Poll: Biden leads Sanders in Michigan ahead of Democratic primary

Former Vice President Joe Biden leads U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders among  Democratic presidential hopefuls in Michigan, according to a statewide poll that reflects a fluid Michigan race a week before the state's primary.  

The Detroit News/WDIV-TV (Local 4) survey of 600 likely Michigan Democratic primary voters found Biden leading Sanders by nearly 7 percentage points. Biden garnered 29% to 22.5% for Sanders, the self-defined democratic socialist, among Democratic voters who overwhelmingly said the top issue is which candidate has the best chance of unseating President Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg captured 10.5%, while Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had 7% in the poll, conducted by Glengariff Group. It had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points. The poll was conducted Friday through Monday. Only those winning at least 15% of the vote win delegates to the Democratic convention.

"What we saw in our numbers each night (of the poll) was a huge Biden surge," pollster Richard Czuba said. 

"But there's still great fluidity. This race is close in Michigan, and I think it will continue to be close," he added. "It's all going to be determined by who actually bothers to vote."

Sanders, 78, was viewed as an early favorite in Michigan because he staged a narrow upset victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. He has maintained a loyal infrastructure of volunteer campaign workers and raised the most money from Michigan donors among the Democratic field. 

The dynamics began to change Saturday when Biden, 77, overwhelmingly won the South Carolina primary, triggering the departures in consecutive days of billionaire Tom Steyer, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

Buttigieg and Klobuchar on Monday endorsed Biden, along with former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas, who exited the race in November. In the Michigan poll, Buttigieg received 6% support, while Klobuchar had 3%.  

Sixteen percent of those surveyed said they were undecided. Adding to the uncertainty: In the case of both Biden and Sanders, more than a third of those polled who preferred those candidates said they could change their minds before March 10.

Shifting allegiances

The turbulence of the Democratic contest is reflected in the decision-making of some surveyed voters.

Joe Butchart of Ypsilanti was leaning toward Buttigieg and Klobuchar before they suspended their campaigns on Sunday and Monday, respectively. With those options gone, Butchart, 61, shifted his support to Biden but acknowledges “it’s not the optimal choice.”

Sanders has good ideas, Butchart said, but he’d likely get “torn apart” by President Donald Trump. 

“At this point, I think there should be three parties,” Butchart said. “The Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the Anybody-but-Trump party. I think that’s where we’re at.”

By contrast, Amanda Contreras was torn between Sanders and Buttigieg. But now the 37-year-old from Allendale is all in for Sanders. 

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets people at a campaign event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Wednesday.

“I think that he’s a candidate of integrity, and I think he would genuinely prioritize government reform,” she said. 

But Contreras voiced concerns about potential convention meddling that could award the Democratic nomination to Biden, in which case she planned to vote third party in November.  She did so in 2016, voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, after Sanders lost the nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

“I’m concerned about the Democratic Party shifting attention to the candidates that they want versus the candidate the people want,” she said. “I hope that they just let the people’s will stand.”

The Glengariff Group survey was completed prior to results of the Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states. 

Experts stressed that Super Tuesday's results are likely to affect some voters' thinking, but the poll's results reflect trends in recent national polls. 

"Michigan has been a decent microcosm of the national electorate," said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. "We’re going to be the center of the universe for the next week, following tonight."

Who various groups back

The race between Biden and Sanders is largely based on age, with those under 50 years old disproportionately backing Sanders and those over 50 favoring Biden, Czuba said.

"The problem for Sanders folks is over 50 are more reliable," he said. "Older voters are the most motivated and are overwhelmingly casting absentee ballot votes already."

Biden's lead in Michigan is buoyed by strong support among African Americans and voters over 50. Black voters support Biden over Sanders, 41% to 16%.

Sanders does best among white voters under 50 and college-educated men, according to the Michigan survey.  

"This idea out there that Sanders is doing well with blue-collar voters? Well, actually, Sanders does well with college-educated men," Czuba said. "So it kind of flips our notion."

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, walks to the stage during a campaign rally Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Norfolk, Va.

A challenge for Sanders is that several major universities in Michigan — including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University — are on spring break this week, meaning students return to campus this weekend, Czuba said. And the Vermont senator's campaign has only a day to talk to them before the election, he said. 

"It makes it that much harder for Bernie Sanders' campaign to turn out college voters. Because they’re just not there," Czuba said. 

In 2016, Sanders beat Clinton in Michigan by 1.5 percentage points, largely by outperforming her in outstate Michigan. 

"What we’re seeing here in the numbers is that dynamic is not in effect right now in this race. Biden is actually leading equally both in outstate and Metro Detroit. It’s rare to see a statewide race in which Metro and outstate look similar," Czuba said.

"This really feels like the Michigan has become a nationalized race. Michigan is reflecting whatever is happening in the nation." 

Other primary factors

Sanders had strong showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada last month. But Biden's blowout victory over the weekend in South Carolina prompted a wave of endorsements from moderate Democrats and lawmakers. 

By a margin of 48% to 28%, Democratic voters in the poll said they were more concerned about which candidate can beat Trump than which one aligns most with their positions on issues. The president defeated Clinton by 10,704 votes in Michigan, his slimmest margin of victory in any state.

Respondents said the most important issue facing the nation now is Trump (27%), health care (21%) and the economy and jobs (8%).  

The survey suggests Biden has banked a large lead in absentee ballots, leading Sanders 33% to 13% among people who have already voted. Bloomberg captures 19% of voters that have already cast a ballot, according to the poll. 

Under Michigan law, voters who want to change their vote can request to spoil their ballot and request a new one by mail before 2 p.m. Saturday or in person before 4 p.m. Monday.

Biden also leads Sanders 32% to 15% among those still holding an absentee ballot. Biden and Sanders are tied among Election Day voters, according to the poll.  

"Given the numbers we’re seeing in absentee ballots, Biden can bank an almost 150,000-vote lead on Sanders just through absentees," Czuba said. 

Based on the survey, Warren appears unlikely to clear the 15% support threshold required to pick up Michigan delegates. 

Both Warren and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whom 0.7% support in the poll, campaigned Tuesday evening in Detroit. Bloomberg is expected to hit the trail in Macomb County on Thursday.

Sanders plans to campaign Friday at the TCF Center in Detroit and Sunday in Grand Rapids, his campaign announced Tuesday. Biden has not yet announced any Michigan campaign stops. 

Bloomberg has the lowest favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among the candidates, according to the poll, despite organizational strength in Michigan. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrives to speak to supporters at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

"He's doing all right with older voters. Younger voters and liberal voters really dislike him," Czuba said. "He would have the most difficult time coalescing the party together were he the nominee. By a long shot."

For Vaughn Walters, his top three choices included Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg, but the 62-year-old Spring Lake resident settled on the former New York City mayor as one who could beat Trump.

Through his business success and last-minute campaign organizing across the country, Bloomberg has shown he would be able to lead the country and stand toe-to-toe with the president, Walters said. 

“He’s the opposite of Trump,” Walters said. “They’re both rich guys, except Bloomberg made his money. He wasn’t given it.

“He was a little weak on the debate stage, but that was never his forte even when he was mayor,” he added.

Medicare for All

About 5% of voters overall said they would have a problem voting for Biden if he became the nominee, according to the poll.  

Survey results also suggest Bloomberg might be taking voters from Biden, with half of Bloomberg supporters saying they would choose the former vice president as their second choice.

"Another 5 percentage points would go to Joe Biden if Bloomberg weren’t in the race," Czuba said. 

A third of survey respondents said they would prefer the single-payer model of health care — Medicare for All — as their top health care option. More people (36%) would choose the public option, which would give anyone the choice to purchase their health coverage through Medicare. 

Another 22% would like to see some changes made to the Affordable Care Act, while 4% would prefer leaving the health care system alone.

The poll suggests high levels of motivation among Michigan Democratic voters to vote. Asked to rate their motivation to vote in the March 10 primary on a scale of 1 to 10, they averaged 9.4.


Biden leads Sanders

Who 600 likely voters plan to support in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary:

Joe Biden                  29%

Bernie Sanders        22.5%

Mike Bloomberg     10.5%

Elizabeth Warren      7%

Pete Buttigieg            6%

Amy Klobuchar          3%

Other candidates      2%

Undecided/Refused 21%

Health care changes

Which health care approach is backed by 600 likely Michigan primary voters:

Public option            36%

Medicare for All       34%

Change Obamacare 22%

Leave system alone   4%

Don’t know/Other     5%

Banking absentee votes

Who voters backed who already cast absentee ballots:

Joe Biden 33%

Mike Bloomberg 19%

Bernie Sanders  13%

Elizabeth Warren 6%

Amy Klobuchar 5%

Michael Bennet 1%

Biden vs. Sanders

How certain demographic groups feel about Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Group                            Biden      Sanders

African-Americans       41%        16%

Whites                           24%        25%

Men                                27%        28%

Women                          31%        19%