'Michigan or bust' for Sanders – and it's going to be bust

All the digital ink spilled about Super Tuesday is fawning over former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE and his miraculous comeback. But the fact is that Biden’s winning comes down to two things. First, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives soaring after big primary night 'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Sanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they're voting for Biden MORE (I-Vt.) is a weak candidate whose success was built on quirks in the Democratic nominating process, not on real popularity. Second, simply existing while all others fail is a winning strategy for Biden.

Let’s start by establishing that the Democratic race is over. Biden will be the nominee, and he will win on the first ballot. The only chance Sanders has is if he can win the Midwest states he won in 2016 (plus the ones he didn’t) — which makes Michigan a must-win state for him. But it doesn’t look at all favorable for him in the Wolverine State — or anywhere else in the Midwest. (Raise your hand if you thought Biden would steamroll through the Democratic field — just a hand or two, maybe, and let’s forget February.)

Three fatal signs for Sanders

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For Sanders, Super Tuesday was an epic disaster on multiple fronts — even if the eventual results from California give him a big win.

First, he did not capitalize on geography. He lost in New England outside of Vermont. Losing Massachusetts to native Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities The other reason Democrats want Biden to shun debates The Memo: Biden faces balancing act MORE might have been acceptable, but losing to Biden there and in Maine is a humiliation. Sanders’ totals fell over 20 points in the Bay State from 2016. And Vermont wasn’t too kind, barely giving Sanders a majority — a fall of 35 points from 2016.  Sanders also saw two states flip on him (Oklahoma and Minnesota).

Sanders’ second problem is how he did with late deciders — he got crushed. According the exit polling, Biden outpolled Sanders by as much as 50 points with late deciders. As a result, Sanders’ totals in all the states with significant early voting (California, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas and Utah) are highly suspect. In Texas alone, 1.1 million votes were cast during the period when Joe Biden was at his nadir in the polls — and yet Sanders couldn’t win. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of votes were cast for Buttigieg and Klobuchar who ended up backing Biden. Presumably, at least a plurality of those votes would have gone to Biden.

The third problem for Sanders is his results in former caucus states. In 2016 Sanders won 11 of 13 caucuses with an average total of 64 percent. But Democrats have mostly dropped caucuses. Only four remain and, after Iowa and Nevada, only two small states (North Dakota and Wyoming) are left to caucus. Four former caucus states voted on Tuesday, and the results were disastrous for Sanders. Minnesota and Maine flipped to Biden — with his vote totals cratering by over 30 points in each. Sanders won Colorado and Utah, but with totals that fell 23 and 45 points, respectively.

Going forward everything is against Sanders. In addition to only two caucus states remaining, he now heads into less favorable geography. His strongest regions, the West Coast and New England have mostly voted — only Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington are left. And, more significantly, his polling numbers are falling precipitously.

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Last stand in Michigan

Sanders has one last shot: He must win Michigan — and continue to win in the Midwest. But Michigan and the Midwest are very much a long shot for him, and the polling dynamic over the past two months is ominous.

Just as with national polling, Biden consistently led the Democratic field in Michigan throughout 2019 up to Feb. 8, when Biden crashed everywhere. That date is when the first post-Iowa polls were released in the wake of Biden’s terrible showing. Sanders took the lead over Biden 25 percent to 16 percent in the last poll before South Carolina — but the first post-South Carolina poll in Michigan saw Biden jump 13 points to a 29-23 lead over Sanders. And the poll still has Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar getting a combined 20 points. Given the late move to Biden everywhere, Michigan has to be not just strong for Biden, but a likely 10-15 point victory.

It is true that Sanders won Michigan in 2016, and he also won Wisconsin, Indiana and had a very close loss in Illinois. But the fact is that Sanders has yet to hold on to all his voters from 2016 and is generally falling by double-digits. Sanders can’t win leaking away votes, and there is no sign of that stopping.

Sanders’ frontrunner status was always built on a foundation of sand. And by just hanging around while everyone else evaporates turns out to be a pretty good strategy for Biden.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711