Bernie Sanders won about 36 percent of the popular vote in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, one of his best showings so far outside of Vermont. But with two candidates left, that was far from enough to mean a competitive race with former Vice President Joe Biden, now on a glide path to become the 2020 nominee and the third Catholic in U.S. history to head the Democratic Party. (See Mr. Biden discuss his faith and his political career in an exclusive interview with Matt Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America, in September 2015.)
The primary calendar and its winnowing process is almost always brutal for candidates of a revolutionary bent.
Whether it was intentionally designed this way or not, the primary calendar and its winnowing process is almost always brutal for candidates of a revolutionary bent (or insurgent or anti-establishment...pick your adjective). Back in the 1996 Republican primaries, the “new nationalist” Pat Buchanan got off to a roaring start with a 27 percent win in the New Hampshire primary (Mr. Sanders won the New Hampshire primary this year with 26 percent), then petered out, with one of his best subsequent showings in Michigan, where he got 34 percent of the vote.) Donald Trump was, of course, the exception to the rule that the presidential primary system squashes outsider candidates.
Michigan was one of six states to vote this week, but it merits special attention. Of the six states that flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016, it is the biggest so far to hold a presidential primary. It was also the site of Bernie Sanders’s biggest upset over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and his nearly 15-percentage-point drop from his 2016 showing reflects his inability to hold on to working-class white voters, let alone expand support among black Democrats. His 25-point loss to Mr. Biden in the Missouri primary and a virtual tie in Washington state only underscore that Mr. Sanders has quickly hit a (democratic) socialist ceiling.
Editor’s note: In early March, America contributor John Miller visited five of the six Obama-Trump states to take the pulse of voters in a variety of communities. Watch for his report soon in the digital and print editions of America.
Mr. Biden’s victory in Michigan is raising hopes that he can rebuild the “blue wall” of Rust Belt states that helped Barack Obama win in 2008 and 2012, but it should be noted here that victories in presidential primaries do not necessarily correspond to “electability” in general elections. In 2008, Mr. Obama had no trouble winning several states where Hillary Clinton easily beat him in the primaries (including California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania), and in 2012, Mitt Romney’s Republican-primary dominance in blue states was useless to him in November.
The presidential primary season will likely now sputter through the 27 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) that have not yet voiced their preferences for a nominee. It seems unfair for the race to be effectively over before they vote, especially because most of those states are considered safe for one or the other party in November; it means they will have no real influence on presidential politics in what we are constantly told is one of the most important elections in a generation. But that is only one complaint in a thoroughly broken nomination system.
Here are some takeaways from Michigan and the past week of the Democratic primary campaign as it enters zombie mode.
1. Younger voters vote in solidarity with lower-income voters. Both in 2016 and 2020, Mr. Sanders has had huge leads among younger voters in Democratic primaries. According to The Washington Post, exit polls on Super Tuesday showed Mr. Sanders winning about 60 percent of voters between 18 and 29, compared with about 15 percent of those over 65. Exit polls in Michigan showed Mr. Sanders winning 77 percent among voters under 30 but only 21 percent of voters who were 65 or older.
Exit polls in Michigan showed Mr. Sanders winning 77 percent among voters under 30 but only 21 percent of voters who were 65 or older.
As The New York Times reported, “Polling throughout the campaign has shown Mr. Sanders drawing some of his strongest support from voters with household incomes under $50,000; his numbers taper off as incomes rise.” This pattern defies the notion that Americans vote aspirationally, or in accordance with the financial status they want to achieve rather than the one they occupy. At least among those who participate in Democratic primaries, young voters do not seem to identify with their older, more economically stable counterparts.
2. But older and more-educated college graduates do not want revolution. Mr. Sanders has attracted huge crowds of college students and recent graduates, but above a certain age his support is inversely related with educational attainment. Exit polls on Super Tuesday had Mr. Sanders winning about 33 percent of voters without college degrees but only 25 percent of college graduates. In Michigan, Mr. Sanders appeared to do best among voters with bachelor’s degrees (45 percent) but worst among voters with graduate degrees (30 percent).
3. Smaller cities may make the difference in November. In 2016, while Hillary Clinton won the country’s largest cities by huge margins, Mr. Trump made gains in smaller cities, especially those in the Rust Belt and those with underperforming economies. Smaller cities had also been one of the few bright spots for Mr. Sanders this primary season; in Massachusetts, for example, he won former manufacturing cities like Lowell, Lynn and New Bedford, a big factor in Elizabeth Warren’s third-place showing in her home state.
But such places did not save him this week in a two-person race. In the county that includes Bay City, which has shed some 7,500 manufacturing jobs since 2000, Mr. Sanders got only 33 percent; four years ago, he nosed out Ms. Clinton here, 49 percent to 46 percent. In Kalamazoo County, he lost to Mr. Biden by 4 points after beating Ms. Clinton by 23 points.
The “Sanders would have won” argument was based on the assumption that hw would have done better than Ms. Clinton in these smaller Rust Belt cities.
Four years ago, the “Sanders would have won” argument was based on the assumption that Mr. Sanders would have done better than Ms. Clinton in these smaller Rust Belt cities. The question now is whether Mr. Biden can do any better this time. A new study from the Brookings Institution found that smaller metro areas are still lagging behind large cities in economic growth. Will voters in these places see Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump as advancing their interests—assuming they vote at all?
4. Rural voters are over Sanders. Mr. Sanders’s decline since 2016 has been even worse in rural areas. This lends credence to the idea that he benefited mightily from protest votes against Hillary Clinton that year, perhaps because of sexist attitudes against the idea of a woman as president (though exit polls in Michigan that year had Mr. Sanders getting a healthy 45 percent of the vote among women and 51 percent among white women).
Perhaps voters this year are simply more concerned about “electability” and see Mr. Biden as the safer choice against Mr. Trump. It is also possible that the hard-left views on immigration held by Mr. Sanders and by his surrogates this time around—in contrast to his past concerns that immigrants working for low wages would weaken U.S. labor unions—have dampened his popularity in rural areas. A more ominous interpretation for Democrats is that voters in these areas are generally satisfied with Mr. Trump as president and have seen no need to back an insurgent candidate this time.
5. Hispanic voters may be pivotal in November. Even while losing the Michigan primary overall, Mr. Sanders won a large majority of Hispanic voters, according to exit polls. His continued popularity with this young-skewing bloc raises more concerns that Mr. Biden will have trouble turning out voters in the fall. Another concern is that more moderate Hispanic voters have not been participating in Democratic primaries because they intend to vote for Mr. Trump.
6. Elizabeth Warren may still inherit the left wing of the Democratic Party—if the party remains enamored of seventy-somethings. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the Democratic race last week was quickly overshadowed by Mr. Biden’s apparent clinching of the nomination. But with another Sanders presidential campaign unlikely, is Ms. Warren his obvious successor to lead the progressive wing of the party? Or will the mantle go to a younger leader, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will turn 35 shortly before the next presidential election?
Ms. Warren won praise for her debate performances but could never transcend the party’s “wine track” of white college graduates.
Ms. Warren had high approval ratings among Democratic voters and won praise for her debate performances but could never transcend the party’s “wine track” (as opposed to “beer track”) of white college graduates. The New York Times reporter Lisa Lerer was one of many who suspected longstanding prejudices at work: “For the first time in history, Americans saw a diverse group of female leaders pursuing the country’s highest office, an elite sorority that included former prosecutors, senators, a combat veteran and even a self-help celebrity.
And, for the first time in history, a majority of Democratic voters rejected them all.”
This seems unfair to Democratic voters, the great majority of whom live in states that had not even held primaries yet when Ms. Lerer wrote her piece. And there is more than a touch of condescension in the idea that the media “failed” Ms. Warren, as suggested in the headline of an analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop, by pushing “gendered tropes.” The implication is that Ms. Warren’s failure to win many non-white or non-college-educated voters—in Massachusetts, at least, she seems to have done better with college-educated white men—is the result of these voters not being properly educated by media professionals in New York and Washington.
As Matthew Yglesias, a Warren champion, wrote in Vox, “I’m a highly educated white person, and most of my friends and acquaintances are also highly educated white people. Elizabeth Warren is very popular with people like us. The reality is that there aren’t that many people like us.” Progressive, or even socialist, candidates need to find a way to connect with people who have not gone through universities. Fifty years ago, labor unions would have been the obvious way to do this; could faith communities have a role now?
7. The coronavirus has crippled political organizing. Campaign rallies have been canceled, next Sunday’s Democratic debate will have no audience, and both major parties are making contingency plans in case they need to cancel their national conventions this summer. Self-quarantine culture has been especially unfortunate for Mr. Sanders, who had hoped to bring new voters into the political process, and so far the federal government’s shaky response to the pandemic has not created a groundswell for Mr. Sanders’s universal health care proposals.
The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, in fact, writes that the health crisis helped Mr. Biden in the primaries, with his candidacy part of a wider “flight to safety, the surrender of grand plans and big ambitions in favor of a desire to just survive.”
8. “Malarkey” doesn’t cut it anymore. One of Mr. Biden’s most consistent messages is that he will “restore dignity to the office” of the president, but Mr. Trump’s frequent use of vulgar language in public and on Twitter may not be easy to scrub away. Mr. Biden, perhaps trying to dispel fears that he will be intimidated by Mr. Trump during the fall campaign, has been more confrontational with voters themselves recently.
There was his odd moment in February when he seemed to call a voter “a lying dog-faced pony soldier”—at the time, seen by many as evidence that he was losing his political skills. More startlingly, Mr. Biden on Tuesday told a voter he was “full of shit” for accusing the former vice president of wanting to “take away our guns.” For good measure, he also told the voter not to be “a horse’s ass.” Now that the Democratic primary race is winding down, it seems, the insults have only just begun.