Bernie Sanders proved his 2016 presidential bid was serious with an upset victory in Michigan powered by his opposition to free trade and appeal among working-class voters. Four years later, the same state could either revive the Vermont senator’s campaign or relegate him to the role of protest candidate.
Michigan and five other states hold presidential contests on Tuesday at a critical point in the Democratic race.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden is looking to quash Sanders’ hopes and cement his own front-runner status just a week after resurrecting his beleaguered White House bid with a delegate victory on Super Tuesday. He played up his underdog story on Monday as he campaigned across Michigan, reflecting on his stutter as a child and the deaths of his first wife and young daughter.
And Biden wasn’t alone. The former vice-president courted the state’s influential African American voters alongside the two most prominent black candidates previously in the 2020 race, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who endorsed Biden in recent days as part of a broader consolidation of support among party leaders.
Sanders is in an urgent fight to turn things around as the primary calendar quickly shifts to other states that could favour Biden and narrow his path to the nomination. The senator countered the parade of Democratic firepower lining up behind Biden by securing the endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and deploying Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on his behalf.
Having devoted several days to Michigan, the Vermont senator spent the eve of Tuesday’s primaries in Missouri, where he downplayed questions about electability and insisted that the “energy and excitement” of his supporters made him the strongest Democrat to run against President Donald Trump this fall.
Tuesday marks the first time voters will weigh in on the Democratic contest since it effectively narrowed to a two-person race between Sanders and Biden. It will be another test of whether Sanders can broaden his appeal among African Americans. Biden, meanwhile, must show that he can keep momentum going after his surprise Super Tuesday turnaround.
“I like his chances,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has endorsed Biden, said of the former vice-president in an interview.
“He knows Michigan,” Whitmer added. “When our back was up against the wall during the auto struggles of the past, it was Barack Obama and Joe Biden who had our backs.”
That’s a reference to the Obama administration overseeing federal bailouts that helped the auto industry — the lifeblood of Michigan’s economy — weather the 2009 financial crisis. Sanders counters that he, too, voted to save the auto industry. He also says that, unlike Biden, he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said prompted thousands of Michigan jobs to move to Mexico since taking effect in 1994.
Biden ticked off the names of six former presidential rivals who have endorsed him just in the past week during a Monday appearance with Booker in Flint, Michigan, a community that has seen auto industry jobs disappear: “They’ve all come out and endorsed at one time … the candidate that they think can win.”
And later in Detroit, he stood on stage grasping hands with Whitmer, Booker and Harris, a powerful trio of potential vice-presidential picks should Biden become the Democrats’ presidential nominee.