Michigan vote Tuesday shaping up as key test for Sanders and Biden

The Rev. Jesse Jackson with Sen. Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sunday.
(Jeff Kowalsky / AFP/Getty Images)

With Joe Biden holding a significant lead in the race to amass a majority of delegates to the Democratic convention, Bernie Sanders’ campaign is pouring resources into Michigan in advance of Tuesday’s primary, which is shaping up as a critical contest between the two.

Sanders denied in television interviews Sunday that the primary was “make or break” for his campaign but agreed that it was “enormously important.”

“Michigan is very, very significant in terms of the primary process,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”


Among the six states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday, Michigan has the largest number of delegates at stake, 125. Both campaigns have made a major push there, with Biden taking advantage of strong fundraising in recent days to sharply step up his advertising in the state and draw even with Sanders’ spending.

Biden is widely expected to win heavily in Mississippi, where Sanders canceled events to focus on Michigan. Biden also has an edge in Missouri, while Sanders’ campaign is hoping that his strength in the West will continue with a victory in Washington state. North Dakota and Idaho also vote, with few delegates on the line.

Sanders won Michigan’s primary in 2016 in an upset against Hillary Clinton. But he faces a more challenging task this time around, both because Biden may be stronger among white, working-class voters in the state than Clinton proved to be and because of Biden’s strong support from black voters.

At a rally in Grand Rapids on Sunday afternoon, Sanders touted an endorsement from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Sanders had supported Jackson’s 1988 bid for the nomination in which Biden was one of the opposing candidates. Sunday, Jackson introduced Sanders and praised the Vermont senator’s support for racial justice.

Sanders called the endorsement “one of the honors of my life.”

“Back in 1988, Jesse Jackson won this state; in 2016, I won this state; and on Tuesday, if we stick together, if we bring our friends out to vote, we’re going to win it again,” Sanders said in a fiery speech that hit his oft-stated themes of fighting climate change, forgiving student debt and combating “the greed of Wall Street.”

“Brothers and sisters, let’s go forward!” he shouted.

Later in the day, at a rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Sanders declared, “We are taking on in this campaign not just Joe Biden; we’re taking on the 60 billionaires who are funding his campaign.”

Sanders’ campaign in Michigan has stepped up attacks on Biden’s decades-long voting record in the Senate, especially his support for trade agreements that contributed to a loss of blue-collar jobs in the state over the last generation.

The senator also continued to complain that he has been unfairly targeted by the Democratic Party’s leadership.


“One of the things I was kind of not surprised by was the power of the establishment to force Amy Klobuchar, who had worked so hard, [and] Pete Buttigieg, who had really worked extremely hard as well, out of the race,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week.” The senator from Minnesota and the former South Bend, Ind., mayor dropped out of contention and endorsed Biden heading into last week’s Super Tuesday primaries.

Buttigieg’s “decision to get out of the race was his and his alone,” his spokeswoman Lis Smith responded on Twitter.

His comments about establishment pressure put Sanders in the awkward position of sharing a theme pushed by President Trump, who habitually issues gibing tweets suggesting that the race for the nomination is rigged against Sanders, something he did again early Sunday.

“We have now learned for sure that the Democrats don’t want anything to do with Crazy Bernie,” Trump wrote in a post-midnight Twitter thread, employing his customary derogatory nickname for Sanders. “Dirty double dealing? Nobody knows for sure, & history will be the judge.”

Unlike the contest with Clinton in 2016, however, Sanders also praised Biden as a “friend” and repeated in his interviews that he would support the former vice president if Biden becomes the party’s nominee.

As Sanders pushed for African American support in Michigan, the Biden campaign countered with another raft of prominent endorsements, led by Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who in December abandoned her bid to become the first female president.

Harris voiced “great enthusiasm” for Biden’s candidacy in a video posted Sunday on Twitter in which she said she planned to campaign in Detroit on Monday.

“I believe in Joe — I really believe in him,” said Harris, who is the ninth former rival for the nomination to back Biden.

On Twitter, Biden offered thanks on behalf of his family, noting Harris’ friendship with his late son, Beau, when both were state attorneys general, she in California and he in Delaware.


“You’ve spent your whole career fighting for folks who’ve been written off and left behind — and no small part of that alongside Beau,” he wrote, addressing her as “Kamala.”

The Biden camp had hoped Harris would endorse the former vice president before the March 3 vote in California. In what might have been an effort to dispel any hard feelings — particularly as she is being touted in some quarters as a potential running mate to Biden — Harris cast her timing as a mark of respect for fellow female senators who remained in the running until last week.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts exited the race Thursday after falling far behind on Super Tuesday, including a loss in her home state.

“Like many women, I watched with sadness as women exited the race one by one,” Harris said in a written statement Sunday, which is International Women’s Day. “This is something we must reckon with, and it is something I will have more to say about in the future.”

Sanders, in his CNN interview, was asked whether he thought sexism remained a barrier for female candidates, now that the race has essentially dwindled to two septuagenarian white men.

“The short answer is yes, I do,” he said. “I think women have obstacles placed in front of them that men do not have.” But he cited “progress in the last 40, 50 years in terms of the number of women now in Congress.”

In addition to Harris’ endorsement, Biden has also received the backing of Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who beat a Sanders-backed candidate in her primary in 2018. The Biden campaign hopes that the suburban, moderate voters who were crucial to Whitmer’s victory will turn out to help put him over the top in the state Tuesday.


Black voters are another key part of his coalition. Biden credits their support with reenergizing what had been widely viewed only last month as a faltering bid for the nomination. Black voters propelled him to victory in South Carolina, a key lead-in to Super Tuesday.

On Sunday, campaigning in Mississippi, Biden was introduced at an appearance at Jackson’s historic New Hope Baptist Church by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) as the “comeback kid.”

“If I am the comeback kid, it’s because of one reason: the African American community across the country,” Biden responded.

Biden has also leaned heavily on his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama, the first black president, even though Obama has so far stayed on the sidelines while the nomination drama plays out.

“We did a lot under Barack,” Biden said at the Mississippi church. “But we can do more now, because people realize how many people were marginalized.”

Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.