In the mythology of Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly competitive challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016, his March 8 win in Michigan was particularly important. Most immediately, it gave him a much-needed victory (against the polling odds) to counter Clinton’s early-March landslide wins across the South. But it also showed that Sanders wasn’t just the candidate of the young voters he was carrying by immense margins everywhere: His attacks on free trade agreements and other alleged tokens of Democratic Establishment corporate whoredom were credited with giving him a special appeal among the noncollege-educated white working-class voters the party had been steadily losing for decades.
After Michigan, analysts constantly looked for additional evidence that Sanders was a working-class hero, as Jeff Stein pointed out a couple of months later:
After Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton in the West Virginia primary last week, the national media was ready with an explanation: the white working class.
The New York Times and The Atlantic, for instance, both attributed Sanders’s win to his strength among low-income white workers. “White Working-Class Voters in West Virginia Pick Sanders Over Clinton,” read NPR’s headline.
This trope has become the conventional wisdom in the media, with the Wall Street Journal, the Nation, The Huffington Post, and a host of other outlets (including me at Vox) stating as fact that downscale whites have formed a crucial piece of Sanders’s base.
Stein went on to argue that Sanders’s strength among white downscale voters was in part an illusion created by college students who qualified as “working class” because they didn’t have a sheepskin yet and had virtually no income. But the idea that Sanders could appeal to the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil wasn’t just a data point for his fight against Clinton, but a big part of the Sanders electability argument, then and now. When Clinton went on to lose the general election via shocking losses in Michigan and other “Rust Belt” states, it gave Sanders fans all the evidence they needed to believe Bernie Woulda Won.
This time around Sanders has been running up his accustomed big numbers among young voters and has improved his performance among minority voters, particularly Latinos. And initial results showed him again doing relatively well among white noncollege-educated voters. But as Ron Brownstein points out, there were danger signs for Sanders on Super Tuesday:
[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.)
And guess which state comes up next Tuesday? That’s right: Michigan, where the most recent polling showed Biden pulling ahead of Sanders even before Super Tuesday. If Sanders loses there, the symbolic impact could be significant, Brownstein surmises:
[I]f Biden wins next week in Michigan, one of Sanders’s most significant victories four years ago, the rationale for the senator’s candidacy could quickly become murky.
Sanders reportedly plans to go after Uncle Joe with the same rip-roaring attacks on past support for trade agreements that he used against Clinton. Perhaps it will work again. Otherwise, if Sanders loses Michigan, he may not just lose delegates, but a part of his entire legend.