After Bernie’s Record-Setting Win in Michigan and a Strong Debate Performance, What is His Path Forward?
© Josh Sager – March 2016
This week, Bernie Sanders won an absolutely nail-biting victory in Michigan. He won the primary by 1.5% (appx. 19,000 votes), earning 49.8% of the vote to Hillary’s 48.3%. His win is historic, not because of the margin of victory (which is admittedly very small), but because it represents arguably the largest upset in the history of presidential primary polling.
Bernie’s victory in Michigan flies in the face of every established poll of the electorate. In the lead-up to the election, the Real Clear Politics polling average predicted that Hillary would win the Michigan primary by over 21%. The closest poll to the eventual result still had Hillary winning by 7% (Michigan State: 47%-42%). He outperformed his polling aggregate by over 22% and won a race that most professional polling firms gave Hillary a 99% of winning.
The Michigan upset throws large segments of the future race into question, as it indicates that the polling in upcoming post-industrial states may be significantly off. In addition to winning Michigan, Bernie won crushing victories in Minnesota (61.7% to Hillary’s 38.3%) and Nebraska, and tied in Iowa. These results suggest that he will likely outperform the polls again in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania—all states that he absolutely must win (or at least have strong showings) in order to catch Hillary in the delegate count.
Exit polling from the Michigan primary confirm several patterns established in past races.
- High turnout and open primary rules significantly benefit Bernie Sanders.
- Independent voters are a key demographic within the Sanders coalition—he wins prohibitive majorities of independents, capturing 70% in the Michigan primary.
- Older and wealthier voters tend to support Hillary, while younger and more educated voters tend to support Sanders (except post-graduate degree holders, who tend to be wealthier and support Hillary).
- While Hillary has a giant lead within the African American community, this lead is significantly smaller in the north than the south, and younger black voters are evenly split between Sanders and Clinton.
- Voters who have positive perceptions of the federal government, believe that the current economic system is functioning properly, and that the nation is traveling down the correct path tend to favor Hillary Clinton. Conversely, voters who are against the status quo tended to favor Bernie Sanders significantly.
Comparing the turnout from the 2016 Michigan primary to the 2008 primary isn’t really valid, as it was an uncontested primary for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and this severely depressed turnout numbers. That said, the 2016 Democratic turnout was only slightly less than the Republican turnout, and this runs against the general trend for 2016 (the GOP has regularly overtaken the Democrats in primary attendance during past 2016 state races by giant margins).
In the general election, the strengths illustrated by Bernie in the Michigan race become absolutely vital—this makes him a very strong general election candidate.
Elections are won at the margins, and independent voters are the crucial weight which swings between the parties, giving them control over the presidency. Long time partisans are unlikely to shift allegiances unless major party changes occur (case in point: southern whites after the passage of the Civil Rights Act), thus having strong support within these secure demographics is most important in the primaries. Conversely, independents are the often cited “swing voters” (a really bad term for a much more complex phenomena) who pundits cite as the most important demographic to win. Bernie’s giant margins with these independents mean that he is more likely to win these voters in the general, particularly if the GOP opponent is an “establishment” candidate.
Last night, Bernie and Hillary had a debate in Miami, put on by Univision. While most in the mainstream media have either largely ignored this debate or called it a wash, I urge you to actually watch it. It was easily the most amusing and substantive debate of the entire 2016 election season, and, after watching it, you can only come away with the conclusion that Bernie hit a grand slam.
Here is a link to the debate: https://youtu.be/OqgTFA1HnUM
Surprisingly, one of the best articles I have seen covering this debate was from the Washington Post, which is usually a reliable Clinton ally. They point out that Hillary appeared to be constantly off center, and started flailing around into the middle of the debate, throwing out a long series of completely dishonest (they use the term “off the wall”) attacks. For example, she repeatedly came back to the fact that Bernie voted against the 2007 immigration reform that she voted for. This was her go to talking point, and she simply repeated it, even after Sanders had retorted that many major Latino, worker groups, and civil rights organizations were also opposed to that “reform” because it included a guest worker provision that many called modern slavery (which is true).
Bernie channeled Walter White for an answer last night and got wild applause
Hillary really mishandled several questions, inflicting some potentially deadly self-inflicted wounds. I think that the worst case of this was when she was asked to differentiate her past support for a border wall with Trump’s current support for the same policy, and her only response was to say that what she supported was more of a fence than a wall.
Similarly, Bernie’s only real issue in the debate was at the end, when he was asked to comment on his past support for several South American socialist regimes. While he gave a substantive answer on this—that he disliked authoritarian regimes but didn’t support America’s pursuit of regime change in the region—this is a distinction which is almost certainly lost on most people. I think that this exchange could harm him in Miami, where the Cuban population is a significant factor.
The moderators were very tough on the candidates—asking Hillary about her emails and various flip-flops, while confronting Bernie about several quotes about Castro and Cuba—but they were also fair and did an extremely good job keeping the debate on track. Their follow ups were on point and they called candidates (75% of the time Hillary) out when they failed to answer the question.
Bernie absolutely hammered Clinton during the middle half of the debate, going after her connections to big business and support for conservative policies. Hillary tried to defend her record, but was largely ineffective. In most cases, she simply restated a platitude (e.g. “breaking down barriers”) or pivoted away from the question (e.g. saying that her support for deporting child refugees was okay because those kids would get “due process”…which basically means that they get a court appointed attorney to represent them before they are sent back to the murder capital of the world).
As if there was any doubt about the winner of this debate, the crowd clapped for Hillary at the end, but gave Sanders and absolutely thunderous standing ovation. This is a sharp departure from the start of the debate, when the cheers and clapping was roughly divided equally between the candidates.
If he wants to win the primary, Bernie needs to keep up with the aggressive tactics. He needs to target Hillary’s record on trade, deregulation and race, while repeatedly citing her connection to big money. If I had to name one question that he should ask her, it would be for her to explain why Citizens United needs to be repealed if money doesn’t influence politicians like her? Either she admits what everybody knows, that money corrupts, or she alienates herself to the vast Democratic majority who want money out of politics—either way she loses.