ANN ARBOR, Michigan—When Bernie Sanders scored the biggest upset of the 2016 primary, defeating Hillary Clinton in Michigan after late polls showed him losing the state by an average of 30 points, he celebrated it as a turning point in the campaign.
It sure was. Just not for the reasons Sanders thought.
Where the Vermont senator saw a sudden groundswell of support for his insurgent candidacy—a narrative that proved irresistible to much of the media—Democrats on the ground in Michigan saw something very different. They saw disturbingly low turnout. They saw Clinton failing to energize black voters. They saw young people and independents rebelling against the Democratic front-runner. They saw white working-class voters abandoning her, and the party, in numbers that were once unfathomable.
In other words, they saw a sneak preview of November 2016.
Clinton’s loss to Sanders in Michigan resembled a giant, mitten-shaped red flag. She won only 28 percent of self-described independents. She performed just as dismally among young voters, winning 32 percent of those under age 45. She was beaten in rural and exurban counties across the state, losing whites without a college degree by 15 percentage points. Even Clinton’s 40-point victory among black voters couldn’t make up for these deficits, because turnout of black voters—as with Democratic turnout across the board—was so underwhelming. (There were 130,000 more votes cast in the GOP primary, a fact Democrats shrugged off at the time.)
Sanders’ team has long trumpeted his Michigan triumph as evidence of his ability to assemble a unique coalition and defeat the Democratic establishment. But a closer look at that contest, taken in the context of this year’s primary results, suggests that Sanders’ own weaknesses are about to be exposed. And that, in turn, means winning Michigan will be far more difficult this time around. Not only do party insiders expect Democratic turnout will spike among groups unfavorable to him—blacks and suburbanites, in particular—but he now faces an opponent in Joe Biden who comes into the state with a head of steam, who benefits from Democrats’ desire to coalesce behind an alternative to Trump, and who will compete for independents and working-class whites in a way Clinton never did.
It’s possible Sanders could offset these dynamics, and these demographic headwinds, by galvanizing record-breaking numbers of young people to vote. He stressed as much Sunday night during a rock-star rally at the University of Michigan. With an estimated 10,000 people in attendance—whipped into a frenzy by his ace surrogate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Sanders acknowledged that Michigan’s primary is the whole ball of wax on Tuesday and predicted a win on the strength of his youth-anchored coalition.
But the odds are increasingly stacked against him, here and across the country. If he doesn’t pull off another Michigan miracle—if he loses in lopsided fashion, as many Democrats here now expect—the state responsible for his 2016 resurrection could mark his 2020 burial.
“It’s getting hard not to see Biden winning here, and by a comfortable margin,” said Adrian Hemond, a veteran Democratic strategist who is neutral in the primary. “He’s got a huge base of support in the black community, and while maybe he doesn’t appeal to the non-college-educated whites like Trump does, he’s not toxic to them like Hillary was. Bernie’s only real advantage is with young voters, and they don’t turn out anyway.”
Given the electorate’s rapid realignment in the Trump era, there is another demographic group to watch closely here Tuesday. Angela Vasquez-Giroux, a Democratic operative who worked on Attorney General Dana Nessel’s winning 2018 campaign, said the constituency that could suffocate Sanders—potentially turning a defeat into a blowout—is suburban women. They were critical to the victories of two freshman Democratic congresswomen, Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, who flipped red districts in 2018. They also powered the campaign of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who, it happens, defeated a high-profile Sanders supporter, Abdul El-Sayed, by 22 points in the 2018 primary. (Whitmer, Slotkin and Stevens all endorsed Biden last week.)
“This actually reminds me a lot of that governor’s primary,” said Vasquez-Giroux. “There was a widening gap in the polling, and nobody knew whether to trust it, and then on primary day she crushed him. So, I don’t see how it works for Bernie, in part because I can’t see him capturing nearly enough of that suburban woman vote. The math just isn’t there.”
The prospect of a humiliating loss here was unimaginable just weeks ago. Sanders and his team have long been bullish on their chances across the Midwest, viewing Michigan in particular as a backstop to regain momentum in the event of losses on Super Tuesday. Much of their campaign infrastructure in this state, down to the grassroots level, has remained in place since 2016. This organizational edge, and the crowded field of candidates that showed no sign of winnowing, had many Democrats here betting on a Sanders win as of two weeks ago. But the rapid consolidation of support behind Biden—with former rivals Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg all endorsing him—put the former vice president in a commanding position.
It showed on Super Tuesday, when Biden carried 10 of the 14 states that voted and emerged with a delegate lead that only figures to grow. (California is still tabulating its final results.) Biden’s strength among suburbanites, African Americans and voters older than 50 was sufficiently overwhelming to distract from Sanders’ own dominance among Latinos and young people. The problem for Sanders now is that the two of the three delegate-rich states with large Latino populations, California and Texas, have already voted, and the third, Florida, is home to huge numbers of Cuban and South American emigrés with dim views of socialism.