I generally prefer to leave the horserace analysis to CNN, especially because it’s easy to overhype the significance of an event only to find that no one remembers it a week later. However, I think it is worth acknowledging that Bernie Sanders’ victory in Michigan yesterday snuck up on just about everyone and was one of those events that can alter the direction of a campaign. The widely accepted build-up to the primary had Sanders far behind in the polls and on the defensive against Hillary Clinton’s charge that he had opposed the auto bailout. Yet Sanders was able to pull out a victory, largely on the strength of independent voters who in Michigan were free to cast ballots as either Democrats or Republicans. Exit polls show Sanders lost Democrats by 16 points but won independents by 43 – and independents constituted 28% of the electorate. Sanders also lost the African American vote by a narrower margin than he had across the South, and in keeping with what we said yesterday about coalition-building, the percentage of African American voters in Michigan is very close to the national average, placing it in range of other states where Sanders performed well.
Before Michigan, the Clinton campaign was prepared to pivot to a general election footing and begin running full time against the likely Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Although Sanders had the means to stay in the race regardless, Clinton would have stopped engaging him. She can’t do that now. Sanders’ victory in a large, diverse industrial state has to be taken seriously, as does the prospect that he can reassemble his Michigan coalition in other Rust Belt states with open primaries, starting with Ohio and Illinois next week.
This does not move Bernie any closer to the Democratic nomination. In fact, when coupled with his blowout loss in yesterday’s Mississippi primary, Sanders suffered a net loss in the delegate count. But Michigan maintains Sanders’ relevance in the campaign narrative, revives the long shot possibility of a dramatic upward turn in his electoral fortunes and, short of that, boosts the odds that his campaign will endure well into the spring. The longer Bernie is a presence in the Democratic contest, the more he fashions the party in his image. Hillary’s campaign should be giving serious thought to what it will take to win the support and enthusiasm of Bernie’s voters should the delegate trajectory remain unchanged. After Michigan, it looks like it will take more than a symbolic act on Hillary’s part to get it done.