Sanders’ Rural Support Drops from 2016 in Michigan, Other States

In 2016 rural Michigan voters delivered an upset victory for Bernie Sanders. This year, they voted with the rest of the state for his opponent, Joe Biden. Other states in Tuesday’s primaries followed the same trend.

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In 2016, rural voters in Michigan were part of an upset victory that rejuvenated the campaign of Bernie Sanders and prolonged the Democratic contest later into the primary season.

This year, rural voters joined the rest of the state in delivering Michigan firmly to former Vice President Joe Biden. In doing so, they answered the question whether Sanders’ popularity with rural voters in 2016 would continue into 2020.

Biden won the Michigan primary with about 53 percent of the vote, versus Sanders’ 37 percent. Biden’s support was consistent across the state. He won every county, from the largest urban and suburban areas in and around Detroit to the least populated counties of the Upper Peninsula.

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County Categories:

  • Major Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 1 million residents or more.
  • Major Metro Suburbs: Major metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Medium Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents.
  • Medium Metro Suburbs: Medium metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Small Metro: Metropolitan statistical areas with under 250,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro Adjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area.
  • Nonmetro Nonadjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area.

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In 2016 Sanders got a different reception from rural residents. That year he won nearly 60 percent of the rural vote, easily defeating Hillary Clinton there. (Just four years earlier Clinton had won the rural vote in Michigan in the primary contest with Barack Obama.) 

Sanders’ rural popularity in 2016 was decisive. It was the margin that put him over the top in the statewide election. 

The graph compares Sanders’ share of the Michigan primary vote in 2016 (blue bars) to 2020 (red bars). Sanders’ support fell 22 points among rural voters (the last two sets of bars on the right). In 2016 his margin among rural voters put him over the top to upset Hillary Clinton. (Daily Yonder graphic)

This year, geography seemed to play less of a role in voter preferences, both in Michigan and other states that voted Tuesday.

In Missouri, Biden defeated Sanders by about 25 points. His popularity ranged from a high of 63 percent in both the largest cities and among rural voters to a low of 52 percent in the central counties of medium-sized metropolitan areas (those with 250,000 to under 1 million residents).

Again, the shift from 2016 was noticeable. In 2016 Sanders carried rural Missouri by large margins over Clinton. Yesterday, Sanders failed to win any county in the state.

In Missouri, Biden (blue bars) performed best in the state’s largest cities (far left columns) and nonmetropolitan areas (far right). For Sanders (red bars), the tally was closest in the core counties of medium metro areas, where he lost by 8 points. (Daily Yonder graphic)

Sanders this week also lost the Idaho primary. He won Idaho handily in 2016 when the state used a caucus format.

In Washington, Sanders had a narrow lead the day after the election. Wednesday afternoon he led by 2,100 votes (about 0.2 percent of the vote). Sanders and Biden ran even among rural voters. Sanders saw his best performance in small metros (those with 50,000 to under 250,000 residents), where he won by about 7 points, or 6,400 votes. 

Sanders (red bars) had a narrow lead in Washington, where his best performance came in the suburbs of medium-sized metros and in small metros (see above for category descriptions). (Daily Yonder graphic)

In 2016 Sanders blew the doors off the Clinton campaign in Washington, but that was under a caucus system.

So what’s the difference for Sanders from 2016 to 2020?

Common wisdom says Sanders performed better in rural areas in 2016 because voters weren’t just voting for Sanders. They were registering their dislike of Clinton. A related theory is that Sanders, perceived to be the outsider candidate compared to Clinton, tapped anti-establishment sentiment of 2016. If that were true, we might expect to see this year’s establishment candidate, Biden, suffering a similar lackluster appeal with rural voters. So far, that’s certainly not the case. 

Bryce Oates contributed to this report.

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