Game Changer or Outlier? Sanders’ Michigan Victory

There is no question that Bernie Sanders’ victory of Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary on Tuesday was an historic upset. Clinton had a reliable lead in the polls, with the average putting Clinton 20-points ahead of Sanders. Additionally, Michigan has a high percentage of African American voters who, in the previous contests, heavily supported Clinton. In previous blog posts I had prophesised that Sanders was almost done, due to his continued inability to close the delegate gap with Clinton. So what went wrong?

First up, the polling data. Clinton led Sanders in every single poll taken over the last month by at least five points. Polling in the last two election cycles was notoriously erratic, with both the 2012 Presidential election and the 2014 midterm elections projected as being much closer than they were in reality. What is interesting about the Michigan contest, is that the results of the Republican race were in line with polling estimates. Additionally, over 1.3 million votes were cast in the Republican primary, compared to 1.195 million votes cast for the Democrats. FiveThirtyEight put together a comprehensive list of why pollsters missed the Sanders Surge. As ever, turnout is king.

While it is true that Michigan is not as heavily African American as the Southern states where Clinton has romped away with a set of wins, African Americans still comprise a significant portion of the state. Part of this comes down to the split in the generational vote, with two-thirds of voters under 45 backing Sanders in Michigan. Importantly for Sanders, he was able to fight Clinton to a draw in the contest for African American voters under 40. If Sanders has been to eat into Clinton’s support from non-white groups in the North then this represents a significant threat to Clinton’s viability as the Democratic nominee.

Finally, the delegate gap. As I noted, one of Sanders’ persistent weaknesses is that he is yet to win big over Clinton in a state that ‘counts’. Sure, he has performed strongly in states like Kansas, Maine, and Minnesota, but his blowout wins in these states have barely shifted the needle and are yet to present a clear danger to Clinton’s numbers. His close victory in Michigan (0.5 percent) allowed Clinton to beat Sanders in the delegate count. FiveThirtyEight’s delegate tracker notes that while Clinton fell two delegates short of her target in Michigan, she received nine delegates more than her target in Mississippi.

Sanders is certainly a resilient and popular candidate. If he can survive the expected Clinton victories in the contests on March 15, then the remaining primary states will start to look increasingly friendly for him. However, as Nate Cohn of the New York Times Upshot notes, even if we imagine

“[a] brutal stretch for Mrs. Clinton, one where she underperforms the demographic projections by as much as she did in Michigan for the rest of the year. She loses in Ohio and Missouri next Tuesday. States where Mrs. Clinton was thought to have an advantage, like Arizona, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, California and Connecticut, become tossups. Mrs. Clinton wins New York, but by just eight percentage points. She gets swept in the West, including big 40-point losses in places like Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Utah and Montana, and 30-point losses in Washington and Oregon. She loses by 20 points in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, by 30 in West Virginia and Kentucky.

She still wins — and comfortably.

How? She’s already banked a large delegate lead, and it has nothing to do with the “superdelegates.” Thirty-three percent of all of the pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention have already been awarded. She has won those delegates by roughly a 60-40 margin. To overcome it, Mr. Sanders will need to do nearly as well from this point on. Not even the very strong showing for Mr. Sanders imagined above would be enough.”

We will have to wait until the next set of contests to determine whether Michigan is ‘the new normal’ or an outlier, and although the headlines will change, the basic facts will not.

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website.

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