Michigan Breakthrough Shows Rust Belt Bern Could Lift Sanders

The final tally had Sanders with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared with Clinton's 48.3 percent. (Photo: BernieSanders.com)

Michigan Breakthrough Shows Rust Belt Bern Could Lift Sanders

Sanders' message of economic populism transcended demographics in Michigan

As pollsters, pundits, and the Hillary Clinton campaign continue to reel from Bernie Sanders' stunning upset in Michigan on Tuesday, observers are now breaking down what went right for the once-longshot candidate and what it could mean moving forward in the Democratic primary.

Sanders' presidential campaign has been defined by his focus on economic populism, which has been ridiculed by Clinton for being "single issue." However, in a state like Michigan, that has been hit particularly hard by economic recession, the Vermont senator's steadfast messaging--which includes a critique of corporate power, Wall Street, and trade deals that have crippled the nation's working class--was arguably his greatest asset.

International Business Times (IBT) senior editor David Sirota, reporting on Michigan exit polling, notes that "58 percent of those who voted in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary said that trade with other countries takes away American jobs--and of those, 58 percent voted for Sanders." The final tally had Sanders with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared with Clinton's 48.3 percent.

During Sunday night's Democratic debate, both candidates seemed to recognize that the failure of international trade agreements would be a significant issue for Michigan voters. Sanders highlighted the fact that Clinton had historically supported pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and was late to come out against the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), saying that he's "very glad" that Clinton had finally "discovered religion on this issue."

The former Secretary of State's turnaround, however, did not appear to convince voters in Michigan. As Sirota quipped late Tuesday:

"Those are trade positions Sanders has long held," wrote the Guardian's Lucia Graves, "and Clinton's slowness to adopt them gave him another chance to paint her as politically opportunistic. Clinton thought she had finessed the trade issue, by focusing on other problems in Michigan, like Flint's lead-poisoned water, and by skewering Sanders over his vote against the auto bailout (his campaign said it was part of a bigger vote against a bailout for Wall Street). But clearly she hadn't."

What's more, in Michigan, those priorities transcended demographics. As Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, notes:

Clinton won African-American voters again, but by much lower margins than she enjoyed in the South, with Sanders faring well among younger African-Americans. Sanders won the young vote once more by commanding margin--81 percent to 18 percent for voters under 29, won independents 71 percent to 28 percent and won white voters 57 percent to 41 percent (white men by virtually two to one). The gender gap was less in evidence. Sanders won unmarried women and men, married men while losing married women.

"After all the weeks of commentary about Bernie Sanders' problem with black voters," Borosage continued, "the spotlight after Michigan will turn to Hillary Clinton's problem with white male voters, young voters and independents."

Another notable takeaway from Tuesday evening was Sanders' popularity among Michigan's sizable Muslim population. The Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which has a population that is 40 percent Arab, voted for Sanders 59 to 39 percent over Clinton.

And while network pundits couldn't fathom that the Muslim community would back a Jewish candidate for president, as Khaled Beydoun, an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law, wrote on Twitter that "standing against Islamophobia resonated strongly with Muslim American voters in Michigan primary."

"Indeed," wrote IBT reporter Ismat Sarah Mangla, "the Sanders campaign has focused on courting the Arab population in Dearborn, especially in the last week. He met with Arab-American leaders in the city, released an Arab-language radio ad in the Dearborn market, and reiterated at a Dearborn campaign rally that 'we're going to end bigotry in this country once and for all.' It's hardly a new theme in Sanders' campaign--he has spoken out against anti-Muslim rhetoric for months, likening such prejudice to the conditions his Jewish parents faced preceding the Holocaust."

And as The Intercept's Zaid Jilani noted, "Team Intersectional Hillary" did not make similar efforts to reach out to the Muslim community.

Sanders supporters are hopeful that his campaign will achieve similar resonance going forward. "[S]ome of the states that have been hardest hit by trade-related job losses include Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin," wrote Borosage, who noted that those "delegate-rich states," are scheduled to soon hold primaries that "could tip" the Democratic contest.

Illinois and Ohio are holding primaries on March 15th, along with Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina. Wisconsin votes on April 5th and Indiana voters head to the polls on May 3rd.

"In narrowly winning the first big industrial state to vote, Sanders demonstrated that his economic message reverberates in the Rust Belt and, for the first time, proved he could win in a racially diverse state," wrotePolitico's Annie Karni.

Or as Sanders himself said following Tuesday's win: "Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign. We already have won in the Midwest, New England, and the Great Plains and as more people get to know more about who we are and what our views are we're going to do very well."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.