Sanders looks to regain momentum in must-win Michigan
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is turning to Michigan to revive his once formidable campaign as fears grow on the left that former Vice President Joe Biden is on the cusp of building an insurmountable delegate lead.
The Michigan primary on Tuesday might be Sanders’s last, best shot at slowing Biden. There are 125 delegates at stake in Michigan, more than anywhere else that night. The map becomes very difficult for Sanders in the weeks ahead, with Biden appearing poised for blowout victories in Mississippi on Tuesday and Florida on March 17.
Sanders is cutting his losses in Mississippi, canceling a planned trip there and adding new stops across Michigan. Sanders has not been remotely competitive with Biden in Southern states with large black populations.
Instead, Sanders hopes his message blaming Biden for trade deals he says have harmed working-class voters in the Midwest will resonate in Michigan, where he pulled off a stunning and unexpected victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Sanders’s allies are under no illusions about how much they have riding on Michigan after Biden won big on Super Tuesday, pushing him past Sanders in the delegate count.
“Since Bernie is cutting loose the Southern states … [Michigan] certainly looms as a crucial state that he probably has to win big to offset delegate gains Biden will likely make in the next two weeks in places like Florida, Mississippi and probably Missouri,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and Sanders supporter.
Tasini expressed optimism, saying that “Michigan should align perfectly for Bernie’s message about corporate greed hollowing out the middle class, especially when it comes to Biden’s support for NAFTA and other bad trade deals.”
Still, Sanders faces a more popular rival in Biden in 2020 than he did in Clinton in 2016. Super Tuesday showed a wave of support growing behind Biden’s campaign across nearly every region and demographic group.
With former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg out of the race, Biden now has the centrist lane all to himself.
Older voters and suburbanites have turned out in big numbers to vote for Biden, while Sanders’s new coalition of young voters has not come out to the polls as much as he had hoped.
Super Tuesday exit polls indicated that Sanders’s support has eroded among the white working-class voters who powered his 2016 run.
Biden has picked up a number of influential endorsements in Michigan this week, including from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as well as Reps. Elissa Slotkin, Haley Stevens, and Brenda Lawrence.
Slotkin represents a district Trump won in 2016. She’s the kind of moderate House member that some Democrats fear would be in peril with Sanders at the top of the ticket.
There are no polls from Michigan since Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dropped out of the race, but Biden likely stands to gain significantly with Bloomberg gone.
A Detroit News poll released on March 3 found Biden at 29 percent support, followed by Sanders at 22.5 percent, Bloomberg at 10.5 percent and Warren at 6.7 percent.
“The former vice president has the wind at his back after Super Tuesday and he’s picked up some really important endorsements both nationally and here in Michigan,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist based out of Lansing, Mich.
“Sanders has to win here, no doubt about it, and it’s possible that he could. But one thing working against him, compared to 2016, is the candidate he’s up against. Sen. Sanders did well with white working-class and non-college educated voters in 2016. Part of his appeal was the utter lack of appeal from his opponent. That’s not the case this time,” Hemond added.
Sanders is going after Biden with everything he’s got.
The Vermont senator is running ads in Michigan warning that Biden wants to freeze spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, making a direct appeal to the older voters who make up a critical part of Biden’s base.
Sanders is also pointing to Biden’s vote in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq, and he’s added a new attack over Biden’s past support for former President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
And Sanders is looking to chip away at the notion that Biden is the more electable of the two in a head-to-head match-up against President Trump, which is the top issue for most Democratic primary voters.
After Trump attacked Biden this week for wanting to freeze Social Security and for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Sanders campaign pounced, arguing that those issues will cost Democrats in key battleground states in the general election.
“Donald Trump tonight sent a warning shot to our party — if we nominate a candidate like Joe Biden who has repeatedly tried to cut Social Security and pushed disastrous trade deals, Trump will exploit that vulnerability in an effort to obscure his own record and win the battleground states that could swing the general election,” said Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir.
There are some reasons for optimism for Sanders in Michigan.
The Democratic primary electorate there in 2016 was 70 percent white and only 20 percent black. While Biden has won about two-thirds of black voters in the Southern states he’s carried, Biden and Sanders effectively split the black vote in nearby Minnesota.
Sanders is running ads in Michigan touting his relationship with former President Obama, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who represents one of only two majority black districts in Michigan, has been campaigning for Sanders in Detroit.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson endorsed Sanders over the weekend. The Vermont senator also held a town hall event on racial and economic justice in Flint, Mich., in addition to stops in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.
And while polls look grim for Sanders at the moment, surveys of Michigan were way off in 2016, showing Clinton ahead by 20 points or more ahead of Sanders’s narrow victory of just over a percentage point.
“I feel good about the momentum we have. I think we are going to do well on Tuesday and beat Biden,” Sanders told Fox News’s Chris Wallace on Sunday. “You know, last time, as you indicated, it was seen as a big upset because polling had us down literally 20 points one day to the election.”
Still, most Democrats believe the polls accurately reflect the state of the race after Biden’s decisive Super Tuesday.
“I think it’s possible the polls are wrong, but it’s unlikely,” said Hemond. “Part of what happened in 2016 was the disconnect between preference and enthusiasm, and that showed up on Election Day. But Sen. Sanders’s theory of the campaign was that he’d turn out new, young voters. That’s been a failure to date, and Super Tuesday threw that into sharp relief.”
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