Can Michigan Go Weird for Bernie Sanders Again?

He beat unfavorable polls in 2016. It would be even more shocking if he did it again.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a podium with a crowd of supporters surrounding him.
Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Sunday. Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

The day of the 2016 Michigan Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders was trailing Hillary Clinton in the state polling average by 21 percentage points. This proved to be one of the worst polling screw-ups in history. Sanders won the primary by 1.5 percentage points over Clinton, as turnout in and around Detroit was sluggish while Sanders routed Clinton in college towns and rural areas. Though Clinton had taken a clear delegate lead in the previous week’s Super Tuesday contests, the Michigan surprise gave Sanders the rebound win he needed to continue his campaign indefinitely.

Sanders could use—or rather, needs—a similar Michigan surprise on Tuesday when it holds its primary, alongside Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, Idaho, and Washington. Four new surveys of the state released Monday, the first since the race winnowed down to essentially a one-on-one between Sanders and Joe Biden, showed Biden leading by 15, 21, 24, and 41 percentage points.

The problem for Sanders, though, is that his 2020 coalition differs from his voters of 2016 in detrimental ways for a state like Michigan. While he’s improved among Latino voters, he’s weakened among rural and working-class whites. Michigan, unfortunately for Sanders at this particular juncture, has relatively few of the former and much more of the latter. If Biden’s Super Tuesday formula of improvement among rural and working-class whites, strong black voter support, and surging suburban turnout can hold in Michigan, then we’re not going to be seeing a repeat of 2016’s colossal polling error. We’ll see a Biden sweep throughout the state, with the exception of college towns.

It’s not that Sanders hasn’t been trying to reclaim those voters. For the last week, Sanders has trained his messaging on the industrial Midwest by harping on Biden’s past support for trade deals like NAFTA and his past dalliances with cutting Social Security benefits. What Sanders can’t counter, though, is Biden’s record of serving as vice president during the auto bailout more than a decade ago.

Pulling off a Michigan surprise wouldn’t just be about Sanders staying within reach of Biden in the delegate count. It’s about having a signature win to mask his disappointments elsewhere in the night.

While Sanders blew out Clinton in 2016 in Idaho, North Dakota, and Washington, there was a critical difference between then and now: Those were all caucus states in 2016, and they’re primary states in 2020. In the 2016 Washington caucuses, Sanders beat Clinton 73 to 27, netting him a useful 37 delegates over Clinton. When the state held a nonbinding primary a couple of months later, though, Clinton won 52 percent of the vote. Even if Sanders does win some of these states, he won’t net nearly as many delegates from them as he did in 2016.

Biden, meanwhile, is poised to clean up in two other states, Missouri and Mississippi. The latter, especially, is set to be a landslide, and landslides in even smallish states can be devastating under proportional delegate allocation. Clinton’s overwhelming support among Southern black voters in 2016 delivered her an 83-to-17 percent victory over Sanders in 2016, netting her 26 pledged delegates in a state where only 36 pledged delegates were up for grabs. Biden has been winning Southern black voters with similar lopsidedness.

Sanders, recognizing his troubles in Mississippi, canceled a planned rally in Jackson last week to devote more of his time to Michigan. Given the world that the Sanders campaign now inhabits—one of only crappy and crappier choices—that may have been the proper crappy choice, one prioritizing momentum over delegates. Michigan and its 125 pledged delegates are the main event Tuesday night. A win there would be one of two items on the calendar, alongside Sunday’s debate, that could change the trajectory of the race before the following week’s major contests in Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida on March 17. Sanders needs a string of bizarre, out-of-left-field phenomena to keep pace with Biden. “Historic polling error in Michigan” would be one of them, and at least there’s recent precedent.