Sanders also canceled a planned rally in Mississippi on Friday to dedicate more time to the state, which handed him a surprise win over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“They were devastated — they were devastated by trade agreements like NAFTA” in Michigan, Sanders said this week as he sought to reset his campaign after Super Tuesday. “Joe is going to have to explain to the people and the union workers in the Midwest why he supported disastrous trade agreements.”
There has been little recent statewide polling in Michigan. But Biden has been riding a powerful wave of momentum since Super Tuesday, and Michigan’s popular governor, Gretchen Whitmer, gave the former vice president a boost in the state this week with her endorsement.
A recent statewide WDIV/Detroit News poll conducted Feb. 28 through March 2 showed Biden with a nearly 7 percentage point lead over Sanders. That came before three moderate candidates dropped out of the race and threw their support behind Biden.
The former vice president is also defending his record in the face of Sanders’ attacks, noting that selling American-made goods abroad is essential to creating jobs at home.
Still, the trade battle is a legacy fight for Sanders, who has spent decades not only opposing trade deals himself but often leading the charge against them. He has voted against every major deal Congress has passed in a generation, although he sat out a 2011 vote on a deal with South Korea.
Some of those battles put him directly at odds with Biden. In 2016, as Biden helped lead the Obama administration’s attempt to gather support for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, Sanders helped collect more than 66,000 signatures on a petition to stop it. Congress never moved on the deal, and President Donald Trump ultimately had the final word, withdrawing the U.S. from the pact on his first week in office.
This year, Sanders was one of just 10 senators to vote against the Trump administration’s deal to replace NAFTA, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. After months of closed-door negotiations between House Democrats and the Trump administration, the pact garnered broad support from a majority of labor unions, most congressional Democrats and even fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Biden backed it as well, saying it was not ideal but that he supported the improvements the labor and progressive movements fought to make.
For Sanders, the question now is whether his fresh line of attack will work.
In 2016, Sanders’ pitch resonated in Michigan and among workers in the state’s hollowed-out manufacturing sector. But since then, Trump has worked to fashion himself as the champion of the working class and American manufacturing by ripping up what he and Sanders both call disastrous trade deals. Trump has also enacted a series of sweeping tariffs on imports that have devastated farmers and hurt some manufacturers whose equipment and materials are growing more expensive.
The effect has been “tremendously clarifying,” said Doug Irwin, a Dartmouth University economist who has written extensively on the politics and economics of trade. After decades of debate on the merits of multinational agreements, a U.S. president has shifted the country toward a more protectionist agenda and seen what the effects would be, he said.
“What we see is that just as trade creates winners and losers, protectionism creates winners and losers,” Irwin said. “And there are a lot of losers out there.”
A Biden spokesperson sounded a similar tune. “These states have spent years enduring the economic pain that Trump’s trade war has forced on them — and the last thing they have an appetite for is more of that kind of approach,” spokesperson Andrew Bates told POLITICO.
Amid that backdrop, Sanders might not find the same audience he did four years ago. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from August showed support for free trade had reached an all-time high, with nearly two-thirds of Americans saying they believe trade is good and helpful for opening up new markets.
A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll from May 2019 also found that 51 percent of respondents said they were either somewhat or much more likely to support Biden because of his advocacy for free trade deals, compared with 9 percent who said they were less likely. One-fifth said it made no difference.
If his message will work anywhere, however, it should click in many pockets of Michigan.
Trade was an “enormous factor” there in 2016, said David Dulio, who is chairman of the political science department at Michigan’s Oakland University. He noted that some of the counties with the highest voter turnout on Election Day that year were also those with a high concentration of workers in manufacturing and other fields affected by trade.
If Sanders wants to push the trade message, “he’s got to be careful with it,” Dulio said, cautioning that it could come off as praise for Trump’s aggressive trade approach. “But there are places in Michigan where trade is important. And that message resonates.”
For Biden, meanwhile, the fire is coming from both sides.
Trump, who flipped traditionally blue Midwestern states in 2016 by aggressively pushing his “America First” policy, has already begun to hammer Biden for taking a more globalist stance.
During a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pa., on Thursday evening, Trump blamed the former vice president for NAFTA. “He approved it, he was pushing it. It’s the worst trade deal ever made,” Trump said.
Biden’s record overall on trade is generally mixed. He voted against a handful of trade deals in his last few years in the Senate, including pacts with Peru, Oman and Chile. But those have garnered far less attention than his votes in favor of NAFTA — which has long served as a punching bag for critics who blame it for the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico — and for permanent normal trade relations with China.
He has also sought to toe the line between the progressive and moderate camps within the Democratic Party, lacing his remarks with calls for “fair trade” while emphasizing the need to tap into global markets and “resist a dangerous global slide toward protectionism.”
Still, Trump’s remark underscores a concern some on the left have already begun to raise: Biden’s history of support will leave him vulnerable to Trump attacks for the next several months — attacks that could hurt Democrats’ chances of winning states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are crucial to taking back the White House.
“President Trump is already playing up trade in the 2020 election, and Senator Sanders has a very clear response to that,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, which was founded to oppose NAFTA and advocates for a progressive, worker-first trade policy agenda.
“I’m not sure Vice President Biden has articulated one.”