Bernie Sanders scored his biggest Democratic presidential primary victory because he did a better job than front-runner Hillary Clinton of motivating his Michigan supporters to get out and vote, political analysts and voters said Wednesday.
The U.S. senator from Vermont secured a narrow win in Michigan on Tuesday by targeting younger voters in university communities with his calls for government-subsidized college. He also pressed his anti-establishment message that criticized America’s trade and manufacturing policies and urged a “political revolution” to hold Wall Street and government accountable.
Sanders’ strategy coincided with Clinton’s inability to inspire enough urban and African-American voters to get to the polls, even though she made Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis a national issue for two months.
Even a weekend of campaigning by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea as well as her personal visits to Detroit’s African-American churches and a black-owned restaurant failed to resonate. Sanders won all but 10 of Michigan’s 83 counties in his 49.8-48.2 percent victory.
“A lack of passion for Clinton” led to her defeat, said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “While Clinton is going to be the nominee, barring an FBI intervention, Sanders has won the hearts of Democrats in a way Clinton never will. Even after 40 years of practice, her candidate skills are third-rate.”
A record 2.54 million people in Michigan voted, shattering the previous two-party primary record of 1.93 million set in 1972. The turnout far exceeded state election officials’ 2 million-vote turnout projection.
The 74-year-old Sanders made further inroads by not conceding the minority vote. He visited Flint, called first for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation because of the city’s water woes and played up his marching in the 1960s civil rights movement.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, overwhelmingly won among voters in Detroit, 73-26 percent, and Flint, 65-34 percent. But voters in the black-majority cities failed to match the state’s 34.5 percent participation among registered voters, with Detroit mustering 25.5 percent turnout and Flint 23 percent participation.
“A lot of the older voters (support her) ... for what she has done — Children’s Defense Fund, the health care work in the White House — and she inherited those votes,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who scored his own upset in 1988 when he won Michigan’s Democratic presidential caucuses but eventually lost the nomination to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
“But a lot of the youth, that’s not a part of their memory banks. They hear a different kind of message.”
When Sanders talks about jobs and the problems on Wall Street, Jackson told The Detroit News, the message “resonates. They have no obligation to her.”
The pollsters “completely misread our constituency” and Sanders as well, he said.
‘Seems to be pandering’
Voter mistrust with Clinton and her 2008 primary battles with Barack Obama also played a role.
“I don’t have any issues with Hillary’s stances or anything, but I’ve always had slight issues with some of her flip-flopping,” said Troy Walls, 33, of Detroit, a business owner who initially planned to vote for Clinton but switched to Sanders.
“And definitely the way that she treated our current president when she was running against him. And then when I saw that there was an alternative. ... He seems much more genuine than she does. She always seems to be pandering to whatever audience she’s speaking to.”
By contrast, David Hamilton of Kalamazoo, said he liked the authenticity of Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist.
While not agreeing with everything Sanders wants to do, the 24-year-old said he finds Sanders appealing because “he seems to be somebody who is going to go in there, figure out what’s going and be willing to look at the facts and make the best decision, and not just based on what people would like him to do.”
He said he was concerned that Clinton “will say one thing in one circumstance and then say something completely different when she’s in a different place.”
“She seems very much like a follower more so than a leader to me,” he said, “although she’s very good about standing up for her values. She isn’t very good about saying, ‘I did vote this way and this is why.’ "
An example came during Sunday’s debate when Clinton argued that Sanders was against the auto bailout by opposing a vote to release the second $350 billion of Trouble Asset Relief Program mortgage and banking aid in January 2009. Obama eventually would tap TARP to finance the rescues of General Motors and Chrysler.
Sanders argued in the debate and on the campaign trail Monday that he opposed TARP as a Wall Street bailout but supported the unsuccessful legislation for a direct auto bailout in September 2008.
The tactic didn’t sit well with Vince Houle of Ferndale who voted for Sanders as “one of the most sane … one of the most honest” candidates running for president.
“I think that she’s desperate,” Houle, 59, said Tuesday afternoon.
Negated gap in Detroit area
Former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer said Sanders defeated Clinton by running up big margins of victory in outstate counties while neutralizing her advantage in voter-rich Metro Detroit, where she barely won blue-collar Macomb County and had a modest 4.5 percent-point margin in Oakland County.
“I think the bottom line is Bernie Sanders ran a better campaign,” said Brewer, who stayed neutral in the primary. “He outspent Secretary Clinton and he registered young voters. He didn’t write off the cities. He went into Detroit and Flint, and he worked hard there.”
Sanders campaigned in college towns because of his popularity among younger Americans. He held rallies at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti and Grand Valley State University in the Grand Rapids area.
He also campaigned in Kalamazoo, home to Western Michigan University. Sanders won the three counties that are home to those universities by double digits.
Sanders capitalized on the record voter participation.
Exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed 69 percent of voters in Tuesday’s Democratic primary identified as Democrats, while 28 percent labeled themselves independents.
Another 3 percent of the Democratic electorate was composed of Republicans who crossed over to vote in the Clinton-Sanders race, according to the exit polling.
Democratic consultant Joe DiSano said Clinton will have to sharpen her appeal to voters who are more open to Sanders’ populist pitches if she intends to recapture momentum in the Democratic race.
“Bernie won Michigan due to crossover from Republicans and independents,” he said. “Sanders’ trade message resonated especially with men and rural voters, and Hillary needs to take several pages out of that playbook and run with it.”
Clinton allies have sought to downplay the loss in Michigan, pointing to her overall lead in delegates that will determine the eventual Democratic nominee.
“While counting continues in Michigan, no matter what, @HillaryClinton will add more than a dozen delegates to her 200+ lead over Sanders,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted Tuesday night.
Zac Clark, 24, of Royal Oak said Sanders supporters like himself were sick of the headlines saying the senator was going to get trounced by Clinton and “wanted to prove them wrong.”
“You can keep telling us that he’s not viable, but we’re the largest voting group and we simply don’t believe that,” said Clark, a freelance photographer and filmmaker. “It’s the narrative of distrust. People are really upset about their representation.”