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Bernie Needs a Big Win, and He's Betting It All on Michigan

A win there on Tuesday could put him back on firm footing and set up a long, drawn-out delegate fight.

by Cameron Joseph
Mar 6 2020, 8:48pm

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Bernie Sanders pulled off a dramatic upset win in Michigan’s primary to revive his flagging presidential campaign. Now, he needs to recreate that magic.

After a brutal Super Tuesday where he lost 10 of 14 states and looks to have fallen behind Joe Biden in the delegate count, Sanders badly needs a major victory to show he can compete one-on-one with Biden. And Michigan looks like his best chance.

A win there on Tuesday could put him back on firm footing and set up a long, drawn-out delegate fight. But if he loses a state he carried in 2016 — and one where Biden’s record on trade, entitlements, and Iraq could be particularly problematic — it becomes much harder to see Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination.

“It matters greatly,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). “It would give Bernie a huge boost, people would say he’s still in the game. And if he loses what he [won] four years ago, that would be major. It’s important to both candidates.”

“It would give Bernie a huge boost. People would say he’s still in the game. "

Whoever wins the state will also secure bragging rights to argue they’re best-suited to win Michigan in the general election. Given the psychic trauma the state gave Democrats by going for President Trump and helping him to the White House, and how crucial it will be this fall, that’s particularly relevant.

“Michigan's incredibly important, given the fact that it's really the key battleground state for the general election,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). “Certainly I think it'll be a good indication of who can pull together a broad coalition of support.”

Sanders’ team recognizes the state’s importance. The senator canceled a Mississippi rally to add stops to his swing through Michigan, and now has events there every day from Friday through Monday — a huge time investment since the state is just one of 10 which will vote in the next 10 days. Biden will be in the state Monday as well.

And Sanders has gone hard on the attack with a trio of ads ripping into Biden for his votes for free trade agreements and the war in Iraq as well as his flirtations with cutting Social Security.

Those blows could hit particularly hard in Michigan. NAFTA is a four-letter word in a state that has been devastated by globalization and free trade. Michigan also has one of the country’s oldest populations, with 2.2 million residents on Social Security — almost a quarter of the state population. And it has one of the country’s largest Arab American populations.

“Michigan will show how potent our contrast message is,” Sanders spokesman Bill Neidhardt said. “We’re going to see exactly how outraged voters are when they see Joe Biden has spent decades trying to cut Social Security and championing trade deals like NAFTA.”

But Biden might have the edge on another issue crucial to Michigan voters.. As vice president, he played a key role in the auto bailout that helped save Michigan’s economy from the brink in 2009. Sanders voted against the Wall Street bailout that included auto bailout funds (though he did vote to fund a bailout for the industry in a separate billy). Clinton slammed him for that move in 2016, and it’s likely to resurface before Tuesday.

“NAFTA is sort of a gut check-issue about how much you care about workers in the heartland, so I think that's a tough, tough, a tough one for the vice president,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) who had backed Elizabeth Warren in the primary.

“And Sen. Sanders voted against the auto bailout in the end. We wouldn’t be here without that, so that’s a problem for him,” Levin said in a subsequent conversation.

The two candidates have already traded Michigan-specific barbs.

“Michigan was decimated by terrible, terrible trade deals,” Sanders said on MSNBC Wednesday night. “I walked the picket lines against NAFTA. I went to Mexico to see what NAFTA would do. Joe voted for those terrible agreements.”

“Let’s go to Michigan, Bernie,” Biden shot back in a Today Show interview on Thursday. “I’m the guy that helped bail out the automobile industry. What’d you do, old buddy?”

Trump made a similar attack at a Thursday night event, calling NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever made” — a point Sanders was quick to highlight on Friday to argue he’d be the more electable candidate.

Biden’s campaign has made a show of strength in the state in recent days, with endorsements from popular Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) as well as from Michigan Reps. Haley Stevens, Elissa Slotkin — a pair of freshmen from swing districts — and from Brenda Lawrence, the state’s only black member of Congress.

Sanders has his own surrogate in the state — Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who could help him turn out Arab American voters in Greater Detroit, a community he won by a wide margin in 2016 and needs once again. A poll from the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that Muslims who voted on Super Tuesday backed Sanders by 58% to 27% over Biden, and the Arab American Political Action Committee and Michigan-based Arab American News both endorsed Sanders in recent days.

It’s unclear where things stand heading into Michigan’s primary. Biden led Sanders by 29% to 23% in a Detroit News poll conducted over the weekend — but that’s a political eternity ago. Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar were all still in the race when that poll went into the field, and Bloomberg was at 11% in that poll, with Warren at 7%, Buttigieg at 6%, and Klobuchar at 3%.

If Sanders doesn’t win Michigan, things only get more daunting from there. The senator is facing down a primary map that looks particularly tough for him over the next few weeks.

Michigan is one of six states set to vote Tuesday, alongside Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota. Sanders’ decision to skip his one scheduled Mississippi event signals he’s expecting to do as poorly there as he just did in other Deep South states, and he narrowly lost Missouri four years ago. He’d won big in Washington and Idaho in 2016, but both have switched from caucuses to primaries, and as Sanders’ surprisingly poor Super Tuesday showings in Minnesota and Maine, two states he’d won last time around, that’s a big problem for him.

Things get even harder the week after, with four big states Sanders lost in 2016 heading to the polls on March 17.

“If Sen. Sanders can win here, that’d change the dynamic a lot,” said Levin.”If Biden wins here, with Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Illinois a week later, it’s looking kind of like friendly territory for Vice President Biden ahead.”

Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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