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Opinion Why is Sanders tanking? He’s the wrong candidate with the wrong message at the wrong time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders leaves after speaking to the media and supporters outside a polling location at Canfield Center on Tuesday in Dearborn Heights, Mich. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

After his thumping by former vice president Joe Biden on Tuesday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s hopes of winning the Democratic nomination are slipping away. So why is his presidential campaign tanking? Because his message is not resonating with the voters he claims to champion.

Working-class voters were supposed to be Sanders’s firewall in Michigan, but the firewall did not hold. Sanders tried to convince blue-collar voters that Biden had betrayed them by supporting trade deals that sent their jobs to Mexico and China. It didn’t work. Biden won union households in Michigan by an 18-point margin. Why? One reason is that while those trade deals happened long ago (and President Trump has since renegotiated NAFTA), Sanders threatened to take away something these union workers have now and want to keep: the generous union health-care plans they won through collective bargaining.

The number-one issue for Democratic voters in Michigan was health care, and Sanders’s pledge to eliminate all private insurance and force workers into mandatory Medicare-for-all did not sit well with many union members. As Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, explained: “The elimination of employer-based insurance in favor of a Medicare-for-all proposal is a bad idea that punishes working families who have been able to secure quality health care.” Biden, on the other hand, promised to protect their health care — and defeated Sanders in a state he won four years ago.

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But the deeper problem for Sanders is that his entire campaign is built on a fundamentally flawed premise. In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Sanders said the economy “is working phenomenally well for Trump’s billionaire friends, not for working Americans.” Working Americans disagreed. A recent Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling the economy, the highest economic approval of any president in two decades. As Trump explained in his State of the Union address, America has been experiencing a “blue-collar boom.” On his watch, the economy has added almost half a million manufacturing jobs, after losing nearly 300,000 during the Obama administration.

Last year, the Marist poll asked voters whether “the economy is working well for you personally.” Nearly two-thirds said yes, including 64 percent of those without a college education and 61 percent of nonwhite people. Who disagreed? Progressives (59 percent of whom said the economy was not working well for them personally) and those who are liberal or very liberal (55 percent of whom said the same). In other words, Sanders supporters. Sanders is campaigning in a socialist bubble. His message resonates with the far left, but not with the working class.

Iyanla Fuller, a sophomore at the College of Charleston, says she fears for the future of the country. (Video: The Washington Post)

Of course, everything could change if the coronavirus pushes the economy into recession. Michigan autoworkers will feel differently about the economy in a few months’ time if the assembly lines shut down because they can’t get auto parts from China. An economic downturn would certainly put Trump at risk in November, which is why he is now pushing for an economic stimulus package. It’s unclear whether such a stimulus will pass, whether it would work and how much voters would blame the president for the economic impact of a pandemic originating in China. But it’s also far from certain that they would have embraced socialism as the answer. This much is certain: Any downturn will come too late for Sanders.

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If Sanders could not rally blue-collar voters to beat Biden, he certainly was not going to do so against Trump. Sanders is the wrong candidate with the wrong message at the wrong time. That’s why his campaign is on life support.

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