Politics & Policy

Sanders Shocks Clinton in Michigan, Raising Doubts about Her Nationwide Appeal

Sanders campaigns in Warren, Mich., March 5, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)

When Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager took to the post-debate spin-room on Sunday to call Hillary Clinton a “regional candidate” who struggled to win Democratic primaries outside of the South, he was widely mocked. After all, Clinton had already won Iowa, Nevada, and Massachusetts to go along with her dominant performances in eight southern states.

But after a shocking defeat in Michigan on Tuesday night, Clinton faces an uncomfortable truth: The strong delegate lead she’s amassed is built largely on colossal wins in the South — including Tuesday’s blowout in Mississippi — with only a little help from razor-thin victories in the East and Midwest. And while the Democratic party’s proportional delegate allocation means that Sanders’s chances of coming back to wrest the nomination from her grasp remain slim, he has certainly given her reason to worry should she make it to November.

Clinton had hoped to effectively clinch the nomination Tuesday night — her campaign had been arguing for weeks that if Sanders couldn’t beat her in Michigan, he couldn’t beat her anywhere. And almost no one gave his campaign a fighting chance in the state. Polling averages had Clinton up by over 20 points, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave her a 99 percent chance of victory heading into Tuesday night. Instead, Sanders edged out Clinton by two points in a down-to-the-wire finish.

Sanders’s surprise victory looks to have been driven largely by his tough stand against international trade deals, which, ironically enough, is similar to the position that helped Donald Trump win the Wolverine State’s Republican primary Tuesday night. Michigan has been hard hit by the manufacturing industry’s move overseas, which has particularly devastated workers in the cities of Flint and Detroit. Sanders’s pro-tariff pitch seemed to resonate with those voters: Despite a last-minute claim by the Clinton campaign that he opposed President Obama’s auto-industry bailout, he kept losses at lower-than-expected levels in both cities.

He also overperformed with African-American voters statewide. Clinton still won that crucial demographic, but failed to approach the margins she’s racked up among black voters in the South, winning 65 percent of them to Sanders’s 30 percent. Sanders effectively tied her in majority-minority Genesee County, where Flint is located, despite her campaign’s laser-like focus on the Flint water crisis and an endorsement from the town’s African-American mayor. The margin may demonstrate that Sanders’s struggles with black voters in the South could also stem from regional differences — giving his campaign a potential opening with blacks in Northern and Midwestern states.

#share#Heading into the evening, the Vermont senator languished nearly 200 pledged delegates behind Clinton despite having won three of the last four primary contests. The Michigan upset breathed new life into a sagging Sanders campaign, even if he actually lost a little ground in the delegate race once the night’s other contest, in Mississippi, had been counted.

A Mississippi victory was never really in doubt for the Clinton campaign. But even by the standard she’s set so far, burying Sanders in elections across the South, the scale of her Magnolia State win was unexpected. Exit polls from CBS showed her winning 88 percent of African-Americans, perhaps her highest margin yet among those voters. She won women by 81 percent, a rough margin for Sanders after he outperformed Clinton with women voters in several contests up north. She even won white voters, a demographic that has often broken comfortably for Sanders, by eight points.

The blowout resulted in a massive delegate pickup for Clinton, who won 32 while Sanders earned just 4. Since Sanders won just 10 more delegates than Clinton in Michigan, Tuesday night’s dramatic upset still leaves him worse off mathematically than he was before voting began.

#related#Still, Sanders touted the evening’s results as a victory. “Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign,” he said in a statement. “We already have won in the Midwest, New England, and the Great Plains and as more people get to know more about who we are and what our views are we’re going to do very well.”

Though Sanders is still a decided underdog after Tuesday night’s election, the Clinton campaign surely takes his point. Clinton has amassed a comfortable delegate lead by blowing Sanders out in the South and keeping close to him elsewhere. That regional imbalance may not keep her from winning the nomination, but it could spell trouble in a general election where she won’t be able to rely on a southern firewall to cover up her weaknesses in the rest of the country.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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