Selweski: Tuesday’s outcome shows Sanders’ 2016 Michigan win was a fluke

March 11, 2020, 11:43 PM by  Chad Selweski

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Photo: Depositphotos).

The true Bernie Sanders has finally come forward, showing his true colors, thanks to Michigan voters. 

Tuesday’s Michigan vote, with former Vice President Joe Biden dominating from Monroe to Marquette, clearly revealed that the Vermont senator’s stunning victory in the state’s 2016 primary over Hillary Clinton was a fluke. 

It can now be definitively said that the primary vote of four years ago was the product of an anti-Clinton protest vote, as she represented the second-most unpopular presidential candidate –- second only to Donald Trump – in modern polling history. The lesser of two evils took on a whole new meaning four years ago in the Great Lakes State.

Michigan Democrats who had no affinity with Sanders voted for him to send a message -- subsequently giving the Vermont senator an improbable victory in 73 of the state’s 83 counties -- not to launch an obscure, left-wing candidate to the White House. 

But in 2020, Joe Biden is no Hillary Clinton. 

Almost exactly four years later, the numbers on Tuesday were staggering in their demonstration of what a trusted, middle-of-the-road candidate can accomplish in a one-on-one race against Sanders and his diehard band of “Bernie Bros” supporters. 

Ex-VP Joe Biden

Biden won all 83 counties on Tuesday and easily captured virtually every demographic voting group after the Sanders’ team had expressed optimism about a Michigan repeat. While Sanders’ strength in northern Michigan served as a stunning achievement in 2016, on Tuesday Biden carried numerous rural counties Up North and in the U.P. by margins of more than 20 or 30 points. 

Without Clinton on the ballot, taking Michigan voters for granted, Biden also scored huge victory margins among black voters, suburbanites, women and those aged 45 and older, who show up at the polls in large numbers.  

While Biden is trying to recreate the Obama coalition of 2008-12, Sanders is exposing himself as a leftist who can barely break beyond the 30+ percent threshold among Democratic primary voters. Little more than a month ago, the pundits were declaring Bernie the outright frontrunner based on his success in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – states that amounted to less than 5 percent combined of the overall delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. 

Fontrunner status was ridiculous

Some analysts in recent weeks assumed Sanders enjoyed numerous advantages – a whole lot of campaign cash, momentum, and a newfound status as the ultimate advocate of progressive, big-ticket items such as free college tuition, free health care through Medicare for All and massive tax hikes on the wealthy. The Sanders’ ultra-expensive democratic socialist agenda had somehow become mainstream among the majority of 2020 Democratic presidential primary voters. It seemed that Sanders’ time had come.

But the pundits largely ignored interim 2018 election advances by Michigan Democrats in statewide and congressional offices that indicated the moderates largely represented the path to turning the tide back to blue.

Two years later, the Michigan presidential primary headed into an election season that was focused fundamentally on which candidate could beat Trump. Money didn’t matter (Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer), primary season momentum was overrated (Sanders after Iowa and New Hampshire), and the “enthusiasm gap” that was prominent four years ago meant nothing. Sanders attracted an impressive 10,000 supporters to a rally in Ann Arbor on Sunday, just days before Tuesday’s primary when he lost soundly in Washtenaw County.

Staggering turnaround under Biden 

Overall, the flip Tuesday was staggering.

According to the exit polls, Biden won college-educated whites by 14 points on Tuesday, a 25-point turnaround compared to Sanders’ success in that voter category four years ago. Barack Obama’s VP accomplished an identical 25-point differential among non-college-educated whites compared to Sanders’ showing in 2016. 

While the dedicated Sanders’ team in Michigan assumed they could win again here by following the same path as they did in the last presidential campaign season, the wake-up call of 2020 uncovered a recasting of the 2016 Sanders campaign mythology.

Their first indication that they had a lot of work to do should have come from the 2016 polling numbers that showed Sanders captured a plurality over Clinton among moderate Democratic voters. 

In 2020, with the ultraliberal vs. moderate split within the party, that 2016 support among moderates/centrists seems rather ridiculous, an obvious anti-Clinton protest.

That 2016 anomaly of an election, which was obviously not expected by Sanders or his advisers, granted the Vermont senator unwarranted momentum, credibility and legitimacy. Without it, he may have dropped out of that 2016 race – and returned to oblivion on Capitol Hill – within days or weeks of that March 2016 primary. In Washington, he had served as a quirky, cranky back-bencher in Congress for decades.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election for a successor to President Obama, no one expected Sanders to emerge as any factor at all in the primaries. Clinton mysteriously gave Sanders’ campaign life as she arrogantly assumed she would win easily, even as she was running an inept campaign in Michigan and elsewhere.

In Sanders’ typically potent remarks Wednesday about continuing his campaign to capture young voters of the future, the senator did not mention that in every state going back to Iowa he has claimed that he is expanding the party’s base with a dramatic influx of pro-Bernie Millennials. That is false advertising. It did not happen. 

Meanwhile, Biden’s team, without much of a ground game or a TV advertising initiative, had ably focused on a message that many middle class voters are not in the mood for Bernie’s political revolution -- which would involve 20-fold tax increases over what Clinton proposed four years ago—when the nation could be facing a counter-revolutionary sentiment resulting in four more years of Trump.

The former vice president has effectively presented himself on the campaign trail as the “Biden Bridge” that will stabilize the nation while paving the way toward more incremental, progressive policies later in the 2020s. Our state has seemingly made that progression a reality. 

In the end, Biden’s 2020 Michigan win compared to Sanders’ inexplicable victory in 2016 was one – or should I say, two – for the history books.  

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