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Over the next three months, Democrats will hold another 37 primaries and caucuses, in states and territories as large as New York and as remote as the Northern Marianas. But one of them could effectively decide the party’s presidential nomination — and it’s happening next Tuesday, March 10, in Michigan.
Super Tuesday made it clear that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have very different coalitions. Biden did well with moderate voters, black voters and suburban voters. Sanders did well with liberal voters, Latino voters and young voters.
But there’s one key demographic group that both Biden and Sanders claim they can win, and it’s a subset of the electorate that didn’t get much attention this week: white working-class voters.
Both septuagenarians argue that they (and they alone) can defeat Donald Trump in part because of their unique appeal to these voters, who decided the 2016 election by flipping from Barack Obama to Trump in three pivotal Rust Belt states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Biden’s case rests on who he is and the life he has lived: his upbringing in Scranton, Pa., as the son of a used-car dealer, his down-to-earth personal and political style and the empathy he conveys as someone who has survived enormous personal tragedy in the deaths of two children and his first wife.
“I bet some of you voted for Donald Trump because we stopped talking to you,” Biden, who likes to call himself “Middle-Class Joe,” said at a campaign stop in Iowa last summer. “We sort of stopped talking to our base: high-school-educated Americans.”
Sanders’s case is less explicit. He frequently invokes the working class in his stump speech, but more as an abstraction than as a concrete part of his electoral base. Instead, he tends to say he will defeat Trump by turning out the largest “multiracial, multigenerational” coalition in American political history.
His team, however, believes he can appeal to the elusive Obama-Trump voters.
“We can’t just rely on that suburban vote,” Ben Tulchin, Sanders’s pollster, recently told the Washington Post. “Bernie has unique appeal with working-class voters. He can be more effective in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If we turn just those three states around, we win the White House.
“These suburban voters hate Trump. They’ll vote for the Democrat. Bernie can add to that coalition.”
The Michigan primary will be the first big test of the relative appeal of Biden and Sanders to blue-collar voters — and perhaps the decisive one.
Sanders heads into Michigan, where he will rally Friday in Detroit and Sunday in Grand Rapids, with history on his side. In 2016, pre-primary polls showed the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist trailing rival Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. Sanders wound up beating Clinton 50 to 48 percent on primary day — and he did it in part by running 15 points ahead of her among whites without a college degree, who made up a larger share of the electorate (36 percent) than any other group. Seeking a repeat in 2020, Sanders joined a United Auto Workers picket line in Hamtramck, rallied at a technical high school in Detroit and on Wednesday launched TV ads attacking Biden on trade and Social Security. A YouGov poll from mid-February showed Sanders leading Biden in Michigan by 9 points.
“Sanders’s pro-union message and record of standing up against outsourcing and free trade deals is going to resonate,” California Rep. Ro Khanna, Sanders’s campaign co-chair, told Politico.
But the problem for Sanders is that Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton — and momentum tends to outweigh historical analogies. On Super Tuesday, Biden won non-college-educated white voters in eight states, according to the exit polls; Sanders won them in four. Crucially, Biden swept blue-collar whites in the two northern states most like Michigan: Minnesota (where Biden won non-college whites by 12 points) and Massachusetts (where he won them by 8 points). That was a key reason why Biden upset Sanders in both primaries, which Sanders was widely expected to win.
Biden has no organization in Michigan, and his campaign has reserved just $500,000 in TV ad time there. But the only state poll taken after Biden’s South Carolina landslide showed the former vice president leading Sanders by nearly 7 points; the same survey found Sanders trailing by nearly 20 points among voters who’ve already cast absentee ballots.
And that was before Biden won another 10 states on Super Tuesday.
In 2016, Sanders’s campaign argued that his stunning primary victory in Michigan was a sign that he would be a stronger general-election candidate than Clinton. It may have a had a point. That November, an estimated 216,000 Sanders primary voters across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania wound up voting for Trump — nearly three times the 77,744 votes by which Trump won those three states (and, as a result, the Electoral College).
Sanders’s argument is that he has a better chance of winning back those voters than any other Democrat, Biden included. But a much larger number of Americans voted for the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012 and then switched to Trump-Pence in 2016; estimates range from 6.7 million to 9.2 million, with many of them concentrated in the Upper Midwest. Meanwhile, a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Democratic primary voters in general-election battleground states found that among white voters without a four-year degree, Biden had double Sanders’s support. Who better to win back these voters, Biden says, than Obama’s Scranton-born running mate and vice president?
On Tuesday, Michigan will weigh these dueling propositions. If Sanders wins the primary, he won’t just claim the lion’s share of the state’s 125 delegates; he will again be able to tout his unique working-class appeal. But after failing in earlier primary states to turn out young voters, new voters and voters of color at historic levels, failing to beat Biden in Michigan — especially while losing working-class whites — will undermine the last leg of Sanders’s electability argument.
His campaign might not recover.
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