Bernie Sanders will face a crucial electoral test in Michigan on Tuesday. His performance there will either give him a path to challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination or put his campaign on life support.
“It’s really crunch time for Sanders,” says Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If Sanders doesn’t win Michigan, what would lead you to think he’d win Illinois or Missouri or Ohio? If he’s really going to challenge Clinton in this race, he needs to find some big states to win.”
Sanders’s campaign has itself recognized Michigan as a critical battleground. Though Sanders has trailed there by double digits in most polls, the Vermont senator’s staff has argued that Michigan should be fertile ground for his populist economic message.
“I think his message on trade in particular will be very powerful out there,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, told the Washington Post about Michigan.
What Sanders’s bet on Michigan may be overlooking
The Sanders campaign has decided to invest substantial resources and time in its “big Michigan bet,” according to a report published by Politico. The Post said Weaver considers Michigan “ripe Sanders territory” in part because the state had suffered job losses and economic restructuring.
But it’s not clear that this is a narrative Michigan’s voters — particularly Michigan’s Democratic primary voters — will find persuasive.
In fact, by most measures, Michigan’s economy has done well under President Barack Obama, with gains in employment, population, and economic growth since 2009, according to Dr. Donald R. Grimes, a University of Michigan researcher who studies the state’s economy.
“Since Obama took office, Michigan has been doing great. And people will correctly attribute some of that to him and some of that to [Gov. Rick] Snyder,” Grimes said.
That should help Clinton, who has sold herself as a continuation of the Obama presidency. And overwhelmingly, voters who say the Democratic nominee should continue Obama’s policies have backed her over Sanders, according to exit polls. Those who want the next president to pursue more liberal policies have supported Sanders by a 6- to 10-point margin.
On first glance, Michigan’s strong economic recovery during the Obama administration appears to translate into an advantage for Clinton — one that may make Sanders’s gamble on the state not make much sense.
Michigan’s economy looks much weaker if you zoom out
But there’s a major flaw in this analysis: Michigan’s economy may have improved since 2009, but it’s still down sharply from where it was in 2000, particularly for low-income workers, according to Grimes.
Like the rest of the country, Michigan suffered a serious economic downturn beginning around 2001. (Michigan’s began a little earlier, in 2000.) But while much of America rebounded from that recession within the year, Michigan’s free fall largely continued uninterrupted until 2009, according to Grimes.
“Michigan was just hit incredibly hard in that nine-year period, from 2000 to 2009,” Grimes said. “Housing prices were collapsing, people were losing jobs, people were leaving the state. Those nine years or so were almost depression-like in terms of decline.”
By that metric, the past two decades still look pretty terrible for the Michigan economy. And if that’s the time frame Michigan voters have in mind when they head to the polls, Grimes noted, they’re probably much more likely to seek a major break with the status quo at the ballot box. That’d probably play to Sanders’s advantage.
“If your perspective is back to 2000, you say: ‘Life sucks, and we need to throw the bums out and start the revolution, and somehow get to where we were in 2000,'” Grimes said. “We’ve undergone this tremendous income loss over this long, 16-year period back to 2000. … When you ask a person here if they’re happy, if they’re better off, it depends on if you’re talking about compared to 2009 or 2000.”
Another problem with this strategy: shifts in what the Democratic Party looks like
Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite in Michigan. The former secretary of state has led Sanders by at least 10 points in every poll of the state since September 2015, according to RealClearPolitics.
“If Sanders won Michigan, it’d be a huge upset given what the polls have said,” said Kondik, of the University of Virginia.
There are two major regions where Grimes expects Clinton to do very well: in Oakland County, where there’s a large number of high-income voters; and in the city of Detroit, which is about 90 percent African-American.
Sanders, meanwhile, will probably need to win in places like Macomb County and in the city of Lansing, which have a higher number of white, working-class voters. If there’s higher turnout in those places and in Washtenaw County — home of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — Sanders may be able to give Clinton a real challenge.
But even banking on these voters may be risky for the Vermont senator. Grimes noted that poorer white voters in the state have increasingly left the Democratic Party and voted Republican.
“I think the Democratic Party in Michigan has increasingly become a party of upscale voters,” Grimes said. “But it may be fertile territory for the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan.”