The RealClear Politics polling average for Michigan’ Democratic presidential primary had Hillary up by 21.4 points over Bernie, as of the day before the election. To everyone’s surprise, Bernie squeezed out a narrow victory, 49.8 percent to Hillary’s 48.3. Clinton was down more than ten points from the polling average, while Sanders was up more than twelve points. So when candidates say, “Don’t trust the polls,” there’s something to it.
CNN’s exit poll sheds a lot of light on what happened. There was a bit of a gender gap: 51 percent of women were for Clinton, 55 percent of men for Sanders. Young voters went for Sanders; those over 45 went for Clinton. Those age 18-29 (19% of the sample) were 81 percent for Sanders. As expected, Clinton did well among the 21 percent of voters who were black, while Sanders got the majority of whites. But Clinton’s black majority was only a bit over two-thirds of the vote, in contrast to her dominating performance among Southern blacks in earlier primaries (in in Mississippi, where her huge black majority carried her to an overwhelming victory. Oddly, Clinton won among both the most educated and the least educated, while Sanders won among those who have either some college or a degree (but no postgraduate education). Income did not prove to be a powerful variable.
Perhaps the most striking finding is that Hillary got 58 percent of those identifying themselves as Democrats, while Bernie was supported by 71 percent of those declaring themselves Independents (27 percent of the sample).
Perhaps the most striking finding is that Hillary got 58 percent of those identifying themselves as Democrats, while Bernie was supported by 71 percent of those declaring themselves Independents (27 percent of the sample). Michigan allows independents to vote in either party primary, and it is clear that independents gave Bernie this election. Add the Independent vote to Hillary’s slippage among black voters, and you have a rough and ready explanation for how Bernie won.
What does it mean? It bodes well for Bernie’s competitiveness in other rust-belt states like Ohio and Illinois next week: his hammering Hillary on her support for free trade pacts like NAFTA seems to have struck a chord. And both Illinois and Ohio, like Michigan, have open primaries that allow Independents to vote. Florida, however, has a closed primary, as do the big northeastern states of New York and Pennsylvania (which vote later). But bear in mind that Independents must decide which party’s primary they will vote in: 31 percent of the Republican exit poll sample in Michigan were Independents.
An unexpected victory like this will certainly give Bernie’s supporters a boost just as much of the mainstream media were starting to count him out. But remember that delegates are allocated proportionately, so Hillary actually came out of the day further ahead of Bernie in delegates, because they essentially tied in Michigan while she won big in Mississippi. But it is still the case that Hillary is strongest in states that she has little hope of carrying in November, while Bernie is stronger in the states that a victorious Democratic nominee must carry. There’s the rub: she is halfway to the nomination in terms of delegates, but if polls are to be believed (see Michigan as a counterexample), she would be a weaker candidate than Bernie in November.
Much of Hillary’s delegate advantage lies with the “superdelegates,” officeholders and other prominent Democrats who are not bound by their states’ primaries. The vast majority are supporting Hillary. Bernie needs to score a string of big victories (bigger margins than Michigan’s) to start peeling away Hillary’s superdelegates.
The more he looks like Bill Clinton in 1992 or Barack Obama in 2008, and the less he looks like George McGovern in 1972, the more superdelegates will pass over to him. The more he can make Hillary the loser where she’s supposed to win, the better his prospects.
And if Hillary holds off his charge and gets the nomination, she’ll be a stronger candidate for the struggle.