Bernie Sanders Might Have a Michigan Problem

Bernie Sanders Might Have a Michigan Problem

It seems clear that Bernie Sanders needs to change the fundamental trajectory of the Democratic primary over the coming 12 days. And at first glance, the next contests — the states voting Tuesday — would seem to offer a promising set of opportunities. Among them is Michigan, where he posted the signature victory of his 2016 bid.

But an analysis of the primary results so far suggests that Michigan might not be as favorable to him as it was four years ago. Instead of giving him a chance to reclaim his momentum, Michigan could wind up dealing him a stinging and symbolic defeat.

Of course, Super Tuesday demonstrates that a lot can change in just a few days. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren’s departure will provide a needed boost. Maybe Mr. Sanders will succeed in blunting Joe Biden’s support in Michigan by attacking his record on trade, or perhaps Mr. Biden will come under scrutiny and lose momentum, just as Mr. Sanders did after his big victory in Nevada.

Michigan will also be the first state in the industrial Midwest to vote; it is possible that the trends evident elsewhere won’t materialize there.

But Mr. Sanders has so far failed to match his 2016 strength across the white, working-class North this year, and that suggests it will be hard for him to win Michigan.

This pattern has held without exception this primary season. It was true in Iowa and New Hampshire against Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. It was true in Maine, Minnesota, Massachusetts and even Vermont on Super Tuesday against Mr. Biden.

Over all, Mr. Biden defeated Mr. Sanders by 10 points, 38 percent to 28 percent, in counties across Maine, Minnesota and Massachusetts where white voters made up at least 80 percent of the electorate and where college graduates represented less than 40 percent of the electorate. According to the exit polls, Mr. Biden was tied or ahead among white voters in every state east of the Mississippi River on Super Tuesday.

This is a marked departure from 2016. Back then, Mr. Sanders tended to excel among white, working-class and rural voters across the North. This made Michigan, where white voters represent a well-above-average share of the Democratic electorate, one of his stronger states. He dominated in Michigan’s small towns and rural areas, losing only in few counties that tended to have older voters.

It is hard to say why Mr. Sanders has faltered among these voters, given the consistency of his message and his improved name recognition. One possibility is that many of his 2016 supporters were casting protest votes against Hillary Clinton. Another possibility is that many former supporters of Mr. Sanders ultimately backed the president and are now lost to the Democrats.

Whatever the cause, Mr. Sanders has often made up for losses in white, working-class areas this year with gains among Latino voters and white voters who live in left-liberal areas. In a sense, he has traded strength in states like Maine and Minnesota for strength in California. This is a bad trade in Michigan, where Latino voters make up only a sliver of the Democratic electorate. It may be an even worse trade in Michigan than it was in Minnesota or Maine, since there are relatively few overwhelmingly Democratic left-liberal enclaves akin to Minneapolis or Portland, Maine. Only the state’s major college towns — Ann Arbor and Lansing — fall into a similar category.

There are few obvious opportunities for Mr. Sanders to make up ground in Michigan. It has an above-average black population, and Mr. Biden will most likely win black voters by a comfortable margin, even if a more modest one than in the South. The suburbs around Detroit are not likely to be particularly favorable for Mr. Sanders, either. He lost suburban Oakland and Macomb Counties in 2016, and he has consistently struggled in affluent suburbs this cycle.

One area where Mr. Sanders might hope to rekindle his old magic is in Western Michigan, where he defeated Mrs. Clinton by a wide margin in metropolitan Grand Rapids. But this region is probably not populous enough to carry Mr. Sanders to victory on its own. Mr. Biden might also excel among more moderate voters who chose to participate in the more competitive 2016 Republican primary last time, but might now vote in the Democratic race.

The rest of the states voting Tuesday offer few obvious opportunities for Mr. Sanders to turn around the race. Yes, there are Washington and Idaho, two states with liberal Democratic voters similar to those in California, Utah and Colorado, where Mr. Sanders won on Super Tuesday.

But even big wins in these Sanders strongholds may not impress. They won’t be surprises, for one thing, given his record of success in the region. Mr. Sanders is also highly likely to underperform his 50-point wins there from 2016. This is not a fair comparison for Mr. Sanders — these were caucus states four years ago, a format he excelled in, and they are now holding primaries — but it may not stop the comparison from being made.

Mr. Biden will have strong states of his own Tuesday. Mississippi could be Mr. Biden’s strongest state in the country, as it was for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, because black voters there make up a larger share of the electorate than in any other state. Missouri poses a Michigan-like challenge for Mr. Sanders, but here the more conservative white vote would seem to offer even fewer opportunities for Mr. Sanders.

Without a decisive shift to Mr. Sanders on Tuesday, Mr. Biden could keep his momentum rolling into the next wave of states on March 17: Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Ohio. After Georgia votes a week later, 64 percent of all the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will have been awarded. If Mr. Biden fares as well in these states as he did in demographically similar areas on Super Tuesday, he will probably claim a delegate lead that is impossible to reverse.

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