Opinion

Bernie's Waterloo

Why Michigan is the Sanders campaign's last stand

"At the commencement of a campaign," Bonaparte tells us in his Maxims of War, "to advance or not to advance is a matter for grave consideration; but when once the offensive has been assumed, it must be sustained to the last extremity."

Military analogies do not always lend themselves well to discussions of electoral politics, especially when they involve 78-year-old anti-war ex-hippie senators. In this case, though, the image of a last stand seems to me totally fitting. For Bernie Sanders, the offensive against Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment has indeed begun. There has almost certainly been too much hesitation on his part, but that is no longer relevant. Nor is the fact that two of Biden's fiercest critics in this campaign, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, recently endorsed the former vice president. This onslaught is likely to continue and, despite what some of us predicted, it might even culminate in the long-awaited endorsement of Barack Obama. These things are outside Sanders' control. The only thing that matters is winning the field on Tuesday, especially in Michigan, the scene of Sanders' greatest triumph in the 2016 Democratic primary and arguably the single most important swing state in the country.

On the eve of the primary in the first Rust Belt state to vote in 2020, one that many journalists have come to regard as a microcosm of the national electorate, things are looking pretty grim. Biden is being projected to win Michigan, where 147 delegates are at stake, by a margin of as much as 17 points. Polls have been wrong in this state before, and in 2016 Sanders seemed to benefit from a decent amount of shy Toryism. But the reality on the ground looks very different in 2020. Where before Sanders benefited from low turnout among African-American voters (and from an unusually high level of participation in the parallel GOP primary), this time observers are predicting that both black and suburban female voters will turn up in droves to support Biden — and that young people, Sanders' meaningful constituency in the state, will stay home. This is exactly what happened two years ago in the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary, in which the moderate Gretchen Whitmer, who went on to win the general election, triumphed over the Sanders-endorsed outsider progressive Abdul El-Sayed. Possibly the only thing working in Sanders's favor here is the likelihood that thousands of ballots have already been cast for other moderate candidates who have since dropped out. In the long run, a vote for Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg is probably a vote for Biden — but in the short term, on Tuesday, the only salient fact will be that they divide the centrist opposition.

If the worst indeed comes to pass and Sanders loses the Wolverine State, what will happen next? My guess is he probably won't concede to Biden, at least not for a while. (This is also what he recently told Chris Wallace of Fox News.) But his momentum will be arrested more or less permanently, and the best he will be able to hope for is a long divided retreat to Vermont, where he can reassess his campaign and decide what, if anything, will become of his movement now that his presidential ambitions have been defeated for good.

To quote the Hero-Emperor again: "When, after a decisive battle, an army has lost its artillery and equipments, and is consequently no longer in a state to assume the offensive, or even to arrest the pursuit of the enemy, it would seem most desirable to divide what remains into several corps, and order them to march by separate and distant routes upon the base of operation, and throw themselves into the fortresses. This is the only means of safety."

Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.

More From...

Picture of Matthew WaltherMatthew Walther
Read All
The wicked life of John McAfee
John McAfee.
Opinion

The wicked life of John McAfee

The Chauvin verdict should be celebrated
People reacting to the Chauvin verdict.
Opinion

The Chauvin verdict should be celebrated

What is opinion journalism?
A typewriter.
Opinion

What is opinion journalism?

An eyewitness account of atrocities in Tigray
Tigray people.
Feature

An eyewitness account of atrocities in Tigray

Recommended

Nancy Pelosi may be facing her 'biggest challenge' as speaker
Nancy Pelosi.
the pressure's on

Nancy Pelosi may be facing her 'biggest challenge' as speaker

Why Israel should reject U.S. military aid
Iron Dome.
Samuel Goldman

Why Israel should reject U.S. military aid

Biden will not shield Trump's records from Jan. 6 probe
Joe Biden.
privilege revoked

Biden will not shield Trump's records from Jan. 6 probe

Biden's comments avoid larger immigration issue, critics say
Joe Biden.
at the border

Biden's comments avoid larger immigration issue, critics say

Most Popular

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness
Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman
Last Night on Late Night

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness

Democrats are governing like Republicans
A donkey.
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

Democrats are governing like Republicans

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights