Why Michigan’s Primary is as Important as Super Tuesday
March 10 is a mini-Super Tuesday in the U.S. primaries contest, but it is bigger than that sounds. Last week, Super Tuesday skyrocketed Joe Biden to the front of the Democratic race and turned it into a contest between him and Bernie Sanders. If Biden wins in Michigan—the largest state in play today—, the nomination is as good as his, even if the delegate count tells another story. But more than that, if he wins a Midwestern state that went for Sanders and then Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats can start to have faith that Biden will not face the fate of Hillary Clinton.
Despite what the latest polls say, a Biden win in Michigan is not a foregone conclusion, which would make it a potent signal. Although a new poll from The Detroit Free Press shows Biden 24 points ahead of Sanders (up from a 7 point lead in a Detroit news poll just 5 days earlier). Polls ahead of the 2016 primary showed Hillary Clinton 20-25 points ahead of Sanders in the state, yet he won it. Sanders’s message of economic populism and workers’ rights is especially potent in Michigan, the birthplace of the U.S. organized labor movement and still one of the most unionized states in the country (over 28 percent of Michiganders are either members of or represented by unions, compared to, say, 25 percent in Pennsylvania and 4.9 percent in South Carolina). Biden is vulnerable to attacks against his record supporting freer trade, which Sanders is making. And unlike in South Carolina, the state that revived Biden’s campaign, well over half of Michigan’s Democratic leaning voters are white, and it is a rural state with a strong anti-establishment contingent.
Michigan is a big catch. Winning a large chunk of its 125 delegates (which are awarded proportionally) would consolidate Biden’s path to the nomination. But more importantly, it will create momentum ahead of votes in similar, and similarly crucial, states. Michigan is the first of the much-watched Midwestern “rust belt” states to hold a primary. And, along with the other states that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump between 2012 and 2016 (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin), it is considered a must-win state for a 2020 Democratic victory. Having lost Michigan to Sanders, Clinton went on to lose it all to Trump. A Biden victory in the state will do a lot to reassure Democratic voters that might lean further left than him that he is not Hillary 2.0. This would set him up to get more votes in upcoming primaries in neighboring Illinois and Ohio seven days later.
There are two important wildcards for Tuesday’s vote in Michigan. The state holds open primaries, which means that people showing up at the polling station simply choose whether they want to vote in the Republican or the Democratic contest, regardless of their party affiliation. In a year like this, when the Republican primary is uninteresting, it is entirely plausible that at least a few thousand GOP voters would show up to vote for the Democratic candidate who they think will be easier to defeat in November. For Trump’s team and most of the GOP, this would be Sanders. Second, more than 572,000 Michiganders voted early by absentee ballot, and many will have voted for candidates who have dropped out in the last week (most of whom have now endorsed Biden). To put that number in context, in 2016 Sanders won by only 17,000 votes.
But in the end, the general election is the contest that matters. If Biden wins Michigan, it means that he turned out the vote that the Democrats will need there in November. Turnout in the state was not lower in 2016 than in 2012, but it was different. Turnout was down in the urban/suburban counties around Detroit and Flint, where much of the African-American vote is concentrated, whereas in many (mostly very white) rural and suburban counties it was up. This accounts for the very narrow 10,000 vote Trump victory. If Biden can turn out the voters he needs today in key counties such as Macomb, northeast of Detroit, and Saginaw, northwest of Flint, then they are likely to show up for him again in November.
We will know late on Tuesday if the turnout is high in these key counties. If Biden wins them by a significant margin, then he can win them again in November. But if he does not, and Sanders again defeats the establishment favorite in this narrowly Democratic-leaning state, this will be a warning that Democrats should heed better than last time around.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.