A common refrain in the Democratic Party establishment is that a socialist like Bernie Sanders wouldn’t stand a chance against Donald Trump in the general election, especially in supposedly less progressive states like those of the industrial Midwest.
The reality is exactly the opposite, as a new poll of Michigan voters indicates.
The survey of 600 likely voters showed that if the 2020 presidential election was held today, most Democratic candidates would have an edge over Trump. But two stood out from the rest: Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. Both had a 12-point margin of victory over Trump in the poll.
Sanders did especially well among male voters without a college degree, a demographic that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Sanders,” pollster Richard Czuba told the Detroit News, “kind of disrupts the Trump pattern of less educated male voters [voting for Trump],” whereas “Biden exacerbates it.”
Class Matters in Michigan
Bernie’s strong showing shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who understands Michigan and its people, and particularly the tradition of class-based organizing in the state, which goes back to the 1930s labor struggles in the factories of Detroit and Flint.
Far from being repelled by Bernie’s broken-record message against the “billionaire class,” many Michigan voters embrace it.
They know that Michigan workers got a bad deal with trade deals like NAFTA, shepherded by Republicans and corporate-friendly “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton. (Unlike Bernie, Biden voted for NAFTA and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although it’s likely that most Michigan voters don’t know that.)
Indeed, this is a big part of the reason why Bernie upset Hillary Clinton to win Michigan’s 2016 Democratic primary.
Sanders had spent hardly any time campaigning in the state, aside from brief stops in Ypsilanti and United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, a longtime home of the labor movement’s left wing. His victory shocked pundits who’d expected an easy Clinton victory.
Economic Justice Wins
For Beltway pundits, who like to caricature Midwestern voters as middle-of-the-road folks who would never embrace a bold progressive agenda like the Green New Deal, this poll should be a stern rebuke.
Michigan voters know what Bernie stands for. And most of them like it.
What doesn’t work in Michigan is telling voters they should support you just because you’re a Democrat, when you don’t have a strong agenda for economic justice, in the spirit of the New Deal tradition.
That’s why Clinton narrowly lost Michigan to Trump in 2016: not so much because of a Trump surge, as pollster Czuba notes, but because so many traditional Democratic voters stayed home, both in majority-white suburbs and majority-black cities like Detroit.
Michigan Republicans, dutifully following instructions from party commissars, have been invoking the specter of “socialism” at every opportunity, as they did with a recent Oakland County proposal to increase wages for County employees.
That may play well with the Bloomfield Hills set, but not the great majority of Michiganders.
Democrats face their own choice: will they nominate an outspoken advocate for economic justice, or repeat the 2016 debacle?
Biden may call himself “middle-class Joe,” and make much of his Scranton birthplace. (In fact, while unemployment in Scranton did cause some hardship for the Bidens while Joe was a child, his father ultimately became a successful used-car salesman after the family moved to Delaware.)
But there’s little doubt that if he wins the Democratic nomination, the Trump campaign will gleefully spotlight the fact that in his decades in Congress, Biden has reliably sided with corporations and credit-card companies over workers.
As the new poll suggests, Michigan voters embrace candidates who promise economic justice. Democrats would do best to give them the real deal.