Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders
Credit: Walter Hammerwold/Kristina Karisch

Heading into the Michigan primary in 2016, Clinton led Sanders by 21 points, according to the polling averages. But when the votes were actually tallied, Sanders won, leading Nate Silver to call it one of “the greatest upsets in polling history.”

Michigan is one of six states that will hold their primary on Tuesday, and according to the polling average at FiveThirtyEight, Biden leads Sanders by 23 points. That is causing many people to wonder whether the senator from Vermont can repeat his 2016 performance.

One thing to keep in mind is that, while the 2016 polls missed the call miserably, Sanders actually won Michigan by about 1.5 points. In the end, that only netted him four delegates over the number allotted to Clinton (67-63). But it was a great moral victory for the Sanders’ campaign, one he hopes to replicate on Tuesday night.

As many people have suggested, however, 2020 is not a repeat of the 2016 election. Nate Cohn identified how things have changed in a way that doesn’t look good for Sanders.

Mr. Sanders has so far failed to match his 2016 strength across the white, working-class North this year, and that suggests it will be hard for him to win Michigan…

Over all, Mr. Biden defeated Mr. Sanders by 10 points, 38 percent to 28 percent, in counties across Maine, Minnesota and Massachusetts where white voters made up at least 80 percent of the electorate and where college graduates represented less than 40 percent of the electorate. According to the exit polls, Mr. Biden was tied or ahead among white voters in every state east of the Mississippi River on Super Tuesday.

This is a marked departure from 2016. Back then, Mr. Sanders tended to excel among white, working-class and rural voters across the North. This made Michigan, where white voters represent a well-above-average share of the Democratic electorate, one of his stronger states. He dominated in Michigan’s small towns and rural areas, losing only in few counties that tended to have older voters.

The fact that Biden is beating Sanders among white working-class and rural voters is getting lost amidst all of the talk about the former vice president’s dominance among suburban and African-American voters. The real test will be whether that holds true in a state like Michigan. If it does, here is one of the likely factors:

The woman who was governor of Michigan during that time, Jennifer Granholm, recently announced her endorsement of Biden—recounting his role in that state.

Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign has gone all-in on winning Michigan, cancelling events in other states that hold their primaries on Tuesday (Mississippi and Missouri) in order to focus their efforts on a repeat of his 2016 performance. That is why all eyes will be on Michigan tonight.

While the results will come in late, another state to keep an eye on is Washington. In 2016, Sanders beat Clinton there by over 45 points. But it’s one of the states that switched from caucuses to a primary this year. As we’ve seen, that has resulted in huge increases in turnout in other states, predominantly benefiting Biden.

No matter what happens in Michigan and Washington on Tuesday, the results could be close, which will keep Sanders from gaining a delegate lead, where he currently trails by 96. However, I’m sure that if he wins either or both states, Sanders will claim victory and soldier on to the primaries next week in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio. A loss in both states would make Biden’s delegate lead close to insurmountable. That is why Tuesday is make-or-break time for Sanders.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.