win in Michigan’s primary last Tuesday. Polls ahead of that race had Clinton leading by an average of 20 points, but Sanders ultimately won the state by 2 points.

“The results out of Michigan bode well for both Sanders and Trump here in Illinois,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “A lot of the demographics are the same – Rust Belt, manufacturing, blue collar, unhappy.

While some have questioned just how big a role the decline in manufacturing played in the Michigan primary, economic factors seem to be a high priority for Illinois voters, especially on the Democratic side.

If Sanders wins in the Rust Belt, there's a problem for Clinton, says Paul Green, professor of public administration at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

“It says that Mrs. Clinton simply isn’t liberal enough, which comes as a shock to many people in Illinois,” says Professor Green, who says he’s not sure if manufacturing jobs or free trade is key to Sanders’s appeal. “He has certainly found an avenue by which he can attack her and that is the reason he has caught up and passed her in Michigan and may beat her in Illinois and Ohio.”

Illinois has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 6.3 percent. The state has also been without a budget for the past eight months as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner clashes with the state’s Democratically controlled legislature over proposed budget cuts and restrictions on organized labor.

The budget impasse has forced many social safety net programs and public universities to cut back their services. In January, Lutheran Social Services announced that it would lay off 750 people and close its homeless shelters and senior care programs after not receiving more than $6 million promised by the state for services rendered. 

In Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University is now requiring 1,000 of its employees to take one day off without pay per week. Meanwhile, the historically black Chicago State University (CSU) canceled its spring break and moved up graduation day in the hope that seniors will be able to finish their education before the school runs out of money at the end of this month.

In the past week, Sanders has tried to distance himself even further from establishment politics by attacking Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s chief of staff and was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton. Mayor Emanuel has endorsed Hillary Clinton, which has proven a mixed blessing at best. Emanuel, whose approval rating is a basement-level 27, has faced large-scale protests and calls for his resignation over the issue of police brutality.

Even if Sanders wins in the Rust Belt, however, the impact for Clinton is more about her strength going forward, not whether she wins the nomination.

"There's no way [Sanders] could ever catch her on the delegates. Winning Michigan or winning Illinois, he'll get a few more delegates than she will," says Green. But "he's not going to win these [primaries in the Rust Belt] by the kind of margins you need to catch up on delegates."

Part of the challenge of predicting a Democratic winner in Illinois has been the inconsistency in polls over the last few weeks. Professor Yepsen – whose institute released its own poll last month which had Clinton far ahead of Sanders – says the case of Michigan indicates that surveys are “just not a good predictor, because people make up their minds late and keep changing their minds.”  

That ambiguity was evident in person last Friday, as Trump and Sanders supporters held dueling rallies at the University of Illinois Chicago campus.

Outside of the student center, a middle-aged man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was selling Trump merchandise out of a wagon. Danny Engels said that he’d made up to $1,100 in four hours selling Trump T-shirts, flags, and pins – money that he uses to support his family. But Mr. Engels is voting for Sanders in the primary.

“Sanders is the best for the working person,” Engels says. “He wants to do the right thing to help everybody.”

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