Sanders surges toward Michigan as doubts swirl on beating Trump

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — In a hat and gloves on a February night in Michigan, Bob McMurray holds a campaign sign touting Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in one hand and waves to passers-by with his other.

McMurray, who is promoting an event for Sanders volunteers, quickly brushes away the idea that the democratic socialist U.S. senator from Vermont is too far to the political left to win the presidency. His sign promises, "Bernie beats Trump."

"In comparison to the rest of the world, Bernie Sanders is dead nut center,” said the Ann Arbor resident, adding, "I don’t see him being too far left. I see us being too far right."

Stanley Njuguna, a field organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, speaks to a crowd during an event in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Sanders is hoping to repeat his 2016 Michigan primary win in 2020.

As the state's March 10 presidential primary nears, Sanders is gaining momentum with a big victory in the Nevada caucuses that has vaulted him to an early delegate lead after a narrow win in New Hampshire and a close second-place finish in Iowa. His rise is stirring debate among Democrats in Michigan — a key battleground — where Sanders supporters, like McMurray, are feeling inspired but his skeptics are sounding alarms.

Four years ago, Sanders was an underdog in Michigan's primary but defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by nearly two percentage points. Now, even some of Sanders' opponents identify him as the favorite in a larger field.

Sanders has raised more money than other Democratic candidates from Michigan donors and secured the support of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. He has tied U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar for the most campaign visits to Michigan at six.

Sanders has also gained a following of committed volunteers in the state. Before he sent paid campaign staff to Michigan, the volunteers had organized more than 600 events here, according to the campaign. 

"Bernie’s campaign never really needed" the paid staff, said Abdul El-Sayed, another Sanders supporter from Michigan who ran for governor in 2018. "The grassroots energy in Michigan has just been so strong and so consistent.”

Amid the push for Sanders, some Democrats in the state say they are worried a democratic socialist could struggle against President Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state since 1988, beating Clinton by 10,704 votes.

If Sanders ends up as the nominee, he could be a detriment to down-ballot Michigan Democrats in some geographic areas, key party members have argued.

Democratic presidential candidate and senator, Bernie Sanders speaks.

Brandon Dillon, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said he's concerned that Sanders' self-identification as a democratic socialist could hurt Democratic candidates in suburban swing districts. That's where the party has made gains that propelled Democrats to win back the governor's office, flip two congressional districts and pick up 10 seats in the Legislature in 2018.

"He’s got a very strong and committed base of support that is going to be with him, and he does have the potential to bring out some younger voters," Dillon said of Sanders. "My concern is he has never really been tested" in a general election.

The concern reverberated this week after Sanders defended past favorable comments about the Cuban communist regime of Fidel Castro to "60 Minutes."

"We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it's unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?" he said.

Florida Democrats rushed to distance themselves from Sanders' Cuba quips, according to Politico.

'The most consistent'

Sanders' "committed base of support" showed up last week on the campus of the University of Michigan, three weeks before the state's primary election. More than 100 Sanders supporters attended an organizing event at Palmer Commons.

There were no headline speakers to draw attendees, but only campaign staffers signing up volunteers to talk to their neighbors, knock on doors and use a cellphone application to track their efforts.

The campaign has a strategy to go "grocery store line to grocery store line" and "neighbor to neighbor," said Michael Fasullo, Sanders' new Michigan coordinator.

Elizabeth Cetnar, a sophomore at the University of Michigan from Macomb Township, helps organize college students to support Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

"That’s what’s going to win us this election," he said. "That’s what pushed over the line in Iowa. That’s what pushed over the edge in New Hampshire."

Fasullo was Sanders' statewide field director in Iowa — the first state to weigh in on the nominating process — before coming to Michigan.

"Michigan is really important to us," he acknowledged, since it has the most delegates at stake among the six Democratic contests on March 10.

In 2016, Sanders, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 2006, got 598,943 votes here, beating Clinton by fewer than 18,000 votes. But he won all but 10 of Michigan's 83 counties.

Sanders did particularly well in counties with college campuses, such as Washtenaw County, which is home to UM, and Ingham County, which is home to Michigan State University. Sanders beat Clinton by 11 percentage points in Washtenaw.

The situation is still looking positive for Sanders on the campus, said Porter Hughes, a UM freshman and a member of the "Students for Bernie" executive team.

"He speaks to the issues we care about, whether that’s climate change, whether that’s the student debt crisis, whether that’s Medicare for All," Hughes said. "All of these issues affect us personally every single day."

More than 100 people attended an organizing event for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Feb. 18.

Sanders has proposed a national health care system that would eliminate private insurance by providing universal government-run coverage under a plan called Medicare for All that wouldn't resemble the current Medicare system. He also would cancel all student loan debt for "the some 45 million Americans who owe about $1.6 trillion," according to his campaign website.

The price tag attached to these plans — a similar Medicare for All plan would cost at least $34 trillion over 10 years, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute and Commonweath Fund — has drawn the ire of Sanders' opponents.

On climate change, the Vermont senator has said it's the "single greatest challenge facing our country." Lauren Sargent, a retired psychologist from Ann Arbor, touted Sanders' position on climate change when discussing her support.

"I know that the best predictor of behavior is past behavior," she said. "This is the most consistent person I’ve ever seen. The guy is just as consistent as they come."

And Sanders, a New York native, has a lengthy political record. He moved to Vermont after college and was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. He served as a U.S. House representative before winning his seat in the Senate in 2006.

"He stands for the right stuff, including standing up for stuff when it’s not popular," Sargent said.

Can he beat Trump?

Sanders' campaign has been focused on countering opponents' arguments that he's too far left to beat Trump in November, but concerns from other Democrats remain.

In a head-to-head matchup with Trump, Sanders was up four percentage points in early January, according to a survey of 600 likely Michigan voters by the Glengariff Group. It marked an eight-point drop from a 12-point advantage he held over the Republican incumbent in a May 2019 Glengariff survey.

Linda Wan and Bob McMurray, both of Ann Arbor, wave to passers-by outside a meeting of Bernie Sanders supporters in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Sanders' latest margin over Trump was smaller than those of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden. But it was larger than those of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Sanders possibly could put new states in play that wouldn't otherwise be competitive by inspiring new voters, said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of southeast Michigan's 13th Congressional District Democratic Party organization.

"The road map to the White House may change, and Bernie Sanders may be the candidate to do it," Kinloch said.

Asked about Democrats privately voicing concerns about Sanders, Kinloch said Democratic officials have concerns about all of the potential nominees. Instead, he argued, they should focus on Trump.

There would likely be winners and losers on the Democratic side if Sanders were the nominee, said state Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, who chairs the legislative labor caucus. In affluent areas, Sanders may not do well, he said. The 78-year-old senator also may not motivate individuals Elder described as "pink hat voters," referring to the hats worn by some to the Women's Marches.

"For blue-collar voters, I don’t think he’d be unacceptable at all," Elder said.

There are blue-collar voters who tied 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to trade deals they opposed and preferred Trump's opposition of those agreements, Elder said. But he said those voters could be in play for Sanders, who has criticized the country's trade policies for decades.

But many blue-collar voters in the key Michigan battleground of Macomb County are already locked in for Trump, said Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant and the owner of Lansing-based DiSano Strategies. He also is a former Macomb resident.

"I would consider the candidacy high-risk, low-reward,” DiSano said of Sanders, adding he could hurt Democrats farther down the ballot.

"This could take down a lot of good people," he added.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib hugs Sen. Bernie Sanders  at their campaign rally at Cass Tech High School in Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

Dillon, who served as Michigan Democratic Party chairman from 2015 through 2018, said he's concerned about Sanders' impact in places such as Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, Oakland County and Grand Traverse County, home to Traverse City. There are emerging, growing Democratic electorates opposing Trump in those areas, he said.

Two areas of concern are Michigan's two largest counties — Wayne and Oakland — that are home to seven state legislative districts and two congressional districts that Democrats flipped in 2018. They're also two of 10 counties where Clinton defeated Sanders during the 2016 primary.

In Wayne County, which includes the African American-majority city of Detroit, Clinton beat Sanders by nearly 22 percentage points in the primary. In the general election, she struggled by receiving 76,402 fewer voters out of the county than former President Barack Obama did in 2012.

"Bernie could win statewide in Michigan in a general election and still, we could have losses in other places on the ticket," Dillon said.

But Trump's win in 2016 came when Dillon was chairman, noted El-Sayed, whom Sanders endorsed for governor in 2018. Some in the Democratic Party, he said, fear what a Sanders victory would mean for their power. 

Bernie Sanders

State: Vermont

Age: 77

Claims to fame: The self-described democratic socialist and U.S. senator narrowly won Michigan's 2016 Democratic primary by energizing college crowds with his big government plans, proved a prolific fundraiser with grassroots supporters and fueled the party's leftward turn.

Biggest weaknesses: He is among three candidates who would be the oldest individual ever elected as president, has failed to diversify his mostly white voting base and potentially has too radical of a platform to win a general election.

Detroit debate moment: He fought off attacks by moderate liberal Democrats. “I get a little bit tired of Democrats tired of big ideas,” he said. "Republicans are not tired of big ideas. They can hand a trillion dollars of tax breaks to billionaires and profitable corporations, they can bail out the crooks on Wall Street, so please don’t tell me we can’t take on the fossil fuel industry, and nothing happens unless we do that.”

Candidate visits to Michigan: April 13 in Coopersville and Warren; July 24 for the NAACP national convention in Detroit; July 28 caravan from Detroit to Windsor to buy insulin with patients; July 30 debate in Detroit; Sept. 25 picketed outside GM Detroit-Hamtramck plant with UAW members; Oct. 27 rally in Detroit.