Make or break time for Sanders as Democratic race moves to Michigan

State a must-win for Bernie Sanders as a resurgent Joe Biden closes in

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders address supporters during a campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8th, 2020. Photograph:  Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders address supporters during a campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8th, 2020. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty

 

The sun may be shining on this spring afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but you can feel the bracing wind blow in from Lake Michigan 50km away. This old manufacturing city in the US’s industrial heartland just south of the Great Lakes has taken on a new significance in the race to become the Democratic nominee for president.

On Sunday, the sleepy midwestern town burst into life as thousands of people filed into the central plaza.

Shortly after 1pm, Bernie Sanders took to the stage to roars of approval. The event was one of several stops the veteran socialist senator made across Michigan on Sunday, culminating with a rally in Ann Arbor with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday night.

Addressing the packed park, Mr Sanders introduced veteran African-American politician Jesse Jackson. His endorsement has been a badly-needed boost for Sanders, who has been struggling to connect with African-American voters in this campaign just as in 2016.

“Bernie Sanders can win,” Jackson exclaimed, leading a chant in the crowd. “Bernie Sanders will win!” The fact that the thousands of people in the crowd were almost exclusively white was illustrative of Sanders’s difficulties.

For the most part, Sanders riffed on familiar themes as he addressed his supporters. He promised to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and to cancel all student debt. He pledged to create “20 million good-paying jobs” through the “Green New Deal” and the transition into a sustainable economy. The biggest cheer was for his comments on healthcare: “What kind of system bankrupts people because they’re fighting for their lives against a terrible disease?” he asked, fist aloft. “We’re going to fight that healthcare system. We’re going to move to medicare for all.”

His left-wing agenda has won wide support among young voters across the country, giving him a second shot at the Democratic nomination for president, four years after he narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton. But the next few days could be make or break for the Vermont senator, who is facing a huge challenge from Joe Biden, following the former vice-president’s decisive victories on Super Tuesday.

All eyes are on Michigan, one of six states to hold primaries and caucuses on Tuesday.

The state of 10 million people was one of the swing states that swung the election for Donald Trump in 2016. Trump ultimately won the state by a tiny margin of 10,000 votes, his promise of economic regeneration – however hollow – resonating with many white-collar workers including those who worked in Detroit’s once thriving car industry.

Clinton

But Michigan was also a bright spot for Sanders during the primary contest last time around. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton here in 2016, a big win that revived his campaign at the time. 

On Tuesday he will be looking for a similar outcome. But Biden’s resurgence following his decisive win in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday has complicated the Vermont senator’s path to victory. Sanders had been leading in the polls ahead of Super Tuesday, but recent polls show Biden closing in.

The importance of Tuesday’s contest is two-fold. Firstly, its size: 147 delegates are up for grabs in Michigan, the most of all six states. Secondly, a victory here for either candidate would be a signal that they could beat Trump in the all-important swing states in November.

Both candidates have been pouring resources into Michigan in recent days. Sanders cancelled his only planned event in the southern state of Mississippi on Friday to focus instead on Michigan. Biden will hold a number of campaign events on Monday in the state, culminating in an evening rally in Detroit with Kamala Harris, the California senator who endorsed him on Sunday. He also dispatched his former presidential rival Amy Klobuchar to campaign for him this weekend. Both are seen as possible vice-presidential candidates.

Biden has significant advantages going into the primary. He is likely to garner strong support from African-Americans who make up a sizeable percentage of Democratic voters, particularly in the Detroit area. He has also racked up many endorsements, including from Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer and the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan.

Sanders is banking on a strong youth turnout, particularly around the Ann Arbor area, the home of the University of Michigan, where he was due to campaign with Ocasio-Cortez later on Sunday. Prominent Detroit congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has also backed him. But the demographics that helped Sanders win in Nevada and California will play less of a role in Michigan. The state for example, has a small, though growing Latino population – a key constituency for Sanders since the 2020 race began. Nonetheless, his strong ground campaign in the state – he has had volunteers working for him for the best part of four years – is likely to help him when it comes to turnout.

Here at the Grand Rapids rally, most attendees are true believers. Amy, a 21-year-old factory worker from neighbouring Indiana, has made the almost two-hour trip to see the senator in person. Holding an anti-Trump sign and a “I believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford” badge, a reference to the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, she believes Sanders is the best-placed candidate to beat Trump. “Frankly, I think Joe Biden is a Republican in disguise,” she says.

Stephen, who works in a children’s hospital in Chicago, is in Grand Rapids visiting his father. While his dad is a Trump supporter, he is voting for Sanders. “Bernie is exciting, he is a person with ideas that are actually different,” he says, noting that medicare for all is the most important issue for him. He rejects the notion that Sanders is a radical.

“In 33 of the 34 most advanced countries in the world, they have figured out healthcare. It should not be this difficult. Ensuring people have proper access to healthcare should be a fundamental right. I see how pharmaceutical companies profit from the system here in the US.” As he looked up at the stage, amid the sea of blue Bernie signs, he pointed to the senator. “He’s going to get my vote,” he said emphatically.  

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