The question in Tuesday's Michigan Democratic primary was not whether Hillary Clinton could beat anybody.
The question was whether Clinton could beat nobody.
As the only leading Democratic contender to keep her name on the ballot after Michigan officials moved their primary ahead of the opening date scheduled by the Democratic National Committee, Clinton was perfectly positioned. She had no serious opposition. She also had the strong support of top Michigan Democrats such as Governor Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.
Usually, a prominent presidential contender running a primary campaign without serious opposition and with strong in-state support from party leaders can count on winning 90 percent or more of the vote. That's how it went for George Bush when he was running without serious opposition in Republican primaries in 2004, and for Bill Clinton when he was essentially unopposed in the Democratic primaries in 1996.
But Hillary Clinton got nowhere near 90 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Michigan primary.
With most of the ballots counted, the New York senator was winning uninspiring 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
A remarkable 40 percent of Michiganders who participated in the primary voted for nobody, marking the "Uncommitted" option on their ballots. Another 4 percent backed Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who brought his anti-war, anti-corporate campaign to Michigan and made some inroads among Muslim voters in the Detroit area and liberals in Washtenaw County -- where he was taking almost 10 percent.
But "Uncommitted" was Clinton's most serious challenger in Michigan.
"Uncommitted" was actually beating Clinton in some counties and holding her below 50 percent in others, including Detroit's Wayne County.
Ominously for the Clinton camp, the former First Lady was losing the African-American vote -- in Wayne County and statewide -- to "Uncommitted." African-American leaders such as Detroit Congressman John Conyers, who backs Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, had urged an "Uncommitted" vote. And the message seemed to connect. Exits polls showed "Uncommitted" winning by a 70-26 margin among African-Americans. (Had Michigan voters been allowed to choose between all the serious contenders for the Democratic nod, CNN's exit poll found, Obama would have won the African-American vote by a 73-22 margin over Clinton.)
"Uncommitted" also beat Clinton among independent voters who participated in the Democratic primary, and among young voters.
The message from Michigan, suggests veteran Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson, is that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee she'll "have a real challenge building an electoral coalition that can win in November."
"(A) Democrat won't win without carrying a significant slice of the African-American vote or reaching out to independents," explained Henderson.
It is hard to argue with that assessment.
It is harder still to believe that Clinton will get very far claiming Michigan handed her a meaningful victory Tuesday night. When two out of every five voters choose nobody rather than a prominent candidate who is running with little or no opposition, that candidate's got no reason to celebrate.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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