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The Trailer: Will the state that made Bernie Sanders's 2016 campaign break his 2020 campaign?

In this edition: The high stakes in Michigan's primary, what Bernie Sanders does without a moderate candidate pileup, and what a new poll says about the forgotten state of Iowa.

Yemeni coffeehouses in Dearborn are the new blue-collar diners, and this is The Trailer.

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Daniel LaForest, 26, was exactly the sort of Michigan voter that Bernie Sanders counted on. He'd voted for the senator from Vermont in 2016, when Sanders won this state in an upset over Hillary Clinton. This year he had backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), casting an early ballot for her before her exit from the race. And there was still time to switch that vote, to walk to a county elections office and ask to mark his ballot for Sanders.

LaForest wasn't going to do it. 

“Bernie can't build a coalition because of how toxic his supporters and his surrogates are,” LaForest said as he waited for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to speak at a rally for Joe Biden's campaign. “His ideas are great, his policies are great, but if you just make everybody angry, you can't get any of that done.”

Sanders, who has out-organized and out-campaigned Biden in Michigan, is heading into Tuesday's election in the familiar role of an underdog. Biden's Super Tuesday victories, some in states where the former vice president did not campaign or run advertising, convinced Sanders to scrap rallies in Mississippi and Missouri to spend more time here, where his odds seemed better. It might not be enough to stitch together the coalition that gave Sanders a win here four years ago, even against a Biden campaign that got a late, rough start.

“Joe has something that Hillary didn't have, a reservoir of good will,” said former governor Jim Blanchard, an early Biden supporter. “People know Bernie. They know that Bernie's a protest candidate. They know that the issue now is nominating someone who can win in November, so it's a different dynamic than it was four years ago.”

Polling in Michigan has been sparse, and there may be no state where it is viewed more skeptically. Pollsters badly missed Sanders's victory four years ago, with the Detroit Free Press even mistakenly calling the race for Clinton, before votes from rural counties overwhelmed her advantage in the city and its suburbs. The Sanders campaign sees a competitive race, with his victory potentially putting Biden on his heels again five days before their first one-on-one debate. 

I feel good about the momentum we have,” Sanders said in a Sunday interview on Fox News. “I think we are going to do well on Tuesday and beat Biden.”

Michigan could answer a question with major implications for Sanders — whether his 2016 success was a protest of Clinton — or the beginning of a new, potent voter coalition. Over the weekend, Sanders barnstormed the state's biggest cities, the Arab American stronghold of Dearborn and the beleaguered city of Flint, pulling out thousands of voters, some of whom hadn't supported him before. The ability of independents to vote in the Democratic primary is seen as a strength for Biden, but some independents said they were sticking with Sanders, or had been converted since 2016.

“I wasn't a Bernie guy last time, honestly,” said Christian Hoppens, 26, as Sanders finished a Friday night speech in Detroit. “I voted for John Kasich. But I've gone through a real transition since then. I think health care should be a right.”

Still, in last week's primaries, Sanders lost ground with exactly the sort of voters who powered his 2016 win — white men without college degrees. While Sanders won 73 of Michigan's 83 counties over Clinton, including many that would flip that year from supporting Barack Obama to supporting Donald Trump, his 11th-hour campaigning this time skipped those parts of the state, and local Democrats were not seeing a groundswell of support.

“I think there are some people in our local party who voted for Sanders in 2016 but are getting tired of the ‘establishment’ attack,” said Jim Frank, the Democratic chairman in St. Clair County, which went for Sanders by 17 points that year. “I'm a progressive in just about every way you could imagine, and I'm a Democrat, because the way our system is structured, you have to be a member of a political party.” 

Turnout was also relatively low in that primary, raising questions about whether some version of his old coalition would be enough to win even against a candidate whose investments in the state came late. In 2016, just 1.2 million ballots were cast for Sanders and Clinton. Two years later, in a midterm primary — typically a far lower turnout scenario — 1.1 million ballots were cast, with now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sweeping all 83 counties over left-wing challenger Abdul El-Sayed and wealthy self-funder Sri Thanedar. In St. Clair County, Whitmer won 59 percent of the vote.

That primary has cast shadows over this one. El-Sayed, a charismatic young doctor who rebuilt Detroit's health department, modeled his campaign after Sanders's; his deputy campaign manager, Claire Sandberg, was Sanders's 2016 digital organizing director, a role she re-created and expanded in the 2020 campaign. 

Sanders came to the state to campaign with El-Sayed, whom he endorsed in the primary, and while he would return to campaign with Whitmer, the governor never forgot what side he took. Last week, she endorsed Biden; when Sanders told reporters that he'd come to Michigan to “get her elected,” the governor's spokesman tweeted a photograph of Sanders stumping with El-Sayed. (Now a CNN commentator, El-Sayed campaigned with Sanders on Saturday in Dearborn.)

As in many Super Tuesday states, Biden's campaign was starting late, and organizing on the fly. Klobuchar's first stops for Biden were bedeviled by logistical issues. Reporters invited to a “labor visit” at a downtown casino arrived to learn that the owners would not let them film, or follow Klobuchar as she talked with unionized workers. Many of those reporters had to skip Klobuchar's second stop — it was held at the same time as Sanders's Detroit rally — and the TV channels that made it struggled to record her speech, because organizers had not provided her with a microphone.

Klobuchar shrugged it off, and emphasized that Sanders had held big rallies in Minnesota, only to get blown away by Biden.

“He's always had those big crowds,” Klobuchar said in Southfield. “I think what you saw on Super Tuesday was regular people showing up, from all different backgrounds, and saying: 'You know what? I may not have gone to a rally, but I'm going to vote for the person that's best for the job.' ”

At his own stops, Sanders has become more pointed in arguing that Biden is not that person, and that he'd lose Michigan in November. In Dearborn, he chose a rally location near Dearborn Industrial Generation, a power plant seeking permission to release more carbon dioxide into an area that already has poor air quality. At every stop, he has read a litany of problems with Biden's record. Some of it echoes his campaign's new advertising, which warns that Biden's vote for NAFTA would be a general-election liability. Some of it goes further, portraying Biden as a risky nominee who has never answered for his worst statements or votes.

“On the right of women to control their own bodies, Joe Biden has not been consistent, and in fact, has not had a good record,” Sanders said in Detroit. “Two years after Roe v. Wade was decided, Sen. Biden said this, and I quote: ‘I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don't think a woman has the sole right…” The rest of the quote was drowned out by loud boos and jeers.

Sanders's most loyal voters view Biden the way they viewed Clinton, as a candidate forced upon them by party elites. But there is less noticeable animus toward Biden than there was for Clinton, and there is some evidence of Sanders struggling to add voters. 

There were few black voters at his Friday night rally in downtown Detroit, and fewer at the Saturday event in Flint, both majority African American in population. The second appearance was billed as a “town hall on racial and economic justice.” Sanders's campaign announced that he would deliver an address for black voters, one he had been working on for days. 

When he arrived, Sanders conferred with the town hall guests, including frequent surrogate Cornel West, and tossed those remarks in favor of a 24-minute stump speech that warned against “status quo candidates.” Instead of making his own argument for black voters to ditch Biden, Sanders deferred to West, who bemoaned how black voters in the South had resurrected a “neoliberalist” candidate.

“The catalyst was my own black people!” West said. “Oh, I'm so disappointed. Oh, I'm so upset!”

Biden was not in the state yet, and would not arrive until Sunday night. But his surrogates, growing by the day, were dismissive of Sanders's campaigning here. 

“When Flint needed help, Joe Biden showed up,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, whose district is northwest of Detroit. “He didn't come here just for rallies.” 

Reading list

“For Bernie Sanders, Michigan is now the make-or-break state,” by Holly Bailey and Michael Scherer

A closer look at why the biggest Midwest contest so far will matter.

“Prayers in Vegas, slumped shoulders in N.H. — inside the final days of Warren’s campaign,” by Jess Bidgood and Liz Goodwin

The inside story of Warren's slow decline.

“Inside the Sanders campaign’s quest to win the Internet,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker

Building a new media.

“How Elizabeth Warren lost,” by Kevin Robillard

The outside story of Warren's slow decline.

“Unions seek to be kingmakers if Democrats are split at the national convention,” by Annie Linskey

A major player in the Democratic Party is ready for a scenario that looks less likely than it did a week ago.

Debate season

The Democratic National Committee has released its rules for its upcoming debate in Phoenix, rules that probably limit the debate stage to just Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. They will almost certainly exclude Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who remains a candidate for president, but has won no delegates outside her birthplace of American Samoa. (She picked up two delegates there on Super Tuesday, behind only Mike Bloomberg.)

The new rules, released on Friday, toss out the previous debates' polling and donor thresholds in favor of a new, high delegate standard. Candidates must now win “at least 20 percent” of the 1,871 available delegates in every state or territory that has voted by March 15, the day of the debate. That's around 374 delegates, a number that only Biden and Sanders are on track to achieve; Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg ended their campaigns while falling far short of that.

Gabbard, who had threatened to boycott one previous debate, accused the DNC of “arbitrarily” changing its rules to hurt her. The rules for the past three debates, held in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, required only a single delegate for inclusion onstage. The party had never suggested that rule would persist through the primary, but Gabbard tweeted at Biden and Sanders, asking them to lobby for her.

“I’m sure you would agree that our Democratic nominee should be a person who will stand up for what is right,” she wrote on Friday. “So I ask that you have the courage to do that now in the face of the DNC's effort to keep me from participating in the debates.”

Neither Biden nor Sanders responded, and neither has shown much interest in challenging DNC debate rules so far. Gabbard, meanwhile, has won few votes and held no campaign events since Super Tuesday; a forum on marijuana legalization, scheduled for Saturday in Las Vegas, was canceled. In most states that voted last week, Gabbard's vote totals were dwarfed by the totals for candidates who'd dropped out of the race. In states without early voting, she fared only a little better; she ran 90 votes ahead of Pete Buttigieg in Virginia, for example, while winning less than 1 percent of the statewide vote.

The real drama over the debate is not about Gabbard, but about what format Biden and Sanders will meet in. As first reported by Marc Caputo and Holly Otterbein, the Sanders campaign raised concerns about the idea of switching up the two-podium format and replacing it with a table that the candidates would sit at, as some questions came from members of a studio audience.

Democrats used the table format in 2008 for three of the final debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But this time, the Sanders campaign has raised the question of why Biden might not “want to stand toe-to-toe with Sen. Sanders on the debate stage, taking the logistical argument, and edging into a question about Biden's ability to debate. At his post-Super Tuesday news conference in Burlington, Vt., Sanders suggested that Biden and he should debate a single policy, Medicare-for-all, for a full hour, a nod at the trouble Biden has sometimes had navigating the weeds of policy questions.

Poll watch

Do you approve of the job Sen. Joni Ernst is doing? (Selzer & Co, 800 Iowa adults)

Approve: 47% (-10) 
Disapprove: 38% (+8)

Iowa is a ways down the Democrats' 2020 target list in Senate races. They lost this seat to Ernst in 2014 by a bigger margin than they expected; they lost the 2018 race for governor when they seemed to be heading to a win; and Theresa Greenfield, the candidate backed by the national party, remains largely unknown. But this is the first poll of the cycle to find Ernst's net approval score in the single digits, making it a tantalizing target if absolutely everything else goes well for them.

In the states

National Democrats got the nominee they wanted in last week's North Carolina Senate primary, and they helped MJ Hegar, their preferred candidate in Texas's Senate race, advance to a runoff. They were a bit less lucky in Colorado, where Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat making his second run for Senate, thrashed former governor John Hickenlooper in the caucuses.

“Our grassroots campaign just crushed the DC machine,” Romanoff, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, tweeted after his lead became insurmountable.

With most of the vote tabulated, Romanoff had beaten Hickenlooper by 24 points, a show of strength with Democratic activists after most of the race's other left-leaning challengers quit the race. Romanoff had worked to consolidate their support, running on a Green New Deal, and channeling frustration at “Frackenlooper,” a nod to the former governor's  support of natural gas exploration, into a bid against a candidate who leads Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in public polls.

If there was a downside, it was that Romanoff had been here before. Ten years ago, when he challenged newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, he won the caucuses by around 10 points. But Bennet would go on to beat him by 8 points in the June primary. Hickenlooper, who has led Romanoff in infrequent polling, will have that chance this June.

Dems in disarray

For a few hours over the weekend, former staffers for Elizabeth Warren, their avatars still dipped in the campaign’s “liberty green” colors, used their newfound freedom for a cause the senator never allowed: dumping on Pete Buttigieg.

“Now that we’re free to speak our minds, I want to say that I’m really impressed by Pete Buttigieg’s commitment to absolutely nothing,” tweeted Max Berger, who had been Warren's director for progressive partnerships. “There are lots of politicians who become mealy mouthed centrists honestly (because they’re stupid and/or corrupt). Pete Buttigieg is a highly skilled mealy mouthed centrist who learned how to be like that through years of study. That’s worse.”

Tisya Mavuram, a fundraising associate for Warren, tweeted for Buttigieg to “shut up” instead of wishing her well, blaming his ad campaign in Iowa for dragging down support for Medicare-for-all. “It might not be very nice but I also don't think it's very nice when health insurance companies deny people care and it didn't stop their campaign from doing their best to scare everyone in America off from Medicare-for-all.”

The negative threads, which Buttigieg did not respond to, largely stopped when Warren’s communications director Kristen Orthman asked it to. No other shuttered campaign had ended like this.

“Reminder to @TeamWarren,” tweeted Orthman. “I understand being upset. I am too. But inappropriate language toward other campaigns or the press is never what our campaign or @ewarren is about. Let’s keep the fight focused on the issues." 

Candidate tracker

For the last two competitive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, the next 48 hours are all about Michigan and the Midwest.

Joe Biden. He was officially endorsed by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the eighth of his defeated rivals to get behind his campaign. “America needs a president who reflects the decency and dignity of the American people; a president who speaks the truth; and a president who fights for those whose voices are too often overlooked or ignored,” Harris said in a Web video. Biden will crisscross Michigan on Monday, starting in Grand Rapids and finishing in Detroit, where he'll be joined by Harris. He'll hold a Tuesday night rally in Cleveland ahead of Ohio's March 17 primary.

Bernie Sanders. He won the endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who he’d supported for president in 1988, and who won that year’s contest in Michigan — a caucus, not a primary, that year. And he picked up the support of Justice Democrats, the group founded by veterans of his 2016 campaign, which had already been running ads attacking the primary’s centrists. And he won over the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group tied inextricably to Warren for the past decade, which advised its Michigan supporters to “vote for Bernie Sanders on Tuesday to stop the premature ending of this primary election.” 

On Monday, Sanders will hold a rally in St. Louis, his only pre-primary event in Missouri, and a forum on the coronavirus in Detroit. On Tuesday, he, too, will hold a rally in Cleveland.

What I’m watching

The coronavirus factor. For the first time, the virus rattling the world economy had a direct impact on the presidential race. On Saturday, the AFL-CIO announced that it would cancel next week's presidential candidate forum in Orlando, citing coronavirus worries. 

Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders had confirmed that they would attend the forum, which limited access to candidates polling above 4 percent. Neither of those campaigns has reduced its candidate schedule as a result of the virus worries, and neither has vocalized concerns about it; the only clues have been a little less hands-on candidate access after events.

In a statement given to The Washington Post's Seung Min Kim, the Trump campaign said it was “proceeding normally” and “will announce rallies when we are ready to do so.” But notably, tomorrow will mark the first day before one of this year's Democratic primaries when the president will not be holding a rally in a key voting state. That means the campaign never planned a rally in Michigan, the jewel of its 2016 electoral college strategy.

Turnout watch

In the heady days around Nevada’s caucuses, Bernie Sanders added a new, triumphant line to his stump speeches. 

“I've got news for the Republican establishment,” he said, in a version of the line shared on Twitter. “I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us.”

After Super Tuesday, the ability of the “establishment” to stop Sanders got a little more real. On Sunday's episode of NBC's “Meet the Press,” Sanders explained his defeats in at least a few states by saying that the party leadership had nudged two weaker moderate candidates to end their campaigns and endorse Biden. Both have denied they did so under pressure. 

“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, Pete Buttigieg who had really worked extremely hard as well out of the race,” Sanders said. “If they had not withdrawn from the race before Super Tuesday, which is kind of a surprise to a lot of people, I suspect we would have won in Minnesota, we would have won in Maine, we would have won in Massachusetts.”

It was a striking, blunt and ominous admission, and it raised a fundamental question for Sanders: Does he have a plan to expand his vote share, or was he relying on a tangle of moderate candidates to give him a plurality path to the nomination? 

So far, outside states and districts with substantial populations of Latino voters, Sanders has struggled to hit his numbers from 2016. The biggest problem for Sanders in Maine and Minnesota was the switch to a high-turnout primary from a low-turnout caucus, while Massachusetts found his vote share shrinking dramatically from 2016. But in other states, Massachusetts included, Sanders's vote share has been flat or in decline.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders won 373,173 votes in Massachusetts, down from the 586,716 votes he'd won four years earlier. The obvious problem for Sanders there was the presence of Elizabeth Warren, who won 299,733 votes. The combined vote for both Sanders and Warren was slightly larger than the combined vote for Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, 634,983, but as polling has found since Warren ended her campaign, only around half of her voters are moving to Sanders.


… two days until Super Tuesday II
… seven days until the 11th Democratic debate
… nine days until Super Tuesday III
… 16 days until the Georgia primary
… 21 days until the Puerto Rico primary