Michigan poses crucial test for Sanders in head-to-head with Biden

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination could all come down to Michigan for Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday as he and former Vice President Joe Biden have swarmed the state with surrogate and individual visits. 

The primary poses the first test of strength in the Biden vs. Sanders matchup in a general election swing state. Democrats are eager to retake the Great Lakes State after President Donald Trump, a Republican, won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves to a large crowd during a campaign stop at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn on Saturday.

Michigan's importance to both campaigns heightened over the weekend as Sanders tore up his schedule and planned seven events for himself in four days. Biden countered by scheduling at least two Monday stops in Michigan and having surrogates campaign in Metro Detroit on Saturday and Sunday. Both campaigns got high-profile endorsements, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California for Biden and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. for Sanders. 

Sanders lost the delegate lead as a result of Biden’s Super Tuesday romp last week. If the self-declared democratic socialist doesn’t reclaim his momentum in Michigan, his campaign might not be able to catch up, analysts say.

"I would say the onus is clearly on Sanders," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "He’s got to win Michigan. He really does.

"If he does not win Michigan again, no matter how close it may be, his candidacy goes into the long fade."

Biden could come back more easily from a Michigan loss because of his deeper reservoir of delegates, Sabato said. Michigan has 125 delegates at stake — the largest prize of any of the six states holding primaries Tuesday.

"You never know. Michigan shocked us the last time," Sabato said. "Michigan has proved it’s ornery. Proved it twice in 2016."

That year, Sanders pulled off a narrow upset over rival Hillary Clinton in Michigan, winning all but 10 of the state's 83 counties and giving him a much-needed jolt. Voters delivered another surprise that November with a razor-thin but crucial victory for Trump — the first GOP presidential candidate to win the state since 1988. 

Sanders looks for repeat

Sanders has intensified his campaigning since a Feb. 28-March 2 Detroit News-WDIV (Channel 4) poll showed Biden leading 29% to 22.5% with at least 16% undecided. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

The Vermont senator responded by barnstorming the state over the weekend, holding rallies in Dearborn, Flint, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. On Monday, he has scheduled a coronavirus round table discussion in Romulus and a town hall with Fox News in Dearborn.

He hit Biden for his votes in the U.S. Senate on trade agreements and the Iraq war, his ties to corporations, and his record on government funding for abortions, same-sex marriage and the military’s former “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“We are in the midst of a very, very difficult primary process,” Sanders told reporters Friday before his rally in Detroit. “Come Tuesday, maybe Michigan is the most important state.”

Biden sent surrogates, such as former Secretary of State John Kerry and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to events and worship services in Metro Detroit Saturday and Sunday. Biden will visit Detroit and Grand Rapids himself on Monday.

Harris, who dropped out of the presidential primary race in December, will appear with Biden at 7 p.m. at Detroit's Renaissance High School.

On Sunday, progressive superstar U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is set to join Sanders to rally students at the University of Michigan. Earlier, the Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared with Sanders in Grand Rapids in Kent County, where Sanders had his highest margin of victory against Clinton in 2016.

Sanders' supporters have focused on the need for sweeping changes to U.S. public policy, providing government-run health care for everyone and reshaping the tax system to make the wealthy pay more.

During a Saturday night town hall on racial and economic injustice in Flint, former Michigan U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle said three families currently have more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans.

"The system is not working the way it’s supposed to,” Riegle, a former Republican, told a crowd of more than 1,000 people to big applause.

“It has to change," he continued. "But you’ve got to have a change agent."

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaks next to his wife, Jill, during a primary election night rally Tuesday.

Biden backers swing back

But Biden supporters have repeatedly questioned how Sanders will accomplish his lofty ideas for reform. They argue Biden has a record of getting things done and can help Democrats running elsewhere on the ballot.

Kerry, who was the Democrats' 2004 nominee for president, listed reasons to support Biden. The first was "he can get elected," Kerry said during an event at a Farmington Hills banquet hall.

"We can win in Virginia. We can win in North Carolina. We can even win in Texas, folks. We’ve got places that Joe Biden opens up," Kerry said.

Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recounted Biden's assistance in the 2009 auto industry bailout and Detroit's own bankruptcy at events throughout Southeast Michigan in recent days while emphasizing the role Michigan plays in the eventual nominee's success. 

"You cannot count Michigan out," Whitmer told reporters Sunday. "You cannot take us for granted. And that’s why I think the work that we’re doing is so important.

"Records matter. And Joe has been there when Michigan needed him most."

Duggan criticized Sanders' Medicare for All proposal and the impact it might have on the private health care benefits UAW workers fought for in 2019. 

"The GM workers struck for six weeks because of a number of issues, but protecting their health care was one of them," Duggan said. "You’re just going to say, 'We’re taking it away from you but don’t worry the government will replace it'?”

Joanne Barnes, an Auburn Hills Democrat who has volunteered for the party since Barack Obama's presidency, said she considers the state's support for Biden a way to pay back the former vice president for his help during Detroit's bankruptcy. 

"Biden came back to save the day," Barnes said. "When we were kids, we used to say, 'I’ll pay you back when my rich uncle get out of the poorhouse.'"

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

Michigan presence

Both candidates have filled the airways with campaign ads in recent days, but Biden's campaign didn't have much of a physical presence in Michigan until recently.

Late last month, Biden's operation in Michigan consisted of one person working out of a house, according to two Democratic sources.

As of last week, Biden's campaign said it had staff in the "double digits" on the ground and staging locations for phone banking and other field operations in Flint, northwest, southwest and central Detroit, and in Macomb County.

Sanders, by comparison, had already built a loyal network of volunteer workers in the state and raised nearly three times as much campaign cash from Michigan donors than Biden. 

But those advantages might not be enough to stop Biden's momentum after the former vice president won states on Super Tuesday that he'd never visited or advertised in. 

Biden's history in Detroit remains in Michigan residents' memories years later, Duggan said, even as Sanders socked the state this month with rallies, attack ads and staffers. 

"People are making the decision for president not based on whether somebody knocked on their door last week, but what they’ve seen from a very good man over several years," he said. 

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also made early investments in Michigan as presidential candidates but weren’t able to garner the support they needed, said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.

Sanders’ base also seems to have shifted, based on early state voting, and his support among college students is not as certain as it was in 2016 — perhaps explaining his UM campaign stop, Grossmann said.

“Sanders' coalition seems to be shifting in a way that is not good for Michigan," he said. "He’s gaining Hispanic votes, but losing white, blue-collar voters,” the latter of which make up a good share of Michigan's Democratic electorate.

Michigan's primary also falls during spring break season for several local universities — an inopportune time for Sanders' campaign to try to turn out college students at polls.  

UM, Michigan State University and Grand Valley University were off last week, and Wayne State University, Central Michigan University and others are on break this week. 

"When you come back from spring break, kids are getting back late or when they get back they’re disoriented," said Sabato, a professor.

Some students might have voted by absentee ballot. The Detroit News-WDIV poll of 600 likely Michigan Democratic voters last week found Biden leading Sanders by a margin of 33% to 13% among those who had already voted by absentee.

Biden also led Sanders by a margin of 32% to 15% for those still holding their absentee ballots. Among voters who planned to vote on Election Day, Sanders and Biden were tied at 27% each.   

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally Thursday in Phoenix.

Pressure on for Sanders

A challenge for Biden, Sabato said, is making it to Tuesday without any big gaffes.

"Like no more introducing his wife as his sister and his sister as his wife," Sabato said. 

"People say he’s lost a step. But actually I've followed Biden since the night he was elected to the Senate and this is the same Biden I saw since the 1970s. Nothing's changed."

Biden spent the weekend in Missouri and Mississippi, leaving his Michigan trip to Monday. His reliance on campaign surrogates drew concern that he is risking the same mistake as Clinton in 2016. 

“It’s reasonable for people to see it as reminiscent of Sanders spending more time in Michigan last time, and Clinton sort of taking it for granted,” Grossmann said.

Grossmann noted Clinton in 2016 had support from high-profile state leaders that was similar to Biden’s, but those endorsements came early in her candidacy and failed to produce the same momentum that last week’s endorsements produced.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar — a former presidential hopeful who endorsed Biden after dropping out of the race last week — stumped for Biden in Michigan over the weekend. On Friday, she met with union workers at the MGM Grand Detroit.

Klobuchar said what unites Democrats is "they want to win" against Trump in November.

"That’s why having a candidate whose views reflect the mainstream of our party, who actually is a progressive, because that means you make progress, I think that’s a good thing," said Kloubchar in an interview, referring to Biden.

But Greyson Gillett, 21, of Marshall brushed off the idea that Sanders couldn't defeat Trump.

Gillett, who will vote in his first presidential election this year, is among the young voters who support Sanders.

"It’s going to be the same old, same old" with Biden, he argued. "Nothing is going to get done."

Sanders predicted Sunday he would defeat Biden in Michigan, but said if he loses the state, he would stay in the race.

“Well, no, I certainly would not consider dropping out,” Sanders told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." 

“... We won California, the largest state in this country. We are winning among Latino voters big time. We are winning, winning among young people. When you talk about the future of this country or the future of the Democratic Party, you might want to look at where young people are at.”