How Bernie Sanders Lost the White Working Class

By reworking his rhetoric to appeal to a different constituency, he ended up losing more than he gained
Bernie Sanders’s 16-point loss to Joe Biden in the Michigan primary came almost four years to the day after Sanders’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton in Michigan on March 8, 2016, which became the most important moment of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Michigan was the first really large state to Feel the Bern. Hillary’s weakness with white working-class voters in Michigan, which took pollsters by complete surprise, would take them by complete surprise again on Election Day in November.

White working-class voters were the essential element in transforming the youthful-activist “Bernie Bro” base into a coalition strong enough in 2016 to win not only Michigan but Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Maine, West Virginia, Rhode Island, and a bushel of Western states, and run a very close second in Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, Iowa, and South Dakota. Most, but not all, of Bernie’s 2016 wins were by lopsided margins: his only 2016 victories by less than double digits were Michigan (49.8 percent to 48.3 percent), Indiana (52.5 percent to 47.5 percent), and Montana (51 percent to 44.6 percent).

Last night, Sanders proved unable to reprise that victory against Biden. Biden’s easy wins in Michigan and Missouri, his upset win in Idaho, and a too-close-to-call result at this writing in Washington spell the end of any realistic prospect that Sanders can win the nomination. This is not simply a matter of Biden’s headline strength with African-American voters. It also shows a wider weakness with the white working-class voters who carried Bernie to so many 2016 wins. Sanders has now lost five states to Biden that he won last time: Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Maine, and Idaho. What happened?

A Different Playing Field
Some of the shift can be explained by different opponents, a wider field, and different methods of voting. The Democratic field was much more crowded this year in New Hampshire, which eroded the size of Sanders’s advantage there. It was still a four-way race on Super Tuesday, with the big-spending Mike Bloomberg and the left-populist Elizabeth Warren going after elements of the Sanders coalition from different angles. Joe Biden, while no less a creature of corporate-donor Democrats than Hillary Clinton, has more of a common touch.

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