Sanders shocks with historic upset in Michigan, but Clinton’s delegate lead still grows

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Bernie Sanders seems to be taking campaign advice from Dylan Thomas these days. He will not go gentle into that good night.

With his startling, come-from-behind victory Tuesday in Michigan, the underdog senator from Vermont pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Democratic primary history — just as his hopes of catching up to frontrunner Hillary Clinton seemed to be fading.

It’s a result that may spell trouble for Clinton, as other Rust Belt states — Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — head to the polls in the weeks ahead.

“What tonight means is that the Bernie Sanders campaign — the political revolution that we are talking about — is strong in every part of the country,” Sanders said during an impromptu late-night press conference outside his hotel in Miami, where he had rallied supporters earlier in the evening. “And frankly, we believe our strongest areas are yet to happen.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont rallies supporters in Miami on the night of the Michigan and Mississippi primaries Tuesday. (Photo: Alan Diaz/AP)

Thanks to a streak of resounding victories in heavily African-American primaries across the South — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina — Clinton swept into Tuesday’s contests in Mississippi and Michigan with a seemingly insurmountable advantage over Sanders in the all-important battle for Democratic delegates.

The polls showed Clinton with massive leads in Michigan and Mississippi as well: more than 20 percentage points, on average, in the former, and more than 40 percentage points, on average, in the latter. Her campaign argued that a one-two punch in the North and the South would reinforce the former secretary of state’s strength with minority voters, while also proving that she can win in precisely the sort of big, blue-collar, non-Southern states that will define the rest of the Democratic primary calendar.

Mississippi, where nearly two-thirds of the primary voters were black, played to type, awarding Clinton a huge 83 percent to 16 percent win. Michigan, however, defied expectations, and the polls.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders was edging out Clinton by two percentage points, 50 percent to 48 percent. The last time a Democratic candidate lost on primary day after claiming such a sizable lead in the polls was in 1984, when Gary Hart upset Walter Mondale in New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton snaps selfies with supporters before a rally at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland on Tuesday. (Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

The Sanders campaign fought hard for its win. Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, recently called the Michigan primary “a critical showdown,” and Sanders visited again and again over the last week. In a debate and a town hall, and on the stump in East Lansing, Kalamazoo, Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Sanders argued that he was a better fit than the former first lady for working-class Michiganders. He continued to criticize Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and to insist that she release the transcripts of her paid speeches to big banks. He even added a regional twist to his repertoire, hammering Hillary over her husband’s support, as president, for the “disastrous” North American Free Trade Agreement, which many Michiganders blame for decades of manufacturing job losses.

Clinton was, as usual, ready with a riposte. During the March 6 CNN debate in Flint, she accused Sanders of “being against the auto bailout” — the program widely credited with saving the largest industry in the region in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

“In January of 2009, President-elect Obama asked everybody in the Congress to vote for the bailout,” Clinton said. “The money was there and had to be released in order to save the American auto industry and 4 million jobs and to begin the restructuring. We had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry.”

But it wasn’t enough. (Perhaps because it wasn’t quite true; Sanders supported rescuing the auto industry, but voted against a bill that coupled it with a bailout for big banks.) According to the exit polls, Sanders continued to rack up huge margins in Michigan among the voters who have been fueling his candidacy all along. He won voters under 30 by 63 points. He won men by 12 points. He won whites by 16 points. He won independents by 43 points. He won voters who value honesty above all else by 61 points. And so on.

Yet, more tellingly, Sanders also held his own among demographic groups that Clinton dominated in her 2008 battle against Barack Obama — demographic groups that could prove crucial in the contests ahead. He won white women by five points. He won whites without a college degree by 17 points. He won voters who make less than $50,000 a year by five points. He won voters who think that trade with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs” by 17 points. He even won union voters (by two points). And he lost the black vote by a much smaller margin than he has in the South.

A young Sanders supporter waits for him to speak at a campaign rally in Miami on Tuesday. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

To be sure, Clinton will emerge from Tuesday’s primaries with the bigger net gain in delegates. Her Mississippi landslide may have been more predictable than Sanders’ nail-biter in Michigan, but it was also more profitable. The latest estimates show that while Sanders will amass 8 to 10 more delegates than Clinton in Michigan, Clinton will scoop up 25 to 28 more delegates than Sanders in Mississippi. And so Clinton’s total delegate lead will only grow once all of Tuesday’s votes are tallied — despite Sanders’ miracle in Michigan. In the end, this is the only measure that matters.

Still, Clinton has more reason to worry after Michigan than she did before. On March 15, Ohio will vote; like Michigan, it will be an open primary, which means that independents, who favor Sanders, can participate. Another open primary, in Wisconsin, will follow on April 5. Then comes Pennsylvania on April 26 and Indiana on May 3. Clinton’s polling lead in each of these Rust Belt states is smaller than it was in Michigan; in fact, the latest Wisconsin survey shows Sanders in the lead

Clinton is still the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination. The numbers don’t lie. But if Sanders continues to raise tons of money and make unexpected inroads in Rust Belt states such as Michigan — and if Clinton can’t adjust in time — it could presage a difficult general election campaign for Hillary, especially if she’s running against Donald Trump, who also appeals to the sort of voters who boosted Bernie on Tuesday.

Clinton was hoping that Michigan would close the door on Sanders’ candidacy. Instead, it has only given him more reason to rage against the dying of the light.