Ever since Super Tuesday, when Joe Biden pulled off upset wins in Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota on his way to ten state-wide wins, the tables have turned. It is now Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner only a few weeks ago, who needs a victory to breath new life into his campaign. The best, and likely only, shot for gaining back momentum in the race: grabbing Michigan.
Sanders has some experience shocking the political world with upset political wins. During his first presidential campaign against Democratic establishment favourite Hillary Clinton, the white-haired populist with the Brooklyn accent swept Michigan’s rural counties and did well enough in the suburbs to claim the state by just 1.5 per centage points. He dominated with voters under the age of 30 and won white voters by 29 points, allowing him to lay claim to just over half of the state’s delegates. Sanders will need all of those numbers and more to pull off a repeat performance tonight against a vice president who union and blue-collar households adore.
Although the Vermont senator has already told his supporters that he will continue campaigning into the spring, Sanders has been in politics long enough to understand when the numbers are against him. While there are no sure things in this business, the rest of the primary calendar is formidable terrain for somebody like Sanders who is unable to expand his coalition to the African-American community or chip his way into the establishment pool. He is losing by double digits in Florida, will probably do horribly in the city of Chicago when the residents of Illinois vote, and will be blown out in the rest of the deep south.
A Biden win in Michigan could be a bad sign for other Midwestern states with a significant working and middle-class voting base like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, three states any Democratic candidate would love to steal from Donald Trump in November. Sanders recognises the gravity of the moment, which is why he cancelled a rally in Mississippi and spent the weekend campaigning in Michigan, where he reminded voters as often as he could that it was Joe Biden who voted for trade deals (like Nafta) that closed down many of the Rust Belt’s factories.
Yet as Sanders may learn on Tuesday, it’s one thing to slam Hillary Clinton for being an unapologetic free trader. It’s another thing to use the same attack against Joe Biden, who after all was the Obama administration’s point-man for saving Michigan’s auto industry and who has spent his entire political career marketing himself as the regular guy from humble beginnings who fights for the working man and woman of America. With Biden’s share of the African American vote in Detroit on lock, Sanders will need to run up the score in the suburbs; drive young people on college campuses across the state to the polls, and increase the margins in Michigan’s desolate northern and western rural counties.
Everything needs to go right for Sanders in Michigan. Otherwise, the senator’s fervent and passionate supporters will be crying themselves to sleep as they watch the Democratic establishment celebrate with champagne and caviar.