Why Sanders' Michigan Win Is A Big Deal

| by Robert Fowler
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie SandersDemocratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

The conventional wisdom of the Democratic primary race had become that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont’s presidential campaign was on its last legs. That he was stuck in a voter lane that could not possibly topple former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His win in Michigan has radically challenged that narrative.

Sanders, despite his overwhelming popularity among young liberals, had settled into a narrative rut. His campaign was given a galvanizing shot by sweeping the New Hampshire caucus, but the ensuing contests contained a troubling pattern: the Vermont senator was only winning among predominantly white electorates.

The Democrats are the party of diversity; it has become next to impossible for a presidential candidate to win the nomination if they fail to win crossover appeal among racial minorities. Suddenly it became easy to predict where Sanders would do well and where Clinton would blow him out of the water. And that model heavily favored the former Secretary of State.

Michigan was considered a must-win primary by the Sanders campaign, but Clinton was projected to enjoy a sweeping victory in the Wolverine state. FiveThirtyEight, the polling group lead by statistical whiz Nate Silver, put the former Secretary’s odds of winning at 99 percent.

Pundits decried that Sanders blew whatever chance he had with Michigan’s diverse group of Democrats during his latest debate performance, when he clumsily associated African Americans with poverty.

“When you are white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto,” Sanders said. “You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”

While his statement doubtlessly angered many of the white voters in what is one of the most economically depressed states in the country, people of color were also displeased to have their concerns relegated to the “ghetto.”

The Daily Beast analyst Goldie Taylor commented that Sanders’ gaffe was further indication that he could not muster enough crossover appeal among ethnically diverse Democrats because he “simply doesn’t ‘get it.’”

Despite all of these preconceptions going into the Michigan primary, Sanders stunned everyone on March 8, narrowly beating out Clinton by 1.5 percentage points.

Technically, Clinton had the better day. By sweeping Mississippi, she had won more delegates overall. But Sanders’ campaign easily won in narrative momentum.

Sanders’ win in Michigan defied the polls that had uniformly placed Clinton in a double-digit lead, effectively punching a hole through the expectations of which states he could or could not win.

As noted by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, this is a pretty big deal.

“Michigan is a state where no one — not even Clintonworld — can take away what Sanders accomplished,” Cillizza wrote. “This is a big, Midwestern state that is far more diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire. Clinton tried very hard to win. She didn’t. Case closed.”

The Vermont senator recognized this during his Michigan victory speech.

“What tonight means is that the Bernie Sanders campaign … is strong in every part of the country,” Sanders said. “We believe our strongest areas are yet to happen.”

The stunning last-minute reversal of Sanders’ fortune in Michigan means that he has a shot in other Midwestern states. While Clinton was projected to clobber Sanders in the March 15 electoral contests, the senator suddenly looks plausible to upset again in delegate-rich Ohio.

Now that Sanders has broken through the ceiling that observers had placed on his appeal, the media — and as a result, voters — will reexamine his viability as a nominee.

Republicans believe that Sanders would be easy to beat because of the whole “self-described Democratic Socialist” thing, and Democratic leaders have been inclined to agree. However, there is mounting evidence that Sanders could be a safer bet to defeat the Republicans than Clinton herself.

The current slate of polls predict that Clinton would soundly defeat GOP front-runner Donald Trump in a general election match-up. However, Sanders does even better, with the senator projected to blow Trump out of the water by double digits, according to Real Clear Politics.

How could this be?

Well, in an election where voters can all agree on being fed up with establishment politicians who engage in doublespeak, recent polls show that Sanders is overwhelmingly rated the most trustworthy candidate of either party, The Huffington Post reports.

In comparison, Clinton’s trustworthiness is rated below even Trump in several polls.

Voters generally agree that Sanders cannot be bought by special interests, and observers have noted that the senator has tapped into the same populist anger that Trump has. Instead of directing that rage against immigration, Sanders points to income inequality, something that impacts all demographics.

Douglas Perry of Oregon Live posits that Sanders “could potentially do something that not many observers believe Clinton could manage: woo away some of Trump’s supporters.”

Now that Sanders has demonstrated that he can win the votes of diverse Democrats, Clinton’s inevitability is no longer a foregone conclusion.

The Vermont senator will no longer be dismissed as a protest candidate whose appeal was fatally limited. After Michigan, he will be treated as a competitive challenger who has a legitimate chance to win the Democratic nomination and then, in what has already been a dramatic election cycle, really get to work on his “political revolution.”

Sources: The Daily Beast, FiveThirtyEightThe Huffington Post, Oregon LiveReal Clear Politics, The Washington Post / Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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