vision 2020

Can Bernie Beat the Polls and Win Michigan Again?

Michigan could be the ball game in the battle between Sanders and Biden. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Any long look at the primary calendar in the weeks ahead indicates a playing field strongly tilted in the direction of Joe Biden thanks to his strength among African-American, older, and self-identified moderate voters. That coalition makes the former veep an overwhelming favorite against Bernie Sanders in the South and Northeast. Given Sanders’s presumed strength in the West (he won Nevada on February 22 and California, Colorado, and Utah on Super Tuesday), the Midwest could be the deciding region. That’s why so much attention is being focused on Michigan among the six states holding primaries on March 10.

If Sanders manages to lose Michigan, a state he won against Hillary Clinton in 2016, you can expect (perhaps premature) obituaries of his candidacy to appear. And the signs aren’t good for Bernie, with late polls showing Biden expanding a modest lead in the state into a potential rout, per this Free Press/EPIC-MRA survey released on March 9:

Former Vice President Joe Biden, riding a wave of momentum from primaries in South Carolina and Super Tuesday states, comes into Tuesday’s Michigan primary with a 24-point lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders in a new Free Press poll.

If Biden’s 51%-27% lead in the poll, done by EPIC-MRA for the Free Press and its media partners, holds, it would guarantee him a signature victory in Michigan — a battleground state that helped President Donald Trump win the White House four years ago. It could also starve Sanders’ formerly front-running campaign of delegates needed for the nomination and call into question how long his effort can remain viable. 

“Something happened on Super Tuesday with (other) candidates getting out and people are all of a sudden questioning Bernie’s positions on issues,” said Bernie Porn, pollster for Lansing-based EPIC-MRA, which conducted the survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters between Wednesday and Friday. “If anything, it may be low in terms of the percentage that Biden may get.”

Other late polls of Michigan have Biden up by larger (Target-Insyght: 41 points) or smaller (Monmouth: 15 points) margins, but the bottom line is the same.

Sanders partisans may rejoin that polls also showed Hillary Clinton routing Sanders in Michigan four years ago. She led in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages by 21 points (58/37). Bernie narrowly won the primary on the strength of a coalition of his usual millennial core constituency with white, non-college-educated voters, among whom Sanders did surprisingly well.

So far in 2020, Sanders is again crushing it among under-30 voters and has added a consistent advantage among Latinos. But his performance among white working-class voters was mixed on Super Tuesday, as Ron Brownstein recently noted:

[I]n most states, Biden reversed Sanders’s previously consistent advantage among white voters without a college degree …

During his 2016 race, Sanders carried most of them, according to the cumulative exit-poll analysis, and he won most of them in each of the first four states this year too. But last night showed that Sanders now has genuine competition: The exit polls found that Biden carried most of them in Virginia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, while Sanders won them in Texas, Vermont, Colorado, and California. (The two split them closely in North Carolina.)

The other factor that makes a repetition of Sanders’s 2016 upset in Michigan less likely involves turnout. As Tim Alberta observes, it was underwhelming in 2016:

Where the Vermont senator saw a sudden groundswell of support for his insurgent candidacy—a narrative that proved irresistible to much of the media—Democrats on the ground in Michigan saw something very different. They saw disturbingly low turnout.

This year, Michigan primary turnout is widely anticipated to be significantly higher, mostly because since 2016 Michigan adopted early voting by no-excuse absentee ballot. The state’s unusually long (45-day) window for voting by absentee ballot makes it difficult to assess the impact of the ongoing national race on voting patterns in Michigan. But certainly those who waited until late in the window to vote may be subject to the same influences that boosted Biden so decisively between the Nevada
caucuses (where he began his comeback with a second-place finish) and
Super Tuesday.

Sanders has responded to the threat of a debilitating loss in Michigan by virtually ignoring the other March 10 states (including Mississippi and Missouri, where Biden is expected to win easily, and Idaho, North
Dakota, and Washington, which feature much closer races) to mobilize his Michigan base, notes Alberta:

Knowing full well the implications of defeat in Michigan, the senator cancelled a planned trip to another March 10 state, Mississippi, and went all-in here. Sanders touched every region of the state in the 96 hours before primary day—focusing on African-Americans in Detroit and Flint, catching a diverse cross-section of voters in Grand Rapids, rallying the Arab American community in Dearborn and closing out with a college rally on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. 

Biden has spent far less time in Michigan, perhaps reflecting the belief that “[b]ecause Michigan means far more to Sanders than it does to Biden, the best approach might be staying away—making victory all the more crushing.”

Most observers are projecting a slow count in Michigan thanks to the boost in mail ballots. If the state is called early for Biden, his margin could be as large as polls suggest.

This post has been updated.

Can Bernie Beat the Polls and Win Michigan Again?