Bernie Has a Shot at Winning Michigan, but His Challenges With Older Black Voters May Doom His Chances

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School on March 7, 2020 in Dearborn, Michigan.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School on March 7, 2020 in Dearborn, Michigan.
Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

DETROIT—There are few towns in America in which you can gauge black enthusiasm for the political process better than the Motor City. With a population of more than 600,000, close to 80 percent of which is black, it is literally the biggest black city in America.

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With its population alone, Detroit should determine statewide and national elections each cycle. Because of low voter turnout, that has not generally been the case, and Tuesday’s Michigan primary will likely be no exception, according to civic leaders and elected officials in Detroit The Root has spoken to.

This is bad news for both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

Biden has a 24-point lead over Sanders across the state, according to a Detroit Free Press poll released today. Sanders does lead Biden with younger voters 18-34, who make up 21 percent of Tuesday’s electorate, 58 to 17 percent. For one, Sanders relies heavily on young voters of color to make up for the dearth of black voters over 35 who tend to lean towards centrist candidates. Sanders won Michigan in 2016 over Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points. But some polls had Hillary winning that state by 20 points, so polls do not predict the future.

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And that was 2016. This is 2020 and many people here are worried that a candidate like Sanders is too risky to go up against Trump in the fall.

Former Michigan state Rep. Sherry Gay-Gagnogo, who represented portions of northwest Detroit, said Sanders is putting forth a better effort at winning the state but his message isn’t reaching enough young black people in the inner cities of Detroit and Flint with enough on scale to tilt the odds in his favor.

“I think there are a number of young people who recognize real,” she said. “They understand right now that you have a guy who really is not a Democrat, per se, but he’s running on a Democratic ticket. He’s almost 80; both of these candidates are almost 80. I think a lot of them were really feeling [Andrew] Yang. And they’re not really buying into the two candidates that are remaining. But I see in Bernie’s camp a number of young white kids who are really excited and committed. And they are diehard Berners no matter what. I don’t see that in the black community.”

On Friday, I went to a community voter outreach event at Bert’s Warehouse Theater, a black-owned soul food and events venue in Detroit’s Eastern Market section of downtown, where some of the city’s leading political activists gathered to discuss how they could turnout the vote. Few people beyond those who represented their respective organizations were in attendance. Most of the leaders were well above 40, and reflect the demographic that will turn out Tuesday. (In addition to Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington will also hold primaries.)

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Yvette McElroy Anderson, who serves as field director of the Fannie Lou Hamer PAC in Detroit, told me she was optimistic that people will turn out in enough numbers to rally behind their preferred candidate to ensure Trump will not win the state. But she added that there is little energy in Detroit for either Biden or Sanders.

“When I look at Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, they are a far cry from who we have,” Anderson said. “But when I look at between Sanders and Biden, I think he has a much lower learning curve. I think his experience in being at the right hand of President Obama, those experiences give him an opportunity to come in and hit the ground running. Is he perfect? No. He’s not perfect.”

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One of the issues is resources for black voter turnout, something Beverly Kindle-Walker, a member of the Official Eastside Slate, touched on when I spoke with her Sunday. She, too, expects the turnout to be pretty low and that Biden will likely win Detroit.

“The energy that is being generated is gravitating towards Bernie,” Kindle-Walker said. “But Detroit is a Democratic town. It is not a Democratic Socialist town. Detroiters are Obama-side Democrats. The person who fits that bill is Joe Biden. Although Bernie carried Michigan in 2016, he didn’t carry Detroit.”

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Sanders’ Michigan headquarters is in Hamtramck, a small town of 22,000 people that is surrounded by Detroit, but is not actually within the city proper. The move evoked some grumblings among locals here who feel the senator could have at least set up base in the black city he needs to win to defeat Biden.

What is more concerning, however, are his campaign stops in Detroit and Flint that The Root attended. Both events were packed—with mostly white people. Detroit is 78.6 black, according to the U.S. Census; Flint is at 53.7 percent black. Neither his rally in Detroit on Friday night, nor his Flint rally Saturday reflected those racial breakdowns. The tone and tenor of the Detroit rally really didn’t feel like the essence of black Detroit. The music wasn’t really reflective of Detroit’s rich Motown legacy and the speakers did not reflect the blue collar spirit of the radical black political leadership that helped build one of America’s once-thriving black middle class communities. And, of course, there were all of those white people in this black-ass city.

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It felt like a rally in the lily-white suburbs that black Detroiters commuted to, not one in their own most black city. Flint felt the same. It didn’t help that Sanders scrapped a race speech he was supposed to deliver in Flint.

Perhaps it is because Sanders’ messaging and political framework revolves around a one-size-fits all mindset rather than addressing the needs of black people specifically. Of course, one can appreciate that a general message is appropriate for New Hampshire or Iowa.

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Black Detroiters (and black folks in general) don’t like “All Lives Matter”messaging. Detroit wants to hear what you will do for black people. Sanders didn’t deliver on that in Detroit or Flint, which is consistent with his 2016 campaign in which he generally did not go deep into race. He leaves that up to former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, American intellectual Cornel West and hip hop star Killer Mike.

They are Sanders’ negro whisperers.

As polling has shown throughout this primary cycle, the negroes his all-star band of black surrogates are trying to reach aren’t listening; he does better with Latinx voters. And there is no indication that black folks in Michigan will vote much differently than those in earlier primary states.

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Felisa Powell, of Detroit, at the Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit Friday, March 6, 2020.
Felisa Powell, of Detroit, at the Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit Friday, March 6, 2020.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

To be sure, there are plenty of black folks in Flint and Detroit who are voting for Sanders. I spoke with several dozen black people at both rallies as young as 20 and as old as 70. They all speak to Sanders’ desire to replace the neoliberal construct of capitalism and militarism, both of which, if we are being honest, all black people should support.

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He also has his fair share of voters over 40 who are backing his campaign. Felisa Powell, 49, is one of those people I met at the Detroit rally. Describing herself as “very radical,” Powell rejects the notion that Sanders’ ideas are unrealistic and cannot be paid for.

“We paid for a war for 20 years,” she said. “If we can come up with money to pay for a war, I’m sure we could pay for other things. We give Israel billions of dollars. I’m sure we can sprinkle a couple figures around in our neighborhoods and make them better.”

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At the Detroit rally were generational divides that have defined the primary cycle. Angela Ross, 55, joined her daughter, Kayla Ross, 20, to decide if Sanders could convince her to support him. Angela left the rally still undecided.

Kayla Ross with her mother, Angela Ross, at the Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit Friday, March 6, 2020
Kayla Ross with her mother, Angela Ross, at the Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit Friday, March 6, 2020
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)
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“When I get in that box and I see the name, I press. I might just sit there and just do it the best that I can and say, ‘Who’s the best candidate?’ Pretty much I’m looking for the best person who’s going to win, who can beat Donald Trump,” Angela said.

I asked her who she’s leading towards.

“Well, to be honest with you, probably Joe,” Angela said. “I think he’s been around. They’ve both been around the same time so I don’t know. I think maybe a little more experience. He’s had a lot more higher position, the VP position, you know? Barack’s boy.”

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Kayla, the daughter, said this is her first time voting for president and Sanders has her vote. She is drawn to Sanders’ support of LGBTQ+ communities, plans for student debt and HBCUs. But Kayla worries that not enough young black people will hear Sanders’ message and turn out to vote for him.

“I had to figure out through my mom that he was having an event tonight,” Kayla said. “So maybe more social media presence.”

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Speaking to black voters over 40 at the Flint and Detroit rallies, I realized that those older black voters that are supposedly so conservative aren’t as elusive as media pundits and perhaps people in Sanders’ own campaign assume. They can, in fact, be flipped. He just needs to put in the effort.

Brenda Thompson, 65, of Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that helps empower blue-collar workers through activism in the metro Detroit area, was an Elizabeth Warren supporter until she dropped out of the race. Thompson even considered Mike Bloomberg before he suspended his campaign. But it has been ongoing conversations with her children and grandchildren who are backing Sanders that convinced her to back the Vermont senator tomorrow.

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“Personally, I think they are not doing their homework,” she said. “You know that slogan ‘Go with Joe because we know Joe’? Well, we really don’t know Joe because actually Joe Biden actually made a lot of political decisions that were behind partisan lines that we weren’t even aware of. So, at the end of the day, he made some decisions that were racially biased and made some decisions that locked up our children that were unfair. And we didn’t know it at the time. We really didn’t realize the damage he had made for us as a people. But now what we need to realize is that with change comes change and [Joe Biden] didn’t change that much.”

Thompson says she was at first worried about Sanders embrace of Democratic Socialism because she associated it with “Nazism,” but the more she studied Sanders, the more comfortable she grew with him.

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“When I did my homework, did my vetting and did my due diligence I came away with Elizabeth Warren,” she said. “She dropped out and that’s why I am here tonight because I strongly believe that after hearing him tonight Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for our community.”

Her organization Detroit Action, which endorsed Sanders, will be door-knocking for much of today and tomorrow trying to convince people to vote in Tuesday tomorrow’s primary.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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PortlyPeddler

>Sanders does lead Biden with younger voters 18-34, who make up 21 percent of Tuesday’s electorate

And who, it should be noted, do not show up to vote.