Biden wins hard-fought Michigan, deals major blow to Sanders

Former Vice President Joe Biden greets the crowd during a campaign event Tuesday at the Driving Park Community Center in Columbus. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden decisively won Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday, seizing a key battleground state that helped propel Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy four years ago. The former vice president’s victory there, as well as in Missouri and Mississippi, dealt a serious blow to Sanders and substantially widened Biden’s path to the nomination.

Biden again showed strength with working-class voters and African Americans, who are vital to winning the Democratic nomination. Sanders’ hopes rested on Idaho, North Dakota and Washington state, where votes were still being tabulated but where far fewer delegates were at stake.

Tuesday marked the first time voters weighed in on the primary since it effectively narrowed to a two-person race between Sanders and Biden. And the first three large states easily went to Biden, a dramatic reversal for a campaign that appeared on the brink of collapse just two weeks ago. Now it is Sanders, whose candidacy was ascendant so recently, who must contemplate a path forward.

Addressing supporters in Philadelphia, Biden noted that many had “declared that this candidacy was dead” only days ago but “now we’re very much alive.” He also asked Sanders supporters to back him going forward.

“We need you, we want you, and there’s a place in our campaign for each of you. I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said. “We share a common goal, and together we’ll beat Donald Trump.”

Even as the contours of the race came into shape, new uncertainty was sparked by fears of the spreading coronavirus. Both candidates abruptly canceled rallies in Ohio that were scheduled for Tuesday night. That set the stage for Biden’s remarks in Philadelphia, while Sanders flew home to Vermont and didn’t plan to address the public.

Sanders’ campaign also said all future events would be decided on a case-by-case basis given public health concerns, while Biden called off a scheduled upcoming Florida stop. Still, the former vice president said Tuesday night that he’d be announcing plans to combat the coronavirus later this week.

The Democratic National Committee also said that Sunday’s debate between Sanders and Biden would be conducted without an audience.

Among former White House hopefuls and leaders of powerful liberal groups, however, Biden’s momentum is now undeniable.

Bradley Beychok, president and co-founder of American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, said his group “will be ALL IN to elect @JoeBiden as our next president.” The organization is spending millions of dollars trying to win over people who backed President Donald Trump in key states in 2016.

Guy Cecil, chairman of the flagship Democratic outside political organization Priorities USA, tweeted: “The math is now clear. Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for President and @prioritiesUSA is going to do everything we can to help him defeat Donald Trump in November.”

There were other major warning signs for Sanders on Tuesday. He again struggled to win support from black voters. Two-thirds of Mississippi’s Democratic primary voters were African American, and three-quarters of them supported Biden, according to AP VoteCast surveys of the electorate.

After Sanders upset Hillary Clinton in Michigan four years ago, his loss there Tuesday was particularly sobering. It undermined his argument that he could appeal to working-class voters and that he could expand the electorate with new young voters.

His showing makes it difficult for Sanders to argue that he could win the state in November, when Democrats are desperate to rebuild their blue wall, which includes Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

One of the few bright notes for Sanders was his strength among young voters, but even that has a downside because they didn’t turn out enough to keep him competitive. Sanders won 70% of those under 30 in Missouri and 64% in Michigan, according to AP VoteCast. The senator was also about even with Biden among voters ages 30 to 44.

According to an Associated Press analysis, Biden had picked up at least 113 new delegates: 51 in Michigan, 34 in Missouri and 28 in Mississippi on Tuesday. Sanders got 53: 34 in Michigan and 19 in Missouri. Some 186 had yet to be allocated, including those from Idaho, Utah and Washington state.

Although six states voted, Michigan — with its 125 delegates — got most of the attention. Trump won the state by only 10,704 votes during the general election, his closest margin of victory among Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those states gave Trump the narrow edge in the 2016 Electoral College after Clinton won the popular vote.

Sanders has vowed not to drop out regardless of Tuesday’s results and frequently railed against the “Democratic establishment” that he says has aligned against him.

In addition to the powerful groups now siding with Biden, the former vice president has picked up the endorsements of many of his former presidential rivals, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and, as of Tuesday, entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, sometimes mentioned as a possible vice presidential choice, also endorsed Biden and campaigned with him ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Biden also gave a nod to all his former competitors, saying, “We’re bringing this party together.”

“That’s what we have to do,” he said.

Not every Democrat was lining up behind Biden, though. Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents a sprawling district from the college town of Ann Arbor to the Detroit suburbs, said Tuesday that she’s staying neutral.

“I remember what it was like four years ago and the vitriol and the anger, the people mad at each other the whole election cycle. We can’t afford that,” Dingell said. “It’s about getting out and voting in November.”

Like Sanders, Biden has no public events scheduled for Wednesday. And though he’s celebrating a growing delegate lead, he’s still confronting voters who question his positions, which include a gun control plan that reinstates an assault weapons ban and includes a voluntary buyback program for assault weapons.

That issue was at the center of a testy exchange with a worker while Biden was rallying earlier Tuesday in Detroit. The man accused him of “actively trying to end our Second Amendment right.” Biden shot back, “You’re full of shit,” but went on to say that while he supports the Second Amendment, “Do you need 100 rounds?”