This may be the primary season, but a real general election type contest unfolding in the Rust Belt, starting with Michigan next Tuesday, is not the contest within each parties, but between the parties. Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois primaries are open, more or less. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all vote in each party’s primaries.
Both Sanders and Trump rely heavily on independent votes: even in states where Sanders won by huge margins, his coalition consisted of liberal Democrats and independents–he beat Clinton handily among independents, but not among the Democrats. Interestingly, this pattern repeats itself in border states (more or less by today’s standards, nevermind the 19th century history) that he lost, such as Virginia, but not in the truly Southern states such as South Carolina where he badly underperformed the polls. In case of the Deep South, this is mirrored by better than expected performance of Trump, buoyed by independents and (ex-)Democrats. In other words, both Sanders and Trump are vying to bring the same independents and marginal partisans into Democratic and Republican primaries, respectively, in order to reinforce their prospects against the more conventional partisans.
The Southern primaries suggest that these voters, who might have been drawn to Sanders had they chosen to participate in the Democratic primaries may have opted overwhelmingly for Trump in the Republican primaries instead. In other words, the contest for the apartisan “missing white voters” was waged between Sanders and Trump and Trump won that fight, at least in the South. To the degree that many of these voters are at least rather racist, perhaps that was to be expected. As the primaries move into the North, the question looms large again: will the Northern missing white voters make an appearance to support Sanders or Trump?
In a sense, the sharper campaign waged against Trump by the Republicans might actually buoy Sanders’ prospects. The one line of attack that seemed somewhat effective against Trump sought to underscore his background as an exploitative plutocrat himself, as per Rubio’s talking points at the previous Republican debate. If so, the voters who might have thought about Trump might decide to turn to Sanders instead. If the defection of potential Sanders voters produced an unexpected underformance by Sanders (and paucity of whites) in Democratic primaries, will there be something similar in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri? This will be fascinating to watch! This is also a prelude to the likely general election contest IF Trump is the Republican nominee: his claim to potential success against Clinton is predicated on his ability to draw on the missing white voters, which Democratic primaries have shown no contrary evidence. Sanders’ counter argument is that he can win missing white voters to nullify Trump’s appeal among them. In this sense, the primaries in the Rust Belt foreshadows the general like no primary so far does.