In the days leading up to a must-win Tuesday Michigan primary, Bernie Sanders criss-crossed the state, firing up thousands of supporters and taking the stage with star surrogates in a bid to repeat his momentum-shifting 2016 upset of Hillary Clinton.
As the polls closed, it seemed to some that a surprise win might not be out of the question. But not for long.
The crushing reality of defeat hit the Michigan Sanders campaign staff at a downtown Detroit watch party by 9pm. News outlets called the race for Joe Biden, all but sealing the former vice-president’s nomination and Sanders’ now likely defeat in the race overall. Several staffers shed tears. Others left the party early.
Sanders supporter Kevin Neems called the results “depressing”.
“It’s just hard to understand. Hard to comprehend. Hard to wrap your head around,” he said.
While the loss crushed Sanders’ staff and supporters, many maintained an optimistic tone, choosing to view the candidate’s progressive campaign as part of a longer game that went beyond any single election season.
“He got millions of votes and his message resonates with young voters, but there were things that couldn’t necessarily be controlled,” Neems added. “It’s clear that the progressive movement is growing even if this is a setback.”
Sanders supporter Justin Onwenu said he didn’t have any answers about what went wrong, but added that the campaign is about “more than just one night, one election, one primary, one president or one campaign”.
“The values that the senator has been fighting for – clean water, clean air, health care as a human right, making sure we’re supporting unions – I think those are values that Michigan is going to pick up, and you’re going to see candidates fighting for more of them in the future,” Onwenu said. “People in Michigan are better off for having Bernie Sanders speak to these issues.”
As results came in and showed Biden’s lead widening beyond reach, Sanders’ Michigan campaign coordinator, Michael Fasullo, addressed supporters and volunteers, characterizing the night as “difficult, frustrating” while underscoring what the progressive cause is up against.
“This work is not easy. If it was something that’s in the bag, then we would’ve had Medicare for All and a Green New Deal a long time ago,” he said. “It’s hard for many reasons. There are entrenched interests and there’s an establishment that wants to see us not succeed, but we continue on throughout this process no matter what.”
Polling in the upcoming states doesn’t suggest any good chances for Sanders to turn the tide. Biden leads by a wide margin in delegate-rich Florida, while his failure to capture Michigan raises questions about his chances in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Illinois.
The senator will likely face calls to drop out, but Onwenu said he personally wants to see Sanders continue to contest the race with Biden, perhaps hoping against hope for a miracle.
“I want him to see this through, but whoever the nominee is, I’m going to support them and knock on doors until my arm falls off, but I do think that the exciting thing is that millions and millions of young people have overwhelmingly supported the Sanders campaign,” Onwenu said. “I think that’s telling for what’s to come.”