How Sanders Defied the Odds to Beat Clinton in Michigan
Policy + Politics

How Sanders Defied the Odds to Beat Clinton in Michigan

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont earned bragging rights for his economic, trade and anti-Wall Street themes in Michigan on Tuesday and demonstrated – much to the dismay of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton – that he will be a threat to her campaign in upcoming races in Ohio, Illinois and other large, industrialized and racially diverse states. 

The democratic socialist’s stunning two-point victory over Clinton in the Wolverine State yesterday made a mockery of previous polling data showing Clinton up by as much as 20 points. It once again highlighted the frontrunner’s vulnerabilities on matters of trust and her weakness among white voters – especially young people and blue-collar workers. Finally, it underscored Clinton’s inability to develop an effective rejoinder to Sander’s anti-trade message that effectively blames NAFTA and other major trade deals dating back to the administration of President Bill Clinton for the loss of millions of U.S. jobs. 

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“The political revolution that we’re talking about is strong in every part of the country,” Sanders said at a hastily called news conference in Miami last night, in the wake of his unexpected showing in Michigan. “And frankly, we believe that our strongest areas are yet to happen.” 

It would be a mistake to make too much of the Michigan results. The name of the game is winning delegates, and Clinton still finished the night in good shape. She and Sanders almost equally divvied up Michigan’s 130 pledged delegates, with 65 going to Sanders and 58 to the former secretary of state. Earlier in the evening, Clinton picked up many more delegates by crushing Sanders in Mississippi, 82.6 percent to 16.5 percent. Clinton claimed 29 pledged delegates from Mississippi to just four for Sanders. 

The goal is to amass at least 2,383 delegates before this summer’s Democratic national convention to claim the nomination and Clinton is more than half way there, with 1,221 pledged and “super” delegates, to just 577 for Sanders. And because the Democrats will continue to observe a proportional distribution of delegates based on the outcome of each race instead of “winner take all,” it would take a series of major blowouts by Sanders to catch up with Clinton in the delegate count. 

“Sanders almost certainly cannot win the nomination unless he starts winning big states in landslides—a most unlikely development,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said on Wednesday. “But he’s now going to stay in, probably through June, and he’ll bedevil Clinton.” 

For what it’s worth, a new Quinnipiac University poll out today shows Clinton heading into next week’s crucial primary contests in Ohio and Florida leading by nine points in the Buckeye State, 52 to 43 percent, and by a 30-point margin in Florida, 62 to 32 percent. There will be other contests in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. 

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Still, Sanders and his campaign strategists have shown a remarkable ability to rewrite the political narrative. Clinton hoped to dismiss Sanders as essentially a regional candidate who played well in New England and a few western and plains states with overwhelmingly white populations but without the political chops to attract large numbers of blacks, Hispanics and white working class voters in the South, Northeast and Midwest. 

Although he was largely written off as an also ran in Michigan, Sanders visited the state repeatedly, poured millions into TV and radio ads and tapped into a mother lode of angry and frustrated voters who were still uneasy about the economic recovery and held strong negative views about major free trade agreements, such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and the pending Asian-rim Trans-Pacific Partnership that Clinton once promoted but now opposes. 

Both Sanders and Clinton devoted considerable attention to the drinking water crisis in Flint, and used the beleaguered city as the venue for last Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate. Pundits criticized Sanders for a shaky debate performance and Clinton knocked him off stride momentarily with the claim that he had opposed the federal bailout of Michigan’s auto industry – an assertion Sanders called a “low blow” and strongly disputed in subsequent radio ads. But Sanders proved far more strategic than Clinton in targeting pockets of support outside the Detroit metropolitan area and Flint, with their large black populations. 

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While political experts will be studying Sanders’s upset victory over Clinton for years to come, here are five preliminary explanations for what happened.

1- The polling was just plain lousy. Clinton began the day leading Sanders by 21.4 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polling in Michigan, including those of Fox News, CBS, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist, Monmouth University and local news organizations. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm said that polling in Michigan political contests has been historically bad. Yet even prominent outside political analysts got it wrong, including FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who put Clinton’s chances of beating Sanders at “99 percent.”

2- Clinton badly underestimated the political venom in Michigan towards free trade agreements. The economy was foremost in the minds of voters who turned out for the primary, according to exit polls, and almost six in 10 said international trade deals like NAFTA costs jobs in the United States. Among that group, Sanders beat Clinton by nearly 20 points. One in three voters complained in exit polling that Clinton is too pro-business. Sanders also ran ads showing that over the years Clinton waffled on the question of “outsourcing” that seriously damaged Michigan’s once booming economy.

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3- Sanders made a break through among African Americans—the very group that Clinton has captured and held in mostly Southern states. Exit polls showed that he trailed Clinton in those states on average by 84 percent to 16 percent. By contrast, he captured 31 percent of the black vote in Michigan--his strongest performance to date, which may bode well for him in next week’s Super Tuesday races. Clinton was also hurt by a relatively mediocre turnout of older blacks in Detroit and Flint.

4- Sanders won thanks to a big turnout of independents. The Vermont socialist is riding the crest of a populist movement sweeping both parties, and gained a decided edge over Clinton because of Michigan’s open-primary rules. Sanders, who spent much of his career as an independent, had no choice but to enter the presidential race as a Democrat if he hoped to get into the running. His message of correcting income inequality, cracking down on Wall Street big shots and reforming a “corrupt” campaign finance system is registering outside of the party. Under Michigan’s open primary rules, independents and moderate Republicans could cross over and vote for him on Election Day. Exit polls showed Sanders won roughly three-fourths of independent voters on Tuesday. Those crossovers also contributed to a record turnout.

5- Clinton just can’t overcome her voter trust problem. Clinton, like Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, has long been saddled with high negatives on questions of honesty and trust. Her biggest problem remains nagging questions about her use of a private internet server to handle sensitive or highly classified government messages while she was at the State Department. The FBI and two inspector generals have been investigating Clinton’s handling of her email, and Trump and other GOP candidates gleefully speculate that she may be indicted before the November election. 

Sanders has been careful in responding to questions about Clinton’s email problems, although he has become more aggressive on that subject in recent weeks. He also has been hitting hard at Clinton’s past cozy relations with Wall Street and the millions of dollars in speaking fees she has picked up after leaving government from New York bankers and others in the financial world. Exit polls showed that Michigan Democrats by a margin of 80 percent to 57 percent believe that Sanders is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton.