IN 1987, WHILE he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders released an album of folk songs and poems titled “We Shall Overcome”. The record included anthems evocative of a deep Americana such as “This Land Is Your Land”, but also Civil Rights ballads like “Oh Freedom”. The album became popular among Mr Sanders’s supporters during the 2016 primary Democratic presidential primary, embodying his long-standing devotion to progressive ideas about race and civil rights, along with his vintage lefty beliefs about the state’s responsibility to provide equality. (His singing abilities probably played less of a factor in the album’s success.)
Despite his folksy appeal, Mr Sanders was unable to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination that year. Voters seem to have decided on a similar fate for him this time around. After briefly leading the primary race in February, the Vermont senator suffered a severe setback on Super Tuesday on March 3rd, as voters delivered a series of decisive victories for his main competitor, Joe Biden, across 14 states. Mr Sanders thus limped into this week’s round trailing the former vice-president by roughly 80 delegates, according to The Economist’s projections. On March 10th Mr Biden dealt the final blow. Mr Sanders lost in Michigan, where he won in 2016, by more than 15 percentage points. He also lost in Missouri and Mississippi (which he lost in 2016) and in Idaho (which he won).
The results in Michigan are particularly rough for Mr Sanders. In 2016 his surprise victory in the state over Hillary Clinton was an important win for a campaign that had struggled to build a winning coalition. He had lost the majority of the primaries and caucuses held the previous week, and trailed behind Mrs Clinton by 156 delegates (far worse than his position this week). Yet despite the odds—polls had him down by 20 percentage points—he won the state, breathing new life into his campaign. Victory in Michigan came thanks to his support from working-class whites, who favoured him by large margins over Mrs Clinton, and by young people. Mr Sanders’s protectionist trade policies may have been particularly popular in declining post-industrial cities such as Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
Much of that Sanders 2016 coalition did not stick with him this year. In post-industrial Kent County (which surrounds Grand Rapids), his vote share fell by 18 points compared with the last election. In Kalamazoo County, it fell by 17 points. Mr Sanders’s losses in both places were larger than his 13-point drop state-wide relative to his 2016 result.
It was the white, working-class voters in these areas who dealt the ultimate blow to Mr Sanders’s candidacy. Cracks in his base had already begun to show—suburbanites and young voters had failed to turn out for him in Super Tuesday states in the revolutionary numbers that he has long promised. But until now it was not clear whether downtrodden Rustbelt whites would give him enough support to keep his hopes alive. Evidently, they did not. Across Michigan, his vote share slipped by larger amounts in counties with higher concentrations of white adults who have no college degrees. It plunged, too, in the sparsely populated areas of the state (see chart). Although these voters were willing to cast their ballots for a self-described socialist in 2016, that was probably because they disliked Mrs Clinton more. Given the choice between a less controversial moderate and far-left ideologue, they picked the moderate.
The primary is all but over now. Mr Biden emerges from the latest contests with a 145-delegate lead over Mr Sanders, according to The Economist’s projections of how remaining delegates will be allocated from states that have not yet reported fully. Barring an unforeseen disaster, Mr Biden will probably go on to win a large majority of delegates in next week’s contests. Polls put him ahead in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio—worth 577 delegates in total.
Mr Sanders’s campaign will not have been for nought. He has pushed the party to the left on many of the issues he cares about most, for instance guaranteeing health care for all. But his demise shows Democrats just did not believe he could beat President Donald Trump.