Skip to main content

Why Sanders' Michigan Win Doesn't Change Things

March 8 was a fantastic day for supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Down by as many as 21 percentage points in aggregated polls of Michigan's likely voters, the senator pulled off a huge upset against rival Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, winning the state by almost 20,000 votes.

The reaction says it all. At FiveThirtyEight, home of stats wizards who said Clinton had a 99 percent chance of winning the state, writer Harry Enten said Sanders "made folks like me eat a stack of humble pie." Enten called Sanders' win "one of the greatest upsets in modern political history," and said the victory has him questioning whether other polls favoring Clinton could be off by similar margins.

At Slate, Jim Newell said the victory proved Sanders had expanded his coalition and appeal among black voters, and the Washington Post's Philip Bump said Michigan's primary "pried open two critical seams holding her candidacy together."

But amid all the celebrating among Sanders supporters, there are two key points that make it clear the self-described socialist is still fighting an uphill battle.

First, Michigan isn't a winner-takes-all state, which means Sanders' biggest victory to date netted him 65 delegates, but Clinton walked away with 58 of the state's delegates. That means Sanders didn't really make up ground with his upset, and if he continues this way, then he'll lose by attrition.

The second major hurdle for Sanders is Clinton's incredible lead among superdelegates. In the Democratic primaries, there are pledged delegates, which are awarded to candidates based on how many votes they win. And there are superdelegates, Democratic insiders, usually state party officials, who can support a candidate even if the voters in their home state favor the other.

That means a candidate like Sanders could theoretically win the primary by votes, but lose the nomination if superdelegates override the will of the voters.

It's a system designed to make sure the plebs don't get off track, and if they do, then party elites can reel them back in and select a candidate they like. It's also unique to the Democrats, an irony in 2016 when Republican elites would very much like the opportunity to disenfranchise millions of Republican voters and toss Republican presidential candidate frontrunner Donald Trump out of the race.

As of March 9, Clinton has 461 superdelegates and Sanders has 25.

It's another advantage for the former secretary of state in this primary run, which has heavily favored her from the beginning. Along with her huge superdelegate lead, Clinton's campaign has raised almost $100 million more than Sanders'. She enjoys the support of the party elites, and she's long been considered the most "electable" in a Democratic field that quickly dwindled (remember Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee?).

That's not even counting Super PACs. Priorities USA Action, Clinton's most deep-pocketed Super PAC, has raised more than $50 million so far, according to OpenSecrets. The most well-financed Super PAC supporting Sanders is the National Nurses United for Patient Protection, which has raised $2.3 million, according to Politico.

The main difference is that Clinton has the support of well-financed Super PACs specifically formed to support her, while Sanders has a handful of much smaller outside groups that have endorsed him, but do not exist specifically to further his campaign.

Tallying all of Clinton's advantages, it becomes clear Sanders needs a late push bordering on the miraculous to win the nomination. Strange things have happened in politics, and Clinton squandered a similarly massive lead against then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

But Sanders isn't Obama, and Clinton has learned from her mistakes. Unless Sanders picks up serious momentum from Michigan, in retrospect his huge victory will look like just a bump in Clinton's rearview mirror.

Sources: New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, Real Clear Politics, OpenSecrets, Politico, Washington Post, Slate / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Popular Video