It was a big upset for Bernie Sanders. Polls showed him down by twenty points against Hillary Clinton in Michigan. His win, delivered by Michigan voters on Tuesday night was a blow to conventional wisdom.
“I want to thank the people of Michigan who repudiated the polls which had us down 20 to 25 points and repudiated the pundits who said Bernie Sanders wasn’t going anywhere,” Sanders declared in his victory speech.
At a contentious debate in Flint, on the eve of the Michigan vote, Clinton appeared to score points against Sanders by denouncing what she characterized as his vote against President Obama’s auto industry bailout. Sanders’s response seemed a little muddled and vague, attacking the bailout for Wall Street, but not specifically responding to the auto industry charge. (In fact, Sanders supported the auto bailout as stand-alone legislation, and later voted against the giant Troubled Asset Relief bank bailout which contained auto bailout funds.)
In the end, Michigan voters did not buy Clinton’s attack.
Instead, they rejected Clinton, who supported NAFTA when Bill Clinton signed it, and who has only recently become a critic of big trade deals that have helped destroy manufacturing jobs in this country.
The win in Michigan means Sanders will split the state’s delegates with Clinton. But it also means that his message on trade policy and the failure of austerity and trickle-down economics resonated with rust belt voters, including African American voters, who handed him a victory in hard-hit Flint.
“Most I’ve ever seen CNN discuss trade,” Lee Fang of the Intercept commented on Twitter after Sanders and Donald Trump won in Michigan, thanks, in part, to their aggressive criticism of NAFTA-like trade deals. “They do virtually no reporting on trade policy, but will discuss in the context of a political race,” he added.
The dynamics of the 2016 presidential race are forcing a lot of issues that establishment candidates in both parties would rather ignore. Insisting on attention to trade deals that cost American jobs, high-dollar campaign fundraising, Wall Street regulation, and other issues where the two major parties have long agreed to agree, voters continue to make things uncomfortable this year.
For now, Sanders is back in the game. Clinton is still far ahead in numbers of delegates, but those include super delegates who could conceivably change their minds. More than half the states have yet to vote—and in none of them does the winner take all the delegates.
Michigan changes the momentum of the race. There are big states yet to come where the Sanders campaign expects to do well, amassing more delegates in California, New York, and a couple more key Midwestern states, Illinois and Ohio.
And Michigan changes something else: Sanders seemed to finally connect his message on jobs, trade, and a fair economy with the specific concerns of African American working people—something he badly needed to do, and had fumbled in the South, and at the Democratic debate in Milwaukee—where unfair trade policy has devastated the black middle class.
The Democratic primary will go on into the summer. And the “political revolution” Sanders declared will not easily fade away.