CLEVELAND—Sen. Bernie Sanders’ once-surefooted path to the nomination has been narrowed to a tiptoe.
On Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden was declared the victor in Michigan’s Democratic primary, a potentially devastating setback for Sanders, who had made taking the state a top priority as he seeks to regain traction following Biden’s near-sweep of the Super Tuesday tables last week.
“We are not just taking on Joe Biden, we are taking on the 60 billionaires funding his campaign,” Sanders said at a campaign event in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Sunday, where he called on younger voters—by far his strongest demographic—to unite behind his candidacy. “We’re taking on the Wall Street executives who are helping to fund his campaign, we’re taking on the corporate establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment.”
“And we,” Sanders said confidently, “are going to win.”
He did not win. Instead, Sanders lost by a double-digit margin in the state that he won by less than two points in 2016, the latest addition to Biden’s win column, capping off a Sanders slide that began with his 30-point loss in South Carolina.
The result, which was called by the Associated Press minutes after polls in the state closed at 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, gave Biden a massive boost in national delegates, as well as the less tangible but equally potent bragging rights of having beaten Sanders among the most crucial demographics represented by the Obama coalition.
“To all those who have been knocked down, to all those who have been counted out… this is your campaign,” Biden said in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, sidestepping the question of whether the series of primary victories had effectively given him the mantle of presumptive nominee. “Although there’s a way to go, it looks like we’re gonna have a good night.”
Biden thanked Sanders’ supporters and congratulated them on their “tireless energy and passion,” and vowed to “bring this nation together” with different demographic groups to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
“In just the past week, so many of my incredibly capable competitors have endorsed me,” Biden said. “Together, together we’re bringing this party together—that’s what we have to do.”
The signs ahead of Michigan’s primary on Tuesday were discouraging for the Sanders campaign. The state, where working-class whites and African-American voters dominate Democratic politics, presented a difficult demographic makeup for Sanders, whose once rock-solid backing in the former has weakened in 2020 and whose favored standing among younger black voters is undercut by longstanding loyalty among older African-Americans for Biden.
Those concerns were borne out when Sanders canceled scheduled appearances in Mississippi and Missouri ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in those states, moving them instead to must-win Michigan. Sanders’ showing was disastrous in both states, leaving him on the knife’s edge of a delegate shutout in Mississippi and losing every single county in Missouri.
On election night, the trend lines continued in Biden’s favor—Mississippi and Missouri were called early and quickly for Biden, and Sanders was denied the chance to save face and charge onward to the next contests when his rally in Cleveland was canceled due to concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus.
In county after county, Sanders’ much vaunted ground game in the state and 2016 track record fell apart like wet bread. In Kalamazoo County, where Sanders won by 23 points in 2016, he was up by less than a point with 90 percent of precincts reporting. In Luce County, in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, Sanders’ nearly 30-point victory over Clinton in 2016 turned into a 25-point walloping by Biden.
The Associated Press also declared victory for Biden in Idaho, where Democrats used a primary for the first time. The state party’s caucus in 2016 saw it pick Sanders over Clinton. However, Sanders did manage a win in North Dakota, where he won by a landslide in 2016.
Sanders’ losses beg the question: Where does the Vermont senator go from here? If Sanders’ call to massively expand the electorate with the “largest voter turnout in American history”—the only mechanism, he said, by which Trump could be removed from office—was never answered, then what is his path forward?
“I think when the night is over, Joe Biden will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination,” Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement of Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary is seen as having cemented the former vice president’s massive victory in the state, said on NPR as the results rolled in. “If the night ends the way it has begun,” Clyburn added, it may well be time to “shut this primary down.”
Ominous signs were also present in neighboring Ohio before votes in Michigan were cast. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), the longest serving woman in Congress and 2016 Sanders supporter, announced she was backing Biden in the state’s March 17 primary.
Still, Biden’s own path, as the presumptive nominee, to the general election is far from solid. In his three campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, the former vice president has never gotten this far—or even won a race. Until a few weeks ago, Biden was running an underdog campaign, and now, largely through a confluence of lucky breaks, that campaign is supporting the likely nominee.
The growing pains have been acute. Democrats are openly worried that Biden’s team is unprepared to handle the fire hose of disinformation that the Trump campaign will direct his way, and members of the Biden campaign have been quietly speculating that the former vice president—whose campaign rarely fires staffers—is preparing a “reshuffle” of senior staff whose early work on the campaign lost the three first primary contests of the cycle, according to a source with knowledge of the shakeup.
“They are going to have some growing pains,” a former senior aide to a now-suspended rival candidate told The Daily Beast, who said that Biden’s winning streak was more the result of good luck than of sound counsel. “They wasted tens of millions of dollars in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada—you can’t just get Jim Clyburn to endorse you in all 50 states.”
Beyond the nitty gritty of campaign structure is also the delicate balance of navigating the period when Biden’s delegate majority, though functionally insurmountable, is still short of the absolute majority needed to win the nomination. Sanders thrives within that margin, as 2016 showed, and his supporters, who have grown accustomed to the Vermont senator’s declarations that the Democratic establishment is dead-set against his nomination, have reacted harshly to perceived presumptuousness by candidates in the past. Clinton’s attempts to smooth over hard feelings in 2016 were far from successful, and Sanders is clearly far from ready to make any signs toward concession.
Late on Tuesday night, Sanders’ campaign announced that he would be making no appearance or statements about the results—which, along with his announcement that he was returning home to Burlington, Vermont, was a telling statement itself.
Major surrogates, however, appeared alternately angry and despondent.
“Movements aren’t necessarily electoral,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in an Instagram Live chat as the results came in. “There’s a generational divide in the Democratic Party on health care, on climate change, on foreign policy.”
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former gubernatorial candidate backed by Sanders who himself lost a bitter primary in the state by wide margins, dismissed the air of “entitlement” about Biden in seeking the White House for a third time.
Hours before Sanders’ cutting defeat in the state’s primary, a small crowd of supporters gathered outside the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland, where Sanders had been scheduled to hold an election night rally before fears of the coronavirus canceled both his event and a Biden rally a few miles away, supporters of the Vermont senator were distraught but understanding—and, despite his looming loss in the state, indefatigably positive.
“We’re super bummed, but obviously we’re still gonna vote for Bernie,” said Mackenzie Gross, who took half a day off work and drove two and a half hours from Columbus to see Sanders speak. “Coronavirus is a big reason why Medicare for All is so important—we totally get that they have to be cautious.”
Around the corner from the convention center entrance, Mercy McClung, Grace Kohler, and sisters Erica Hughes and Olivia Hughes were peering into the empty building for any sign of life. When The Daily Beast informed them that the rally had been canceled, all four let out a small wail.
“We came up here, but I understand, ’cause school is canceled,” said Kohler. “We’d rather him be safe.”
“As much as us,” Olivia said, laughingly.
“On the car ride here, everybody’s talking about, like, what are we gonna do with high school, but also, what are we gonna do with work?” her sister said. “I think that’s a bigger question for people who are living paycheck to paycheck—what am I doing to do for work”