Biden wins Michigan Democratic primary, deals blow to Sanders

Former Vice President Joe Biden has won the Democratic presidential primary election in Michigan, where voters nudged him closer to the party’s nomination.

The victory deals a blow to Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the state four years ago in an upset of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was counting on a repeat to give his campaign renewed life. 

Biden’s win in Michigan capped off an 11-day jolt of momentum for his once-struggling presidential campaign. He won South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 29, claimed a majority of the states that voted on March 3, known as Super Tuesday, and then won Michigan’s Tuesday primary. 

Trump won Michigan's Republican presidential primary, far ahead of nominal opposition from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.

Biden's campaign succeeded in Michigan despite having fewer staff members on the ground here than Sanders had and holding fewer events in the state. Sanders focused on Michigan from Friday through Monday. Biden campaigned here only Monday. 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Monday, March 9, 2020.

The campaign had one paid staff member in the state about a week ago before adding staffers, said former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Biden supporter. The first campaign worker in Michigan had spent months as a volunteer, he said.

"He had a reservoir of good will here in this state," Blanchard said of Biden. "He’s saving the Democratic Party this year. More importantly, he’s going to save our country."

Top Democrats in Michigan and outside the state sided with Biden as the candidate who can best to take on President Donald Trump in November. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin  Gilchrist endorsed Biden. Two former rivals, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, joined Biden for a rally in Detroit on the eve of Michigan’s primary.

The victory was projected by the Associated Press based on a voter survey and early returns.

Biden was ahead 52.8% to Sanders' 37.5% with 86% of state precincts reporting. Other candidates who have withdrawn from the primary race trailed far behind, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg getting 4%, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren receiving 1.45%, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg 1.3% and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar 0.65%.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who remains in the race, is receiving 0.6%.

As of midnight, Biden's victory appeared to be extensive, leading in 79 of Michigan's 83 counties. In two counties, results weren't available.

Sanders had narrow leads in Ingham County, home to Michigan State University, and Kent County, home to Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University. Kent County was the county where Sanders scored his largest victory against Clinton in 2016, when the democratic socialist won 73 of the 83 counties.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan on March 6, 2020.

Democratic voters at precincts across Michigan on Tuesday identified Biden as a "fighter" prepared to take on President Donald Trump. Others argued for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist that they said could bring needed change for the country.

The symbolism of a Michigan victory is important for Biden, who seeks a strong showing among blue-collar voters, many of whom have become disillusioned with the Democratic Party. Biden has 670 delegates to Sanders' 574 as they seek to get the 1,991 delegates needed for the nomination. 

"I just think he’s so different from where we’re at now," Catherine Gateman, a mother voting in Lyon Township, said of Sanders. “I think it’s time for something new.”

But Carmen Sarotte, 85, of Berkley, who supported Sanders in 2016, cast a ballot Tuesday for Biden.

“I just think he will be beaten to death with the socialist thing,” Sarotte said of Sanders. 

“And Joe’s a good man. He’s got the experience. And Bernie is starting to tell lies about him and that bothers me.”

Democratic voters in Michigan and two other states told The Associated Press they were more likely to think the former vice president could defeat President Donald Trump in the general election, compared with Sanders.

That perception of electability is part of what is drawing Democrats to rally around the more moderate Biden, who has emerged as the party’s front runner thanks to moderate and conservative voters moving quickly in his direction, according to AP survey data.

Long lines were reported at some precincts in Michigan as the presidential primary became the first test of new state election laws that allowed voters to register on Election Day and cast an absentee ballot without an excuse.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden got into a heated back-and-forth about gun rights during a campaign stop Tuesday at the Fiat Chrysler plant being built on Detroit's east side.

As of Tuesday morning, local clerks had reported to the Secretary of State's office that they had received 804,216 of the 993,814 absentee ballots issued for the presidential primary. Those numbers were close to double the totals from the 2016 presidential primary.

The high levels of absentee voting could mean Michigan's results won't completely reflect polling showing Biden with large leads this week, said Mike McCollum, who was the Michigan campaign director for former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

What voters said

Democratic voters cited health care as the issue most important to them over climate change, the economy, race relations or foreign policy, according to an Associated Press survey.

Sandy Mielen, 64, was undecided between Sanders and Biden until she was in the voting booth at the Allen Park Community Center, she said.

“I’m having a rough time coming to a decision,” she said as she prepared to vote.

“I keep going back and forth between Biden and Sanders. Biden has been around for a long time, and I think he knows what he’s doing. But the again, I feel maybe we need a drastic change. I’m leaning toward Bernie.”

About 15 minutes later, Mielen strolled out of the community center smiling. “I voted for Sanders,” she said.

Sanders looked to Michigan to salvage his 2020 presidential bid after pulling off a surprise win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, shocking pollsters and party activists. He beat Clinton by 1.5 percentage points. 

The upset didn't stop Clinton from securing the nomination, but it foreshadowed problems that surfaced in November when President Donald Trump won the state by 10,704 votes — the first Republican to do so since 1988.

Tuesday's primary in Michigan poses the first test for Biden and Sanders head-to-head matchup in a general election swing state. 

Sanders lost his delegate lead as a result of Biden’s Super Tuesday romp a week ago, where the former vice president won nine of 14 states, prompting a wave of high-profile endorsements, campaign cash and the departure of most other rivals. 

On Tuesday, the Vermont senator was looking to shift his trajectory in Michigan and recapture the momentum he gained there four years ago.

Sanders' victory in 2016 depended heavily on support on Michigan's college campuses and in rural areas. Ahead of Tuesday's election, he tried to rally support in among minority voters and in places like Wayne County, home to Detroit and Genesee County, home to Flint. Both counties voted for Clinton in 2016.

Tashal Brown, a 34-year-old Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, waited in line for more than an hour to change her address and fill out an absentee ballot in support of Sanders. Brown's first choice had been Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“I’m tired of people talking about this whole electability crap,” she said about the senator's chances in November.

“This whole centrist kind of thing doesn’t work and I think we’re setting ourselves up for failure again because you’re not getting the people who are actually really motivated by the actual policies themselves.”

Sarah Beathard, 27, of Waterford Township also voted for Sanders, saying he has been consistent throughout his entire career. She also supported him four years ago.

“I like his policies. I think they would be helpful for a lot of people,” Beathard said. “Student loan forgiveness is good, I like his position on foreign policy, staying out of wars and defense spending.”

At a Tuesday night victory party for Biden, former state Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson said the former vice president's strong showing wasn't much of a surprise given his ties to the state.

"This is a man who helped save the auto industry," Johnson said. "And for eight years had been there every single day for not only Detroit but all of Michigan. And I think he’s going to be rewarded for that in a very big way tonight."

Biden gave a Tuesday night speech in Philadelphia, where he touted his "comeback" in the Democratic race.

"Tonight, we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House," he said.

But Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, grouped Sanders and Biden together in a statement, saying they "support the same radical policies."

"No matter which socialist Democrats end up nominating as their standard bearer, they will prove to be no match for President Trump’s America-First agenda and his winning record of results," McDaniel said.

Final Sanders, Biden stops

Sanders tore up his campaign schedule over the weekend and put his focus on Michigan, holding seven campaign events in four days starting on Friday.

He rallied large crowds in Detroit, Dearborn, Flint, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor before ending Monday with a coronavirus round table at a Detroit Metropolitan Airport hotel and a Fox News town hall at the University of Michigan Dearborn ice rink.

Sanders has criticized Biden for representing the status quo and not embracing a "political revolution" to do more to ensure universal health care and free college.

He slammed Biden for his votes in the U.S. Senate for the Wall Street bailout, trade agreements and the Iraq war, as well and his record on same-sex marriage, the military’s former “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and government funding for abortions. 

Sanders also said he would raise taxes on billionaires to tackle income and wealth inequality, education, environmental protection and homelessness.

“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 didn't return to Michigan to campaign until Monday, convening supporters in Grand Rapids and Flint before holding a rally at Detroit Renaissance High School with former primary rivals and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

His supporters have repeatedly questioned how Sanders will accomplish his lofty ideas for reform, from Medicare for All to canceling student loan debt. They argue Biden has a record of getting things done and can help Democrats running elsewhere on the ballot.

Biden's message Monday was one of party unity and stressing the stakes of Tuesday's election. 

“This election isn’t a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” Biden said. “It’s a battle for the soul of America.” 

His speech was interrupted by protesters who caused a commotion raising banners criticizing Biden’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The issue is one that Sanders has said could make Biden vulnerable to Trump in November, were he the nominee. 

The candidates lingered in Michigan as voters went to the polls Tuesday, with Sanders visiting precincts in Detroit and Dearborn Heights. 

Biden found himself the star of a viral video after getting into a verbal dispute over gun ownership with a voter while touring a Detroit plant under construction for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The man accused Biden of trying to take away Americans' guns. 

"You're full of s---. I support the Second Amendment," Biden told the construction worker.

Biden, who supports an assault-weapon buyback, stressed he owns a shotgun and his sons hunt and that he wouldn't take away all guns. The man persisted and Biden told him, "Don't be such a horse's ass."

Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc, George Hunter, Jennifer Chambers and Leonard Fleming contributed