Unpacking Bernie's Big Game-Changer in Michigan: The Makings of a Diverse Economic Coalition

One of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign mantras is that the American people are tired of establishment politics, establishment economics and establishment media—and his major upset over Hillary Clinton in Michigan on Tuesday proved him right.

The exit polls of voters—yes, done by a consortium of major media—revealed Michigan Democrats who chose Sanders over Clinton expressed all those views. They rejected the Democratic Party’s establishment endorsements of Clinton, coming from elected officials across the state and epitomized by Bill and Chelsea Clinton campaigning there. They rejected the establishment economics of international trade agreements, from the 1990s North American Free Trade Agreement—which shipped many manufacturing jobs to Mexico—and Clinton’s support of more recent agreements. And they rejected the media establishment’s predictions by leading pollsters, including trendsetters like fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver, who kept predicting a Clinton victory.

There was more to Sanders’ surprising win, of course. He campaigned outside the major cities—where presidential candidates almost never go and the national press usually ignores—drawing thousands to events in Traverse City and Kalamazoo. He also resonated among constituencies that have to be alarming for Clinton’s campaign: white working-class men and women, independents and most surprising of all, African Americans, whose support of Sanders was higher than in any state so far and contrasts with Clinton’s African American-led sweep of southern states, including her victory in Mississippi on Tuesday. That southern state, which has long led the nation in highest percentages of black elected officials, is cut from a very different cultural cloth than industrial Michigan where Sanders spoke to those sliding down the economic ladder.         

The differences on trade seemed to encapsulate many of these dividing lines. As Sanders told a crowd in Traverse City late last week, “If the people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America and against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.”

The exit polls found that nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters said international trade led to a loss of jobs, and those voters favored Sanders by more than 10 percent. The converse was also true, with these polls finding voters who backed free trade agreements siding with Clinton. The anti-trade sentiment was touted in Sanders’ TV ads; he spent nearly $2 million on messaging in the state, whereas Clinton’s campaign focused more on the institutional racism and abandonment of lower-income communities of color, as epitomized by the intentional lead poisoning of the water in Flint.   

Clinton won in Genesee County, home of Flint, in part by getting a majority of votes from African Americans under age 40, noted Politico.com, which suggested the Clinton campaign was leaning too heavily on African-American votes. That piece also noted that Democratic turnout was low in the Detroit area, which was probably due to another factor that also helps Sanders. Michigan is a state with open primaries, meaning voters can vote in either party’s race. As was seen in northern Virginia last week, there were some Democrats who decided to vote in the Republican primary to send stop-Donald Trump messages. That, too, was seen as a factor undermining the pro-Clinton turnout.

To put it another way, in Michigan, where 1.1 million Democrats voted and Sanders won by less than 19,000 votes, the passions and momentum apparently were higher for him than for Clinton. Michigan Democrats, by the narrowest of margins, felt the Bern.

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