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Michigan Might Not Be As Sanders-Friendly This Time

“Anybody else getting deja vu?” tweeted Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray on Monday. He, of course, was referring to the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders currently trails in Michigan polls by about the same margin as he did in 2016 — before he went on to beat Hillary Clinton there in one of the greatest upsets in polling history.

Sanders’s polling deficit is eerily similar to 2016. Sanders trailed Clinton by 21.3 percentage points in our final primary polling average of the state in 2016. As of late Monday evening, he’s behind former Vice President Joe Biden by 23.3 percentage points in our polling average.

There’s one big difference, though. In 2016, Sanders’s big polling deficit never made that much sense. Sanders was strong that year with white working-class voters, who are plentiful in Michigan, and contributed to Donald Trump’s victory there in the general election.

And Sanders also performed relatively well in the states that border Michigan in 2016. He won two of its three neighbors, in fact — Wisconsin and Indiana — while losing Ohio. And although the Ohio loss was fairly significant (by 13 percentage points) it was still fairly modest as compared to the margin that polls were showing for Clinton in Michigan four years ago. True, all of those states voted after Michigan in 2016. But Sanders performed well in other Midwestern states that voted before Michigan, including Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska, which he won, and Iowa, where he essentially tied Clinton. (One important caveat: All of those states had held caucuses in 2016 in contrast to Michigan’s primary, and Sanders generally did better in caucus-states in 2016.)

This year, though, it’s not so clear that working-class white voters are a strength for Sanders. Instead, as Nate Cohn of The New York Times’s The Upshot points out, they might be more of a Biden strength, or at least they were on Super Tuesday. Biden won Minnesota, the only Midwestern state on the docket last week (it switched from a caucus to a primary this year). He also won states in the inland South, such as Tennessee and Oklahoma, whose demographics somewhat resemble Michigan’s (i.e., a mix of working-class whites and some African Americans). Biden also won Maine, which has one of the highest percentages in the country of white people without a college degree.

And Biden generally performed well in the rural parts of these states. He won every county in Oklahoma and all but a few of Minnesota. In Maine, Biden’s upset win came because of rural areas; he lost to Sanders in Portland’s Cumberland County and in some of the more well-to-do areas along the coast.

Here’s another way to look at things. The FiveThirtyEight primary model calculates a baseline forecast in each state based on a combination of demographics and geography. The demographic calculation is based on both polls of other states and previous results,1 accounting for factors like the racial composition of each state, how liberal or conservative it is, the socioeconomic status of its voters, and how rural it is. By geography, I mean accounting for home-state and home-region effects. These home-region factors aren’t terribly relevant in Michigan since neither Sanders or Biden are really2 from the Midwest.

Here is Biden’s demographic forecast in each remaining state as of late Monday evening. For reference, I’ve also listed Biden’s current margin in our national polling average.

Michigan is demographically favorable for Biden

Biden’s projected margin over Sanders based on demographic and geographic fundamentals, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary model as of 8:30 p.m. Eastern on March 9

State Projected Biden margin of victory
Delaware +59.5%
Mississippi +47.4
Louisiana +40.1
Georgia +35.2
Maryland +34.6
Florida +31.1
Pennsylvania +30.3
Michigan +22.9
New Jersey +22.6
Missouri +22.6
Illinois +21.4
Ohio +21.0
Montana +19.7
Kentucky +19.5
West Virginia +17.9
South Dakota +17.7
Indiana +17.1
New York +16.5
Connecticut +14.8
Arizona +14.6
Nebraska +14.2
North Dakota +14.2
Wisconsin +13.5
Kansas +13.4
Alaska +11.6
New Mexico +10.4
Idaho +10.2
Wyoming +9.3
Oregon +9.0
Hawaii +8.6
Washington +5.5
Rhode Island +4.5

The demographic forecast puts Biden up by 22.9 percentage points in Michigan, which is noteworthy for two reasons:

  1. It’s very similar to the polling average there (23.3 percentage points).
  2. It suggests that Michigan is, if anything, a slightly above-average state for Biden. His projected margin of victory in Michigan is slightly wider than his lead in national polls (18.3 points), and Michigan ranks as the eighth-best state for Biden based on demographics of the 32 states that have yet to vote.

Does that mean Biden is completely out of the woods in Michigan? Well, who knows. Even a 2 percent chance (which is what our model gives Sanders as of late Monday) is something; we take our 2 percent chances seriously here at FiveThirtyEight. For a more complete rundown of the polling issues in Michigan and what pollsters say has changed this year, I’d recommend this article by Steven Shepard at Politico.

But nothing about the polling in Michigan is terribly out of line with what we’ve seen in national polls or in polls of other states (which have been uniformly quite bad for Sanders over the past few days). Nor is it out of line with the results on Super Tuesday. Sanders’s strengths this year have been concentrated among younger progressives and Hispanics, and neither group is plentiful in Michigan. And the places that most closely resemble Michigan were strong areas for Biden last week, so Tuesday might not be the start of the comeback Sanders needs.


  1. Taken at the congressional district level for more precision.

  2. Unless you want to count Biden as being from Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania as being Midwestern, but we’ll sidestep that debate for now.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.