To have any hope of catching up to Joe Biden after the former vice president’s dominant performance on Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders needs to win Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in Michigan — a state where the Vermont senator upset rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests that Sanders has his work cut out for him. According to the survey, which was conducted from March 6 to March 8, Biden currently leads Sanders by 13 percentage points among likely Democratic primary voters in the Great Lakes State, 54 percent to 41 percent.
That lead is part of Biden’s larger advantage across the three Rust Belt states that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016, effectively deciding that year’s election. In Wisconsin, which holds its primary on April 7, Biden leads Sanders 49 percent to 38 percent; 9 percent of voters there remain undecided. In Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 28 and where Biden was born and raised, the former vice president leads Sanders 59 percent to 31 percent — an astounding 28-point margin. Seven percent of Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters say they’re undecided.
These results represent a sharp post-Super Tuesday turnaround for Biden, who won 10 of the 14 states that voted last week after a resounding victory in South Carolina prompted rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out and endorse him, along with much of the rest of the Democratic Party establishment.
In late February, a University of Wisconsin poll showed Sanders ahead of Biden by 5 points in Pennsylvania, 9 points in Michigan and 17 points in Wisconsin.
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll also found that Biden tends to perform slightly better than Sanders in general-election matchups against Trump. Both Democrats led the incumbent overall across all three battleground states — 45 percent to 41 percent for Biden; 44 percent to 41 percent for Sanders — but Biden’s leads were larger than Sanders’s in Michigan (+4 percent for Biden vs. +1 percent for Sanders) and Pennsylvania (+6 percent for Biden vs. +2 percent for Sanders). Wisconsin was the outlier, showing a larger lead for Sanders (+6 percent) than Biden (+2 percent).
Voters in all three states also disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s job-approval rating is underwater by 11 points (43 percent to 54 percent). In Wisconsin, it’s underwater by 10 points (43 percent to 53 percent). And in Michigan, it’s underwater by 7 points (45 percent to 52 percent). Across all three states, a plurality of voters (43 percent) say they “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s performance.
It’s not just Michigan’s 125 Democratic delegates — the largest prize on a day when Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and North Dakota also vote — that make it a must-win for Sanders on Tuesday.
Both Sanders and Biden argue that they (and they alone) can triumph in November in part because of their unique appeal to white working-class voters, who propelled Trump to the White House four years ago. This is the same group that helped Sanders beat Clinton in Michigan by 1.5 points in the 2016 primary.
Yet on Super Tuesday, Biden won whites without college degrees 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 Biden upset Sanders in both primaries, which Sanders was widely expected to win.
If the Yahoo News/YouGov poll is correct, that trend may continue in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; the poll shows Sanders trailing Biden by 21 points (34 percent to 55 percent) among white voters without a college degree across these three states.
After Sanders failed in earlier primary states to deliver on his hopes of turning out young voters, new voters and voters of color at historic levels, losing to Biden in Michigan — particularly among working-class whites — would undermine the last leg of his electability argument.
The poll suggests several explanations for Sanders’s weakening position in battlegrounds like Michigan. Across the three states surveyed, Democratic voters liked Sanders’s positions on the issues, with majorities favoring Medicare for All (54 percent to 21 percent), a ban on fracking (60 percent to 12 percent) and free public college and the cancellation of student debt (63 percent to 17 percent).
But there is also a fundamental ideological divide between Sanders and the broader Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania electorates. Across all three states, 63 percent of registered voters describe Sanders as “very liberal,” but only 9 percent of voters described themselves the same way.
Biden, meanwhile, was largely seen as “somewhat liberal” (29 percent) or “moderate” (26 percent). Roughly half (49 percent) of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voters described themselves that way. About a third identified as “conservative” or “very conservative.” Forty percent of voters described Trump as very conservative.
Likewise, only 32 percent of Democratic voters across these three states had a favorable view of socialism; the number was even lower — 20 percent — among the broader electorate there. (Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist.) And despite the popularity of Sanders’s policy positions among Democrats in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Biden appears to be a better general-election fit: For instance, Biden’s health care plan (a public option) is favored by 16 percentage points among the broader electorate in these three states (41 percent to 25 percent), while Sanders’s Medicare for All plan is opposed by 7 points (35 percent to 42 percent).
The poll wasn’t all bad news for Sanders. Pluralities of voters across all three states favored his fracking ban, and 58 percent of voters there agreed that Sanders “says what he believes” versus only 30 percent who answered that he “says what he thinks people want to hear.” A plurality (41 percent) also described Sanders as “honest and trustworthy” — beating both Biden (38 percent yes vs. 40 percent no) and Trump (33 percent yes vs. 57 percent no). And it’s worth remembering that in 2016, pre-primary polls in Michigan showed Sanders trailing Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.
Yet Biden led both Trump and Sanders on another key metric, with 40 percent of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin voters saying they “like” the former vice president “somewhat” or “a lot” — versus only 35 percent for Sanders and 33 percent for Trump.
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll surveyed 1,750 registered voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin between March 6 and March 8. The margin of error was +/- 3.3 percent on the full sample, +/- 5.1 percent in Pennsylvania, +/- 5.8 percent in Michigan and +/- 6.4 percent in Wisconsin.
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