The Secret to Sanders’s Shocking Michigan Victory: Breaking the Demographic Mold

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Photo: PEDRO PORTAL/2016 MCT

We’ll all be sorting through the results tomorrow, but for tonight, it seems Bernie Sanders’s upset win in the Michigan Democratic primary can mainly be explained by two numbers in the exit polls. The first is 21 percent: the percentage of voters under the age of 30. (For comparison, when Georgia voted on Super Tuesday, 14 percent of voters were under 30.) Bernie won 81 percent of young Michigan voters. His campus-outreach effort was truly epic.

The other number is 65 percent: Hillary Clinton’s percentage of the African-American vote. That is by far her worst performance (other than in Sanders’s home state of Vermont) in that demographic. She needed to do far better there, as black voters constituted only 23 percent of the primary electorate in Michigan, significantly less than in the Southern states she swept on Super Tuesday. 

Going into this primary day, I speculated that Michigan might test whether the Democratic contest would be almost entirely about demographics — like the 2008 Obama/Clinton battle — or might be reshaped by ideological and policy differences. Clinton and Sanders did a lot to differentiate themselves from each other in their last debate, and in their Michigan messaging.

However, I would not be so quick to assume, as a lot of the pundits are doing tonight, that Sanders’s emphasis on Clinton’s support for trade agreements and/or labor anger at her mischaracterization of Sanders’s position on the auto-industry bailout gave him some sort of white working-class bonanza. Clinton actually won non-college-educated voters in Michigan, the state just wasn’t as demographically charmed for her as was generally thought. Still, that’s concerning for Clinton. I suspect the same will prove true in Ohio and Illinois, where the Democrats will face off next week.