Election 2016

Sanders Tops Clinton in Big Primary Upset in Michigan, While Trump Cements GOP Frontrunner Status

More signs that insider candidates are floundering this election.

Photo Credit: www.facebook.com/MichiganForBernie

The political outsiders running for president—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—confounded their party’s establishments on Tuesday, winning in the first big midwestern industrial state, Michigan, and showing that their opposition is far weaker than the mainstream media and party insiders will admit.

Forget the Election Night analysis on National Public Radio, saying that Sanders will barely dent Clinton’s delegate-accumulation math, because he and she will split the Michigan delegate tally and because she won overwhelmingly in Mississippi on Tuesday. More than anything, Sanders’ come-from-behind razor-edge victory in Michigan is not only his biggest win so far, it shows that Clinton's candidacy has serious shortcomings.

A parallel storyline is unfolding on the Republican side, where Trump—after being declared unfit for high office by the 2012 and 2008 GOP presidential nominees in recent days, and after being barraged by tens of millions of dollars of attack ads—swept the most delegate rich-states, Michigan and Mississippi, proving he is the party’s unambiguous frontrunner and a far stronger candidate than his GOP establishment-sanctioned opposition. If anything, Marco Rubio’s fourth-place finish in Michigan showed that his presidential ambitions, no matter what happens in Florida’s winner-take-all primary next week, are all but done for 2016.

Tuesday’s voting results show that the race on both sides of the aisle isn’t settled yet—and isn’t following the scripts devised by both party’s insiders. These include the Democratic National Committee’s implicit pro-Clinton moves, such as initially limiting the debate schedule, or the Republican Party’s 2016 delegate allocation rules, which were designed to help candidates like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, or its more recent efforts to try to derail Trump.

Indeed, the victory messages from Tuesday’s biggest winners—Sanders and Trump—emphasized that something was unfolding across the U.S. that the political system and its caretakers don’t see, appreciate or understand. 

“The political revolution that we are talking about is strong in every part of the country,” Sanders said, speaking outside a Tuesday night event in Florida and saying the race would soon move into states favoring him more than Clinton. “And frankly, we believe our strongest areas are yet to happen.”

“Thirty-eight million dollars worth of horrible lies—it shows you how brilliant the public is, because they knew they were lies,” said Trump, speaking at one of his Florida resorts. “We started off with 17 [GOP candidates]. We are down to four. Of the four, they’re pretty much all goners. They didn’t do that well tonight, folks… there’s only one person who did well tonight, Donald Trump, I will tell you.”

Sanders’ win in Michigan—beating Clinton 50 to 48 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting—will enable him to raise millions of dollars from his nationwide grassroots base, which in turn he will use for TV ads in big and medium-sized states voting next Tuesday: Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina.  

“One week from today, five large and delegate-rich states vote,” Sanders said in an email blast sent out after the winner was called in Michigan, where virtually every pre-election poll found Clinton in the lead. “Time and time again, your support has enabled us to overcome large deficits and emerge victorious. But you can expect the political establishment to come after us even harder now. The super PACs are going to spend even more. We have to be prepared to fight back.”

Clinton, in her evening email blast, celebrated the Mississippi victory, where she won 83 percent of the vote, but acknowledged Sanders’ unexpected strength. “The forces trying to drive us apart are strong,” she said. “But I believe our campaign and our country should be about breaking barriers and building on what made America great in the first place… That’s the kind of spirit that drives this campaign, and it’s what will take us all the way to the White House.”

Delegate Math

Idaho and Hawaii also held GOP votes on Tuesday. Ted Cruz won Idaho with 45 percent of the vote and Trump won Hawaii’s GOP caucuses.

But Michigan’s delegates were Tuesday’s prize, not just numerically, but because the state represents a slice of the American electorate that has yet to take part in 2016’s presidential nominating contests. Michigan is a larger, whiter, working-class state that, like other midwestern states, has ridden waves of economic booms and busts in recent decades—the latest being the auto industry’s turnaround after the federal government loaned multi-millions to carmakers after the 2007-'08 global financial crash.

Just how the state’s voters would respond to the race’s outsiders—Sanders and Trump—was the focus of great interest and speculation, especially as mainstream leaders from both parties have sought to push their respective candidacies aside. Both Sanders and Trump slammed international trade agreements while campaigning—of course, in different ways, with Sanders saying they’ve hurt workers for decades and Trump saying he’d get a better deal. Clinton, in contrast, offered muted praise for the trade deals. Trump also promised to create jobs for anyone out of work.

When the votes were tallied, Trump got far fewer votes in Michigan than Sanders and Clinton did. But both parties have different rules on awarding delegates. On the GOP side, Trump won 37 percent of the vote, followed by Cruz with 25 percent, John Kasich with 24 percent and Rubio with 9 percent. If Trump had won an outright majority, he would have taken most of the state’s 59 delegates to the Republican National Convention. But under the party’s rules, he will divide them proportionately with those trailing him.    

That proportional splitting of the Republican delegates was same story in the other states voting Tuesday: Mississippi, which proportionately splits its 40 delegates; Idaho, which mostly divides its 32 proportionately if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote; and Hawaii, where the caucus winners are also awarded 19 delegates proportionately.

On the Democratic side, Sanders will get 65 delegates from Michigan, compared to Clinton’s 57. In Mississippi, he will get four additional delegates compared to Clinton’s 29. 

Behind all of this delegate math are larger political truths. Each party’s frontrunners—Clinton and Trump—are anything but overwhelming choices for their voters nationally. Because the GOP field has more candidates, almost all of Trump’s victories have been with less than 50 percent of voters. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s loss in Michigan blew up the line touted by her supporters that Sanders’ continuing campaign was a distraction when the party needed to unite behind one candidate (Clinton) to fight a demonic Republican nominee, most likely Trump but possibly Cruz, who is leading the pack behind Trump.

While there will be an explosion of commentary and second-guessing and speculation in coming days from both sides of the aisle and the mainstream media, what matters most is what will unfold next Tuesday. Especially on the GOP side, the big states that will vote next week are likely to be game-changers or game-enders. Florida has 99 delegates in a winner-take-all contest, where Trump is now leading in polls. Illinois’ winner-takes-most has 69 delegates, where Trump is also ahead in polls. Ohio has 66 winner-take-all delegates, where Trump is barely ahead of Kasich. North Carolina has 72 delegates, and Trump now leads, in a proportionally awarded contest. And Missouri has 52 delegates, another proportional contest. And the Northern Mariana Islands has nine in a winner-take-all caucus.     

Meanwhile, if Sanders makes a strong showing in those same states next week, he can look forward to a swath of more liberal states voting after that. People forget that Barack Obama did not clinch the 2008 nomination in his race with Clinton until the first week in June.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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