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Michigan's Democratic Voters Face Biden-Sanders Choice On Tuesday


Michigan voted Democratic in six consecutive presidential elections up until 2016, when Donald Trump won. So who do Democratic voters think is the best candidate to win back that crucial state? Michigan voters decide on Tuesday. Senator Bernie Sanders is heading there this weekend as he tries to rebuild some momentum. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is on the ground. Hey there, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Sanders really needs Michigan, doesn't he?

GONYEA: He does. And recall that he won the Michigan primary in 2016 - narrowly, narrowly. But that upset victory was a turning point for his campaign. And it was a blow to Hillary Clinton, who had really counted on a win here. And it gave Sanders staying power for the rest of the primary season four years ago. It's the biggest state next week. He needs to regain some kind of momentum, and he needs delegates. He's playing catch up with Joe Biden all of the sudden. And Sanders is really hoping for a repeat of that 2016 magic.

INSKEEP: Who are the crucial voter groups in Michigan?

GONYEA: There are a lot of African-American voters, an area where Hillary Clinton did not do as well as expected in the state against Donald Trump. It's an area where Joe Biden has an advantage, it seems, this week. There are white suburban votes, another area of strength for Biden in recent states. College students, most of them just getting back from spring break next week - the Sanders campaign has worked really, really, really hard in that area. So turnout there will be key. And there's the union vote. It could be up to a quarter or more of the vote. And it seems to be divided. And there have not been a lot of endorsements there.

INSKEEP: Who are some of the voters you've been speaking with?

GONYEA: So I've spent a lot of time in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs, mostly the blue-collar suburbs. And yesterday, I was in the home of Antonia and Larry McCool (ph). I should tell you first that I was greeted by their two very beautiful but very big and very noisy rescue dogs.


GONYEA: Hey, guys. It's OK. Oh, yeah.

So they were mostly quiet during the interview. Antonia is recovering from knee surgery. She's a retired fast food restaurant manager. Larry is a union carpenter. He installs flooring. Now, they're both proud Democrats. But this is a household divided.

ANTONIA MCCOOL: I'm supporting Joe Biden. I was for Kamala Harris in the beginning. After she dropped out, I went for Pete Buttigieg.

GONYEA: Antonia considers herself more of a centrist Democrat. When she and Larry talk politics, it's clear they are rivals - but friendly ones. Larry likes Bernie Sanders, just like he did in 2016, when his wife was hardcore for Hillary Clinton. And, by the way, Larry is convinced Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump four years ago.

A MCCOOL: I believe so. I honestly do. I think that a lot of people - if they would've debated and got against each other, a lot of people would've leaned his way rather than going Trump's way.

GONYEA: He thinks Sanders could have handled attacks about being a socialist and that he'd have held on to a lot of union votes that abandoned the Democrats for Trump. His wife disagrees and thinks Sanders would lose this year if he is the nominee. So Larry McCool also took a while to decide this time around. First, he thought about backing Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. But he says Sanders has the best ideas. And that's when Antonio jumps back in. She does not think Sanders could govern or get anything done.

A MCCOOL: I feel that he's like Trump in that way, where he feels that his point of view is the only point of view to have. So there are a lot of things about Sanders and Trump that are, to me, kind of similar in a different kind of way.

GONYEA: Larry disagrees, of course. And he says Joe Biden is a good candidate and a good man. But he also says this.

LARRY MCCOOL: I hate to say it, but it's, like, Status Quo Joe. I mean, the fossils are coming out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bernie's up there (laughter) in years, too.

L MCCOOL: Oh, Bernie's up there in years, but his train of thought is younger.

GONYEA: And, Steve, here's the bottom line. Both do say they think Biden has an edge in momentum in Michigan. But each also says they will be there for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is.

INSKEEP: Don, I'm just going to note here - one week ago, it seemed obvious that Bernie Sanders was on his way to the nomination. Today, it seems obvious Joe Biden is on his way to the nomination. Any sense of what's actually happening in Michigan?

GONYEA: Well, there's not a ton of polling. It looks like a close race, but it also does look like Biden has some momentum. Sanders, of course, is campaigning more heavily now in the state. He's running sharp attack ads. He's going after Biden for supporting NAFTA and other trade deals that have been unpopular here with union members, auto workers and the like. There have been solid absentee voting numbers, but a lot of people seem to be holding back there. Biden's gotten a wave of endorsements. He's got some auto industry cred because of that Obama-era bailout. But they're going to vote Tuesday.

INSKEEP: A man who knows Michigan, NPR's Don Gonyea in Detroit. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.