As path to nomination narrows, Sanders hopes for Michigan surprise

Why We Wrote This

Tuesday’s Michigan primary – the first in a big industrial northern state – will test Bernie Sanders’ support among white working-class voters, and the extent to which Democrats as a whole are consolidating behind Joe Biden.

Paul Sancya/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Michigan, which Senator Sanders won four years ago in a surprise upset over Hillary Clinton, is one of six states holding primaries on March 10.

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If South Carolina once looked like Joe Biden’s last stand, Michigan is now looking like Bernie Sanders’.

After underperforming on Super Tuesday, Senator Sanders badly needs a win here – the state with the biggest cache of delegates on March 10 – or he may wind up too far behind the former vice president to have a realistic hope of catching up.

In 2016, Senator Sanders edged Hillary Clinton in Michigan in a stunning upset. Then, it was noncollege-educated white voters in the central and northern parts of the state who helped put him over the top. But Super Tuesday revealed surprising Biden strength in this demographic, with Mr. Biden carrying noncollege whites in Minnesota over Senator Sanders, 44% to 32%. 

And the Vermont senator is finding himself on the wrong side of a tectonic shift in the Democratic race, as the party’s voters appear to be coalescing around what they see as Job 1: beating President Donald Trump.

“This is an election cycle to be pragmatic for us Democrats,” says Deborah Laraway, at her Pizza Plus Restaurant in the western Michigan village of Pullman. “I’ve said all along that when the primary came, I’d vote for the front-runner.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders needs to win Michigan’s Democratic primary, badly. The self-proclaimed political revolutionary underperformed on Super Tuesday, and a defeat in Michigan – the first Rust Belt state to cast nomination ballots, and the state with the biggest delegate haul among those voting March 10 – could put him too far behind former Vice President Joe Biden to have a realistic hope of catching up.

Senator Sanders edged Hillary Clinton here in a stunning upset in 2016. Recently, he’s scrapped rallies in Missouri and Mississippi to focus on Michigan, where he’s denounced Mr. Biden’s past support for “disastrous” trade pacts, and charged that a Super PAC associated with the former vice president is raking in money “from every special interest out there.”

But the Vermont senator is finding himself on the wrong side of a tectonic shift in the Democratic race. The party’s voters, across demographic groups, appear to be coalescing around what they see as Job 1: building a coalition to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

“This is an election cycle to be pragmatic for us Democrats,” says Deborah Laraway, who has been cooking and serving meals at her Pizza Plus restaurant in the western Michigan village of Pullman for 35 years. 

Lee A. Dean
Deborah Laraway stands in the restaurant she has owned and operated for 35 years in Pullman, Michigan. She favors pragmatism over ideology in the 2020 election to find the candidate with the best chance to oust President Donald Trump.

Michigan is a decent microcosm of the national electorate. In that sense it will be a test of national political trends, and perhaps will clarify what is now essentially a two-man Democratic race.

It does have more African American voters than the national norm, at around 25%, according to FiveThirtyEight figures based on the 2016 electorate. It also has fewer Latino voters, at around 3%. These deviations could weigh against Mr. Sanders, as African American voters generally have been a strong constituency for Mr. Biden, while Latinos have leaned pro-Bernie.

Noncollege-educated whites make up about 42% of the Michigan electorate – a slightly higher rate than that of other big northern states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. And it was noncollege whites in the central and northern parts of the state who helped Mr. Sanders surprise Mrs. Clinton four years ago.

But Super Tuesday revealed surprising Biden strength in this demographic. In Minnesota, Mr. Biden carried noncollege whites over Mr. Sanders, 44% to 32%, even though the former vice president didn’t campaign in the state.

A recent Detroit News/WDIV poll found Mr. Biden leading Mr. Sanders in Michigan, 29% to 22.5%. In general, the state has followed the contours of national polling, with Mr. Biden a weak early favorite who declined following early defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, then came back strong after a big win in South Carolina, says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University and author of “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States.”

Michigan Democrats have a particular reason to rally around the current front-runner, says Dr. Grossmann – President Trump’s whisper-close victory there in 2016 was key to his election.

Take Karen Block. She lives in Cooper Township, just north of Kalamazoo. She works at a laboratory testing facility and her husband is a deputy at Kalamazoo County jail. She has two college-age children burdened with student loans who support Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Block likes some of Mr. Sanders’ proposals, including raising the tax rates for the top 10% to 20% of Americans and strengthening environmental regulations.

“But I still think Biden’s going to be the one,” she says. “He’s going to appeal more to the moderates and to the people who are not going to vote for Trump or who do not want to.”

For Rick Seams, who lives near the southwest Michigan village of Bloomingdale, the primary serves as an opportunity to strike the first blow against President Trump and the conservative movement.

Mr. Seams worked in the paper industry for 28 years in union shops before taking his current job at a nonunion pharmaceutical manufacturing facility. He has been a consistent Democratic voter, he says.

He remembers thinking in 2016 that Mr. Sanders was “a little too far left.” If the Vermont lawmaker were to gain the 2020 nomination, Mr. Seams would support him against President Trump. But that same doubt he had about Mr. Sanders in 2016 persists four years later.

“If it comes down to Bernie or Biden, I would have to lean toward Biden,” he says.

African American voters were essential in rescuing Mr. Biden’s campaign in South Carolina and are expected to be a strong source of support in Michigan. In February, before Mr. Biden’s resurgence began, the Michigan Black Democratic Caucus endorsed him. Other African American party leaders are offering similar support, including Joel Rutherford, chairman of the Macomb County Black Democratic Caucus.

Mr. Rutherford is a retiree from the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense. The performance of the economy under President Trump is a central issue to him.

“There’s this myth that low unemployment or a high stock market means everything is great economically. That’s just not the case for many people and especially for people of color,” he says.

Wary of radical change and worried about the harsh political climate of recent years, Mr. Rutherford says he plans to vote for Mr. Biden on Tuesday.

“There’s a big push now for people to get some sort of normalcy in politics. Joe Biden has a very good chance to do that,” says Mr. Rutherford.

Marshall Kilgore expresses similar feelings. An African American student at Western Michigan University and a native of Comstock Park, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mr. Kilgore was an organizer for the Clinton campaign in 2016 despite being too young to vote. He plans to cast his primary ballot for Mr. Biden.

“When you say words like ‘revolution’ [as Mr. Sanders often does], you scare people. You can’t use the tactics that were used in the 1960s in 2020,” Mr. Kilgore says.

Back at Pizza Plus, Deborah Laraway says she hasn’t actually decided who she’s going to vote for. But she’s clear on one thing: She won’t be voting for President Trump in November.

“I’ve said all along that when the primary came, I’d vote for the front-runner and then vote for whoever got the nod in November, even if it were Genghis Khan,” Ms. Laraway says.

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