U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont scored a shocking win Tuesday night in Michigan’s Democratic primary, narrowly defeating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and reasserting himself as a threat to her nomination.
With 99.4 percent of precincts reporting as of midnight, Sanders had captured 49.9 percent of the 1.1 million votes compared with 48.2 percent for Clinton.
Sanders upended public opinion polls and conventional wisdom in Michigan, where he packed college arenas and other venues in the past week while touting his message of change and promise of “political revolution.”
Speaking shortly before 11 p.m. while the race remained too close to call, Sanders said the night had already been an “enormous success” because he was bound to at least capture a sizable share of the 130 Michigan delegated that were up for grabs.
"This is a critically important night. We came from 30 points down in Michigan and we’re seeing the same kind of come-from-behind momentum all across America," he said a statement after the race was called. “Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign."
Clinton had considered Michigan a stronghold because of her consistent strength with African-American voters. She first highlighted the issue of Flint’s lead-contaminated water about two months before the primary and visited the city a month ago as a way of promoting her concern for the black-majority city.
Clinton also criticized the state’s emergency manager law and made repeated references to the problems in Detroit Public Schools.
Sanders refused to cede the state and aggressively campaigned here in the past month. The Independent Senator from Vermont also visited Flint and went further than Clinton in first calling for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign for failing to stop the lead poisoning of the water and the city’s residents.
The self-defined democratic socialist jabbed Clinton over foreign trade, pointing to her early statements of support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said caused the state to lose manufacturing jobs to Mexico, and which Clinton now opposes.
He met with Arab American leaders in Dearborn on Monday and ran Arabic-language radio ads there.
Brandon Carlington, 23, didn’t vote in the last presidential election cycle because he didn’t see a real difference between the candidates. But he cast a ballot Tuesday for Sanders.
“I think he's a far more honest and legitimate politician than his opposition both in the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party,” said Carlington, of Westland, who works in finance. “I think that his policies are more suited to the infrastructural needs of our country in the long-term.”
Carlington said he regards Clinton as part of the political establishment, citing the big-money super political action committees that had backed her. Sanders does not have a super PAC and has vowed to tighten campaign finance rules.
As results came in Tuesday night, Clinton supporters gathered at Detroit’s R.U.B. BBQ Pub on W. Adams Avenue. Retired U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones were among guests who stopped by.
Levin said both Sanders and Clinton are qualified to be president, noting Sanders is a friend and that he would be comfortable with him being president. But Clinton is the stronger candidate to face Trump, he said.
“Temperamentally, she’s better, experience-wise she’s stronger and she’s got an ability to reach out,” he said. “I think she’s able to put together coalitions in a very strong way. She has broader appeal than I think Bernie would have in the general election.”
Levin added he’s not surprised about the close race because Sanders has great appeal “on issues that really matter to people.”
“He’s very tough on Wall Street, they deserve it,” he said. “But, can he get anything done relative to what he says he wants to do. I think he’ll have a harder time getting things done than a president Clinton would.”
Sanders supporters and volunteers held a low-key gathering in The Elizabeth Theatre at the Park Bar. Owner Jerry Belanger cast his vote for Sanders and said that the tight race with Clinton was encouraging.
“Detroit is a metaphor for everything Bernie Sanders is saying,” Belanger said. “Civic duty does not fall on the backs of billionaires in this town, it falls completely on the poorest people and that’s why we are in the state that we’re in.”
Southwest Detroit resident Nate Saldivar-Garcia said he was pleased to see that Sanders was coming out on top in early results.
“He actually seems like an honest person that actually wants to help the people,” said Saldivar-Garcia, 23, a Central Michigan University graduate, who lives in Mexicantown. “He isn’t controlled by big money.”
Sanders and Clinton were competing for a share of 130 pledged delegates in Michigan. Of those, 85 are awarded proportionally within each congressional district to any candidate that receives at least 15 percent of the vote there. The other 45 delegates are allocated proportionally based on the statewide popular vote.
The 18 other “super delegates” are supporting Clinton.
As of midnight, The Associated Press projected that Sanders was guaranteed to win at least 65 of Michigan’s pledged delegates, compared with 58 for Clinton.
Michigan was seen as a key state to build momentum because it comes a week before winner-take-all primaries in large states like Ohio and Florida.
Clinton began primary day with early stops at Avalon Bakery and Great Lakes Coffee in Detroit before traveling to Ohio and Florida. Sanders was also in Florida ahead of Wednesday night’s debate in Miami.
Mike Pierce, 36, of Berkley, voted for Clinton earlier Tuesday and called the decision a no-brainer.
“I just don’t understand how Bernie’s going to pay for everything he wants to do,” said Pierce, who is a revenue manager for a hotel. “I like Bernie. I think he’s a great guy. He’s got good ideas. But I like Secretary Clinton because she has foreign policy experience.”
Pierce said he doesn’t think Clinton will go into the fall damaged from talk of the federal government’s investigation into her having a personal email server in her home where she received classified documents and correspondence.
“Not in my eyes,” he said. “I’d vote for her no matter what because I couldn’t vote for (Republican Donald) Trump. He’s a joke unfortunately.”
Clinton last week unveiled a new economic program in Detroit, proposing a “clawback” for companies that receive tax breaks but later ship jobs overseas and calling for new tariffs to combat currency manipulation.
She also launched a surprise attack in Sunday night’s debate, accusing Sanders of opposing the auto bailout because of his 2009 vote against the release of funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was eventually tapped to save General Motors and Chrysler.
Most voters in Michigan and Mississippi – which also voted Tuesday night – were worried about the direction of the country’s economy and many considered trade to be a negative influence on American jobs.
According to early results of exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press and television networks, 88 percent of Democratic voters said they were concerned about economic issues.
More than half of Democratic and Republican voters in Michigan, along with Republicans in Mississippi, said trade with other countries takes jobs.
John Kelly, 55, of Detroit, voted for Clinton on Tuesday, citing her experience and close ties to President Barack Obama as a former Cabinet official in his administration.
“I think she could best continue the job that President Obama has begun,” said Kelly, who said he regularly votes in Democratic primaries.
“I think she has the most experience and I’m most confident about her ability,” he continued. “I think of all the candidates, she’s the most likely to be elected.
Preston Rheaume, 22, a student at Michigan State University who works at Subway, cited foreign policy experience after he cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in downtown Lansing.
“She was Secretary of State. She knows the leaders around the world,” said Rheaume.
He attended a Bernie Sanders rally last week and said he was conflicted on who he would vote for until seeing Clinton’s performance in Sunday’s Flint debate.
“I think that with the Republican Congress we have right now, domestic policy issues that both of them are talking about are probably not going to really get through, but foreign policy issues never stop,” said Rheaume. “I think I’d rather have her on the phone.”