MAYBEE, Mich. — The largest field to ever run for president is now down to two major Democratic candidates, and the most important showdown yet between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden will be in Michigan, one of six states to vote on Tuesday.
Michigan, the first of the three Rust Belt swing states to hold a primary, doles out the largest number of delegates that day, in what is effectively a fight for whether Sanders’ progressive wing of the party can beat back the resurgence of moderates behind Biden.
Voters will test the former vice president’s claim that he can rebuild Barack Obama’s winning coalition of Blacks, white liberals, and Reagan Democrats in a state that will be critical in the general election. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the other Rust Belt states that swung Republican and handed President Trump an Electoral College victory, don’t hold primaries until next month.
For Sanders, the onetime front-runner who was put on the ropes by Biden’s Super Tuesday victories this week, the Michigan contest is a chance to stay in the hunt — maybe the Vermont senator’s final chance.
His campaign seems to think so: It canceled a planned Friday rally in Mississippi, which also votes next week, and held an event in Dearborn instead. Sanders will follow up with another rally in Grand Rapids on Sunday. And he is on the airwaves with negative television ads against Biden statewide.
Biden, for his part, has been announcing local endorsements, including from the current governor and two former ones, a freshman Democrat who ousted a Republican in a swing district, a former US senator, and Detroit’s mayor. Biden is scheduled to return to the state Monday for a private fund-raiser in Grosse Pointe Farms and potentially a public event.
“I think Michigan is going to be very telling,” said Washington-based Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth. “There is no question that Joe has the momentum now, and I think Senator Sanders is going to need to pull a rabbit out of his hat in order to salvage his chances at the nomination.”
And there is precedent for a Sanders comeback in Michigan: In 2016, Clinton was the strong front-runner for the nomination. She had won three of four early states and had a winning Super Tuesday. The last polls in Michigan had put her up over Sanders by well over 20 points.
But Sanders shocked everyone and narrowly defeated Clinton, a win that allowed him to extend the contest another three months until the bitter end.
This year, the latest polls have Biden winning Michigan, but all of them were taken before his Super Tuesday rout, and the consolidation of moderates behind him.
"I see no reason for things to change. Biden should just run out the clock, and without a debate there isn’t much that Sanders can really do about it,” said Jake Davison, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
If there is one place to test whether Sanders can pull off another comeback — or whether Biden can be a convincing general election winner — it is in Monroe County, located on Lake Erie halfway in between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.
There are a dozen Michigan counties that voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 before swinging to Republican Donald Trump. Some, like Macomb County, are famous as the home of the “Reagan Democrat.” Others, like Oakland County, get more press lately as places where the battle for the suburbs is being waged. But neither saw a bigger swing than Monroe County, which voted twice for Obama before giving Trump a 22-point win over Hillary Clinton.
This time, however, not only is Biden doing much better among the demographic groups that live there compared with Sanders in the 18 states that have already voted, Sanders is less focused on them, according to Michigan State University political science professor Matt Grossman.
“Bernie’s coalition has traded rural, white, working-class voters for Hispanic voters, and that is a bad trade in Michigan,” said Grossman, noting that only five percent of the state is Hispanic.
In the 2016 Michigan primary, whites without college degrees were the plurality of voters, roughly 36 percent. Sanders overwhelmingly won this group, according to exit polls, pushing him to victory.
Monroe County is overwhelmingly white and working-class. Sanders beat Clinton there. It has the most union households per capita in the state. The county seat, also called Monroe, has the fourth-highest concentration of union members in the country, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the major Ford plant is gone, but there are still a lot of union jobs at the local coal and nuclear plants.
The political transition from Democrat to Republican began a bit earlier in the more rural parts of the county like in the village of Maybee, where one of its two square miles is a rock quarry.
There are three churches, two bars, a gas station, and no stoplights.
Jean Haddix, 73, has worked at one of the bars — behind it, actually — for 41 years. At Little Brown Jug recently, she was serving Budweisers to Matt Petree, 23, who grew up down the road.
“Around here, most assume your friends and family support Trump and it’s a surprise when you learn they don’t,” said Petree. “It’s like, ‘Oh.’ ”
This is a dramatic change from the past, when Monroe County was one of the most staunch Democratic places in the state. Inside of the county courthouse on Thursday night, county Democrats wondered whether they will be able to swing Monroe back.
Several county Democrats said in interviews they are backing Biden in Tuesday’s primary, but were more hopeful than positive that either potential nominee will be able to carry Monroe in the general election. The head of the local carpenters union, Mike Hayer, 49, said he always thought Biden would give Democrats the best opportunity to at least compete in Monroe — though he admits that not all of his union members agree.
Bill LaVoy was the last Democrat to win a State House seat in the region. He is against abortion rights and sits on the board of statewide gun rights group. He was elected to his first two-year term as state representative in 2012, when Obama was reelected. He was then defeated in 2016, when Trump swept the region. Now he worries if he will be the last Democrat the county sends to the State House.
He, too, is a Biden supporter, though the Democratic candidate running for the same seat this time, Christopher Slat, backs Sanders and thinks Biden would hurt his chances of knocking off the Republican incumbent.
But as LaVoy put it, “The Trump wave came here and the tide never receded. One of the things we hope to begin to figure out around here on Tuesday is whether it ever will.”