Susan J. Demas: Why isn't Bernie Sanders' economic message resonating in Michigan?

Why isn’t Bernie Sanders doing better in Michigan?

His economic message should be a slam dunk in our Rust Belt state. Sanders inveighs until he’s hoarse against free trade agreements like NAFTA, Wall Street robber barons and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Sanders is playing to folks who have suffered through a decade-long recession and watched helplessly as thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas.

If the Vermont U.S. senator was going to win a big state, you'd think Michigan would be it.

But he’s still lagging well behind Hillary Clinton in polling averages. And it's not because Sanders has conceded Michigan. He's held a series of jam-backed, boisterous rallies and has blanketed the airwaves with ads.

Part of Sanders' problem is obvious: Clinton is a stronger candidate with deeper ties to the state. Her endorsement list is just about a mile long. I'm not a big believer that endorsements matter much, but it's worth noting when one candidate so thoroughly dominates the game. This belies the intense loyalty a lot of Michigan Democrats have to the Clintons –– relationships they've nurtured over several decades.

Contrast that to Sanders, who can boast of the quasi-blessing of eccentric Warren Mayor Jim Fouts and the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Don Riegle, best known for being a member of the Keating Five. 

I'm not aware that Sanders has spent much time in Michigan over the years, and apparently, his staffers haven't either. That was underscored by the campaign's recent announcement for a rally in "Anne Arbor." If you can't get the spelling right for the most liberal city in Michigan that's teeming with college students –– i.e. your base –– it's a pretty bad look for your candidate.

Sanders will probably continue to do well with young voters on Tuesday. But the question is: How many in this historically unreliable demographic will show up? It's also worth noting that Michigan has voter restrictions that hit college students particularly hard. 

Sanders also can't seem to break through with African-Americans, who could be 30 percent of the state's Democratic primary electorate. Clinton is winning 70 to 80 percent of these voters in polls.

She was first out of the gate on the Flint water crisis, and her passion is appreciated by voters (who don't give a fig about Republicans whining that she's "politicizing" the situation). It's not that Sanders is ignoring Flint. He held a somber event there and has repeatedly demanded for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to resign.

But Clinton is a known quantity. She's trusted. She wins on the electability question, especially with Democrats nervous about the unpredictability Donald Trump would bring as the GOP nominee and the specter of Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court seat remaining unfilled until 2017.

And Sanders has misstepped with stunts like tweeting out pictures of abandoned Detroit buildings with the caption: "The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton's free trade policies." Now there are myriad reasons for Detroit's blight problem, which started long before Clinton was running for president (or her husband). Democratic voters are smart enough to know that. That's why there's been a strong backlash.

Sanders may turn out be his own worst enemy. Rank-and-file Democrats in Michigan love his economic message –– especially union members. But time and time again, I've heard voters complain that they feel like the senator is yelling at them and hectoring them.

His supporters may not be doing his campaign any favors, either. There are, of course, the "Bernie bros" who spew sexist garbage about Clinton like we're still living in 1955.

But beyond the cretins, there's an overwhelming whiff of condescension, which Sanders has stoked. After he got his clock cleaned in South Carolina, he fled north, where he assured the crowd, "There's no way we're going to lose Minnesota. ... You are just too smart."

I've always received plenty of colorful responses to my election stories and columns. This year, Trump voters lead, hands down, in venom and expletives. But Sanders supporters ooze smugness, as they insist, a la Baghdad Bob, that their guy is really winning, even though he's not in terms of pledged delegates, votes cast or states won –– you know, any metric available. And he has no clear path to the nomination.

But when I've made the grave mistake of pointing out basic math, I've been told that I'm a shill and have no idea what I'm talking about. Now I've gotten paid for the last 15 years to report on campaigns and analyze politics. I also happen to own a snazzy little publication called "Inside Michigan Politics."

But hey, I've been wrong before. Maybe on Tuesday, Sanders will win Michigan by 50 points.

I highly doubt it, though. And there's one more big reason why: Trump. The Republican frontrunner's fervent populism is drowning out Sanders’ economic message here.

Michigan has an open primary, unlike some other states, which means Trump could be netting some independent and Democratic votes. What I think is really hurting Sanders is Trump's somewhat moderate economic agenda (served with the potent cocktail of anger and racial resentment). That's keeping disaffected Republican voters from crossing over.  

Unlike other GOP candidates, Trump talks about issues working-class Michigan voters care about. He rails against companies like Ford building plants overseas and vows to force the jobs back when he's president. It'll never happen, of course, but it's music to the ears of folks who have been left behind in the new economy. 

Trump's bigoted anti-immigrant platform also plays into people's economic fears. All the good jobs are gone –– and he gives voters someone to blame. And in contrast to other Republicans, Trump isn't interested in slashing Medicare and Social Security benefits that millions of people depend on. 

Trump ties all this up with healthy doses of rage and bravado. He brags about his manhood (literally). But his message is also aspirational. After he beats his chest about his yuuuge business successes and gorgeous wife, Trump tells you he's going to "make America great again." You can be great just like him.

Sanders' message is that the game is rigged by billionaires, but he'll fix it with a "revolution." That appeals to idealistic millennials, but weary ex-auto workers toiling away at two near-minimum wage jobs may worry it's too pie-in-the-sky.

The bottom line is Trump just looks stronger than Sanders. Sanders sounds like the scolding East Coast democratic socialist that he is. Trump sounds like the guy who used to egg on professional wrestlers during WWE "Raw," because that's exactly he did.

The reality, disturbing as it may be, is that the darker side of populism that Trump sells seems to have taken root here in a way that Sanders' more dour version just hasn't.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.