Bernie Sanders has an opportunity to reboot his presidential campaign with a win Tuesday in Michigan, but his position is precarious as voters mull picking him or a surging Joe Biden to face Donald Trump in November.
The stakes could hardly be higher: the leftist US senator from Vermont is suddenly on the back foot, after Biden decisively won South Carolina and then several onetime rivals swiftly endorsed the former vice president.
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It could be a watershed moment if Sanders, 78, can reverse his failure to match his strength among white working class voters that he showed in 2016, when he earned a stunning victory in Michigan’s Democratic primary that gave him staying power for the remainder of that race.
But if the self-described democratic socialist is unable to win the first industrial Midwestern state to vote in the party’s nomination race, and reclaim some momentum he recently lost to Biden, it could signal the end of his chances.
A crucial constituency that helped Trump win traditionally Democratic Michigan — and the presidential election — in 2016 is the state’s disaffected autoworkers.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer says Biden is the candidate who can win autoworkers back, given the massive intervention in 2008 to help the ailing industry.
“Anyone in or affected by that industry — which is everyone in this state — needs to think about where we are headed and who had our backs, especially during the auto rescue,” Whitmer told AFP at a Baptist church in Detroit on Sunday.
“That was Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
– ‘Betrayed’ –
In 2016, Sanders resonated with working-class white voters who felt ignored by Washington and establishment Democrats.
But Biden won 10 of the 14 states that voted last Tuesday, including decisive wins in Massachusetts, Maine and Minnesota — three northern states with overwhelmingly white electorates.
Six more states vote this Tuesday, including Midwestern states Michigan and Missouri.
Both are important, but Sanders needs a win in Michigan, where his 77-year-old opponent leads in most polling, to show he remains viable.
Sanders scrapped campaign speeches scheduled for Mississippi and Illinois and added events in Michigan, including a Sunday rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he urged young voters to come out in force.
“I support Bernie in part because I feel like he’ll get a lot of voters that Trump won in 2016, said Alvin Hermans, a 19-year-old computer science major at the rally.
But Sanders’s support among socially conservative rural white voters has dwindled.
He is seeking to boost his backing among unions like the United Auto Workers, whose members reached a deal with General Motors last year after a deeply divisive strike over issues including exorbitant health care costs.
UAW member Tony Totty, 44, said he believes the dispute over health care has driven many coworkers away from Trump and towards Sanders.
The 2019 closure of a major GM factory also defied Trump’s pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back to the region.
“I have a lot of members that do feel betrayed at our facility, and at election time they’re going to let their voice be heard,” said Totty, of neighboring Ohio.
Totty was in Monroe, Michigan to lend support to Teamsters union members on strike Sunday over similar issues.
One of the striking truckers, James Focht, said he believed a centrist candidate might be more viable than leftist Sanders and a president who has been an unreliable partner for unions.
“I think there’s a middle ground to be had,” he said. “Maybe Joe Biden would be able to do it.”
– Weak turnout for moderates? –
Eric Read, a clinical social worker attending a Sanders rally Saturday in Flint, said compromise would be a mistake.
“When the Democrats run more moderate, they don’t get the turnout they get when they have a more left-leaning candidate,” Read said.
Sanders is “the one that can beat Trump,” the 34-year-old added.
But Sanders’s biggest potential delegate haul, California, is already behind him, and he faces unfavorable contests ahead, particularly the delegate behemoth Florida, where Biden is expected to do well, and Ohio, where Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton by 14 points in 2016.
Truck driver Craig Walker of Dundee, Michigan, said he supports Trump, and that a Sanders nomination could boost the president’s re-election chances because it would be easy to brand Sanders a socialist.
“I still think Trump will win Michigan, but it will really depend on who gets the Democratic nod,” Walker said. “It’s definitely going to be tight.”