It feels like the closing of a loop. In March 1988, a dramatic upset in Michigan by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign brought him into a tie with Michael Dukakis, panicking the Democratic establishment and opening a window to a different future for the party. In March 2016, Sanders delivered a stunning upset to Hillary Clinton in the Rust Belt state, momentarily resetting the primary. Eight months later, Donald Trump did the same to Clinton in Michigan, sealing his Electoral College victory.
On Tuesday, Michigan dealt a crushing blow to Sanders’s second presidential campaign — despite an endorsement on Sunday from Jackson. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office said it would not release official results until midday Wednesday due to a large number of absentee ballots, but several networks called the state for Biden not long after polls closed at 8 p.m. With half the votes counted, Biden sat on a comfortable 14-point lead.
The win for Biden comes after a swing toward the former vice president — what Nate Silver described as “probably the fastest in the history of the primaries.” Sanders moved from being the clear frontrunner on February 23, the day after the Nevada caucuses, to a stalled candidate on March 1, the day after South Carolina, to trailing on March 4, the day after Super Tuesday. Polls continued to slide away from Sanders over the next week, leading to his eventual loss in Michigan, Mississippi, and Missouri as early returns came in on Tuesday.
The autopsies will begin soon, even as the campaign struggles forward, with Florida, Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio set to vote in a week — where two critical House contests will pit insurgent primary challengers Morgan Harper in Columbus, Ohio, and Marie Newman in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, against Democratic incumbents.
Those autopsies will look closely at the decisions made in those days between Nevada and this Tuesday by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who also competed in the progressive lane until dropping out after Super Tuesday. The main question they’ll have to answer is why the Sanders campaign was unable to turn out the young, working class electorate he needed to beat the more moderate opponent, who dominated him among older white suburban voters as well as older black voters.
2016 vs. 2020: Share of Dem primary/caucus electorate under 30
IA 18% ('16) => 24% ('20)
NH 19% => 13%
NV 18% => 17%
SC 15% => 11%
AL 14% => 10%
MA 19% => 16%
NC 18% => 14%
TN 15% => 11%
TX 20% => 15%
VA 16% => 13%
VT 15% => 11%
— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) March 10, 2020
Biden launched his campaign on April 25 last year, and was immediately the top-polling candidate, starting with a 6-point lead, with Sanders in second place. By mid-May, Biden had climbed above 40 percent, expanding that lead to 27 points as Sanders fell under 15 percent. Biden, though, had hit his 2019 peak. He stumbled repeatedly on the campaign trail and in debates, with mainstream media figures and his presidential opponents openly wondering if Biden was still cognitively up to the challenge of a campaign or the presidency. He began a precipitous decline, hovering in the high 20s through the rest of the year, before collapsing outright in late January as the Iowa caucuses approached. He finished fourth there, barely edging out Amy Klobuchar, a pummeling that was made merciful by the party’s botching of the vote-counting.
He then won fewer than 25,000 votes in New Hampshire, finishing a disastrous fifth. In Nevada, with 20 percent of the vote, he finished second to Sanders, who became the frontrunner for the nomination.
Fewer than one in five Democratic primary voters believed Biden was the most electable candidate, and Sanders expanded his national lead, even overtaking Biden among black voters.
Sanders was feeling good.
I've got news for the Republican establishment. I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 22, 2020
Two days after the Nevada Democratic caucuses, “60 Minutes” aired an interview in which Sanders was pressed on praise he had offered to Fidel Castro for expanding literacy in Cuba, resulting in a dayslong news cycle on Sanders and Castro. If there are what-ifs to ask, they have the most force in the week between Nevada and South Carolina. What if Sanders had managed to persuade Warren to drop out after Nevada and endorse him? What if the pair hadn’t spent January at each other’s throats over a conversation during a private meeting in 2018? Could Sanders have transitioned from insurgent to leader of the party?
To reverse-engineer Biden’s victory and Sanders’s defeat, the question comes down to South Carolina. What could Sanders have done to stave off a Jim Clyburn endorsement of Biden, which led to a 30-point loss there, which flipped the race upside down?
Could Sanders have transitioned from insurgent to leader of the party?
Most obviously, he could have campaigned and invested there more. He had spent Wednesday, Thursday, and part of Friday in South Carolina, but then moved to Massachusetts, hoping to topple Warren in her home state and knock her out of the race. On the day voters went to the polls in South Carolina, Sanders rallied in Boston. He could have spent more on advertising directly to black voters in South Carolina, and linked himself to the hopes and legacy of former President Barack Obama, rather than highlighting criminal justice reform — a pitch that many black voters understand as pandering.
And, perhaps most importantly, he could have attacked Biden’s record. Biden’s collapse in January coincided with a sustained assault by Sanders’s staff, eventually joined by Sanders himself, on Biden’s abysmal record on Social Security. Biden historically has not responded to political assaults well, and didn’t do so in January, repeatedly stepping back into a fight he would have been better off avoiding. He even lashed out at a CBS News reporter, shouting, “Why why why why why?” in a way that made him look unhinged. Sanders, instead, defended Biden as a friend, even going so far as to apologize for a surrogate’s critical column, declaring, “It is absolutely not my view that Joe is corrupt in any way.”
After South Carolina, Biden’s camp upped the charm offensive toward Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out and endorsed Biden, along with former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. Meanwhile, Sanders and Warren weren’t on speaking terms. Neither Sanders nor Warren won Massachusetts, and the state instead went to Biden.
Warren dropped out of the race, but instead of endorsing Sanders, her first public interview was devoted to hitting Sanders for online vitriol among his supporters. An overwhelming majority of her supporters appear to have moved toward Biden rather than Sanders. A candidate who had hesitated attacking Biden throughout most of the campaign is finishing it with a reputation for stirring up toxic negativity.
“The waters parted for Joe Biden like no other candidate has ever seen,” said CNN’s chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, describing the wild swing in his direction. “It’s almost as if he’s standing there saying, ‘What? What? I’m here?’ Because he did everything wrong. He lost a couple times, he came in second or third. This should not have happened, but it did happen to him.”