Politics

Bernie Sanders looks to Michigan to block Joe Biden's march to the Democratic nomination

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden face off in the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, one of the six states voting on "Big Tuesday." 
  • Biden has led recent polls of the state, and Sanders needs a win if he wants to keep up with Biden in the pledged delegate race. 
  • The other states voting Tuesday are Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, North Dakota and Washington, hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. 
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn, Michigan, on March 7, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky | AFP | Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is once again asking for Michigan's support.

Four years ago, the Vermont senator overcame a double-digit polling deficit to surprise Hillary Clinton in the Rust Belt state. He could use a repeat performance Tuesday to keep his 2020 White House hopes alive.

Facing a pledged delegate deficit in essentially a two-way Democratic primary race with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders needs a triumph on "Big Tuesday," as six states hold presidential nominating contests, including Washington state, hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. He has homed in on Michigan, the largest delegate haul this week.

Sanders' campaign strategy has broadcast the importance of Michigan and its 125 pledged delegates. He has talked more in recent days about his opposition to, and Biden's support for, the North American Free Trade Agreement — a pact unpopular in pockets of the state that saw auto jobs move to Mexico. He even scrapped plans to campaign last Friday in Mississippi, which also votes Tuesday, to spend more time in Michigan. 

Read more: Biden-Sanders fight over trade is a war for the Democratic Party's future

Biden, who has led several recent Michigan polls by 15 or more percentage points, hopes to avoid Clinton's fate. He spent Monday making stops across the state, capping the day with a Detroit rally featuring two new backers: his former presidential rivals Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. 

As Michigan dishes out delegates proportionally, only an overwhelming win would help Biden or Sanders gain an edge in the delegate race. But after a flood of good news for Biden around the South Carolina primary a mere 10 days ago flipped the Democratic race on its head, Sanders could use a narrative-setting victory to stay viable for the long haul.

"I would argue that Michigan is the most important primary that we've had to date other than South Carolina," said Adrian Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan political consultancy based in Lansing.  

Sanders could use a strong performance in Michigan because some other states voting Tuesday and next week are less favorable to him. Among the states voting Tuesday, he appears to have a better chance of winning Michigan and Washington than Mississippi and Missouri. Polls suggest Biden holds a big advantage in the latter two states.

It is unclear whether the coronavirus crisis will affect turnout in Washington state, which has 89 delegates at stake. Most of Washington's voters cast ballots by mail.

In Florida, which will dole out 219 pledged delegates next Tuesday, Biden holds a massive lead over Sanders in recent polls. Michigan's primary and the next presidential debate on Sunday give Sanders two of his last chances to change the shape of the race before states have allocated most delegates.

A candidate needs to win a 1,991-delegate majority to secure the nomination. Biden leads Sanders 652 to 575, according to an NBC News tally.

VIDEO5:2405:24
Here's how much Michael Bloomberg spent on his presidential bid

To beat Biden in Michigan, Sanders will have to overcome some structural challenges in the state. Young voters have overwhelmingly favored him in primaries to this point, and Sanders drew more than 10,000 people to a Sunday rally in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. But even Sanders has admitted his campaign has fallen short of one of its core goals: making sure young voters make up a larger share of the electorate.

Since Super Tuesday, Sanders has drawn a sharper contrast between his record and Biden's on two issues in particular: trade and Social Security. In recent stump speeches, Sanders has argued NAFTA "decimated" Michigan and the Midwest, and called Biden's 1993 vote for it a "big mistake."

He has also criticized Biden's past comments suggesting he supports scaling back Social Security benefits. The former vice president has defended his vote for the trade deal and said he will protect the social safety net, including programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Hemond said the messaging from Sanders suggests a need for him to cut into Biden's support among white working class and older voters to win Michigan. The former vice president has a 6 percentage-point lead among voters who make less than $50,000, but the advantage balloons to nearly 20 points among voters above the $50,000 threshold, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday.

Sanders won a majority of white voters in Michigan in 2016, according to exit polls. But he struggled to gain traction among black voters, who made up about 21% of the electorate that year. Clinton won 68% to 28% among black voters, the surveys found.

It remains to be seen if black voters in Michigan support Biden as overwhelmingly as they did in Southern states such as North Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas.

Like in Super Tuesday state such as California and Texas, votes cast before primary day could blunt the effect of late developments. Roughly 600,000 people had returned absentee ballots by Friday, according to the Detroit Free Press. Voters had a chance to change their ballots, and at least 28,000 people took advantage of the opportunity, according to the newspaper.

A rush by presidential candidates and Democratic officials to coalesce around Biden helped to drive his remarkable resurgence in the 2020 primary. He also got a flurry of endorsements in Michigan.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist backed Biden ahead of the primary. So did Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and several Democratic U.S. House members.

Biden has campaigned on a return to normalcy. He has highlighted the Obama administration's achievements for Michigan while casting himself as the best hope to boost congressional candidates in key November races.

Stumping with Whitmer in Grand Rapids on Monday, Biden pointed to the effects of the Affordable Care Act, which helped to cut the state's uninsured rate to 5%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While pushing for a "Medicare-like public option" to expand coverage, he has cast Sanders' single-payer "Medicare for All" plan as unrealistic.

"Sen. Sanders is a good man. His Medicare for All push would be a long and expensive slog, if it can get done at all," Biden said Monday while visiting a Cherry Health clinic. He contended patients there "can't afford to wait for a revolution."

Sanders, in rallies around the state in recent days, has promised sweeping change to expand the social safety net and ensure economic security as he tries to win over voters. His campaign has dispatched prominent supporters such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents Detroit in the House.

He added one wrinkle to his strategy on Monday, the final day before the primary.  

Sanders held a roundtable on the coronavirus outbreak in Detroit, arguing poor Americans should have the same access to a potential vaccine as the wealthy. He questioned President Donald Trump's leadership during a public health crisis, asking whether Americans could trust the word of a president the senator has repeatedly dubbed a "pathological liar."

Of course, to get his chance to take on Trump more directly, Sanders needs to get through Biden. His ability to go further in the primary will depend in no small part on his ability to win Michigan on Tuesday.

Despite the stakes, Sanders has downplayed characterizations that he has to carry the state to beat Biden.

"I'm asked every day, do you have to win this state? Do you have to win that state? You know, I wish we could win all of the states," he told reporters in Vermont on Wednesday.

He added: "Look, we are going in there with the full expectation and the hope that we would win. Michigan is obviously an enormously important state, a state I feel very comfortable in."

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.