Last night was another good night for Hillary Clinton, as she continued her steady slog toward the Democratic nomination. At last count, she took home 87 delegates, widening her lead over Bernie Sanders, who won 69, to 760-546 in pledged delegates. (Her lead increases to 1,221-571 if you throw in the super delegates who have endorsed the two candidates so far.) With super delegates, she is more than halfway to clinching the nomination.
Of course, you might not realize this based on today’s media reports, which have focused heavily on Bernie’s “surprise” victory in Michigan, in which he eked out a narrow popular vote victory over Clinton, 49.8% to 48.3%, and in delegates 65-58. But the media narrative really says more about how bad the pre-election Michigan polls were than they do about the strength of Bernie’s victory. While Sanders’ win in Michigan will give his supporters a much-needed psychological boost heading into still another Super Tuesday on March 15, when almost 700 delegates will be at stake, the reality is that last night’s results do not suggest Bernie has widened his support to the degree necessary to win this nomination. The fact is Michigan is a state, with its traditional manufacturing base, that was tailor-made to Bernie’s economic message, particularly his opposition to trade agreements, and his emphasis on addressing income inequality. Exit polls suggest these themes played particularly well in a state that was hard hit during the economic recession. Among the 27% citing income inequality as the most important issue, Bernie won 61% of the vote. Almost 60% of voters said trade takes away from American jobs (as opposed to creating them) and Bernie won 58% of their vote.
Bernie also benefited from two others aspects of the Michigan primary. First, it was an open primary, and Bernie crushed Clinton 71%-28% among the 28% of voters who called themselves independents. He also benefited by the lower non-white turnout in Michigan compared to the southern states Hillary has used to build her large delegate lead. Although she again handedly won the non-white vote last night, 62%-35% (which is not quite the dominating performance for her among these voters that we have seen in previous contests), they only constituted a third of the vote, not quite enough to overcome Sanders strong performance among white men. Finally, Bernie was more effective than Clinton at tapping into support from the 70% who were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, winning these voters 54%-45% over Clinton.
To be sure, this wasn’t simply the case of Bernie capitalizing on a demographically-friendly state. The evidence from exit polls suggests his supporters turned out in greater numbers than we have seen in many previous Democratic contests. Self-described liberals (“very” and “somewhat”) constituted 56% of the vote, a higher proportion than in many previous primaries, and they went strongly for Bernie. The youth turnout was also surprisingly strong and it largely negated Clinton’s strength among older voters, who did not vote in quite the proportions she has come to expect. Sanders also did surprisingly well, at least to me, among unmarried women, who constituted 27% of the vote, matching the proportion of married women, and who went for him 53%-42%, which again cancelled out Clinton’s edge among the latter group. Sanders’ ability to turn out these crucial voters bodes well for him looking ahead to next Tuesday’s contests in Ohio and Illinois, which between them will award 299 delegates, and which share a somewhat similar demographic profile as Michigan. Illinois, moreover, is an open primary, and Ohio has modified voting rules for its primary – both good news for Sanders given his demonstrated ability to draw independent voters.
But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the road ahead for Sanders. Given his delegate deficit, and the fact that all five states voting next week, including Missouri, Florida and North Carolina, award delegates proportionally, merely reprising his Michigan performance is not going to be enough to catch Clinton. He needs to start winning states, and winning them by large margins, as Clinton did yesterday in Mississippi, where exit polls indicate the overwhelmingly black electorate (71%) went heavily for Clinton over Sanders by 89%-11%. That massive level of support fueled her dominating victory over Sanders in the popular vote 83%-16.5%. Looking ahead to the next Super Tuesday, it is hard to see any place where Sanders will exert that type of political dominance. Instead, early polling (and Michigan reminds us that polling isn’t always accurate!) has Clinton leading in Florida and North Carolina by 20% or more, and in Ohio by 15%. Yes, I expect Sanders to cut into those leads (assuming the polls are even accurate), but even if he ends up running even with Clinton in those states, or better yet eking out narrow victories, that won’t be enough for him to cut into her substantial delegate lead to any great degree.
So, yes, I expect to see a flurry of articles noting the warning signs for Clinton in yesterday’s Michigan results. And yes, Sanders is likely to pick up a batch of delegates next week, particularly in the Midwest states of Ohio and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Illinois. But it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Last night was a win for Clinton, and it serves as a reminder that Bernie Sanders is fighting an uphill battle for delegates, and for the Democratic nomination. In that respect, nothing has really changed. Together, Michigan and Mississippi represent just another brick in the Clinton delegate wall. The sooner the #FeelTheBern crowd realize this and fall in line, the better off everyone will be.