If a surprise loss to Bernie Sanders in Michigan wasn’t embarrassing enough, Hillary Clinton woke up Wednesday to a bigger problem: The Vermont senator now has a victorious strategy to utilize in two important Midwestern industrial states that vote next week.
The battle for Ohio and Illinois, both of which vote March 15, along with Florida, North Carolina and Missouri, can be expected to follow the template of Michigan. Sanders almost certainly will stress that Clinton’s 1990s views on trade, welfare and other issues have grievously harmed Americans, particularly in an area of the country troubled by vanishing manufacturing jobs.
In Michigan, his emphasis on those issues appears to have helped loosen Clinton’s hold on African American voters, particularly younger ones. At the same time, Sanders boosted his standing among the blue-collar, white voters who were Clinton’s strength in her first run for the presidency in 2008.
The Sanders win in Michigan overshadowed Clinton’s easy victory in Mississippi. Clinton may still emerge with more delegates in Tuesday contests than Sanders because of the size of her Southern win and the party’s proportional delegate allocation. But it was Michigan on which the candidates had focused resources and presence, and Michigan that defined the night in the worst of ways for Clinton.
The Democratic results upended the image of the presidential races. After weeks of unexpected gyrations, the Republican contest took steps toward predictability. Donald Trump won both Mississippi and Michigan, going away.
As the night wore on, Trump called for GOP unity, centered around him as the most likely nominee, and said that the money his opponents and unfriendly super PACs are using to level attacks at him was wasted.
"We should use that money to fight Hillary and the Democrats," he said.
Meantime, the Democratic race, which had seemed headed toward a preordained end, suddenly took a turn toward the unexpected.
Clinton had talked this week about unifying Democrats behind her candidacy, arguing that the sooner that happened the better. Tuesday night was a sobering reminder that such talk is premature, even if Clinton continues to be a more probable nominee than Sanders.
Sanders, for whom Michigan had loomed as a must-win, said again Tuesday that he will fight to the end, and he has the money and volunteers to do so.
"What tonight means is the Bernie Sanders campaign, the people’s revolution ... that we are talking about, the political revolution we are talking about, is strong in every part of the country, and frankly we believe our strongest areas are yet to happen," he said. He then reiterated his campaign message, specifically calling out "people in Michigan, people in Ohio, people in Illinois."
Clinton’s standing in Michigan, exit polls showed, was buoyed by strong support among black voters, who have lifted the former secretary of State to victories in South Carolina and other Southern states. But her numbers in Michigan slumped from the heights seen in those earlier contests.
She won 8 in 10 black voters in her recent Virginia victory. In Michigan, which has a similar percentage of African American voters, she won only two-thirds.
In Virginia, Clinton won 3 in 5 voters without college degrees; in Michigan she and Sanders split that group.
Demographically, Ohio looms as the most immediate problem for Clinton because it has a lower percentage of black voters than Michigan. By contrast, Illinois has a higher concentration of African American voters, which gives her an advantage. But both states have suffered some of the same underlying economic difficulties as Michigan.
That means a Michigan reprise with a more invigorated Sanders and a more chastened Clinton. Along with a host of other criticisms, Sanders over the last week accused Clinton of flipping her position on trade for political expedience. If she becomes president, she will change back to a pro-trade position on the Trans Pacific Partnership and other deals, he predicted.
His talk about trade clearly found a receptive audience. About 3 in 5 Michigan Democrats said in exit polls they thought trade had cost Americans jobs, and Sanders easily won those voters.
Clinton’s last big pitch — first delivered in Sunday night’s debate — accused Sanders of abandoning auto workers by voting against a giant bailout bill in the depth of the Great Recession that included money for the struggling car industry. (Sanders did vote for a measure that would have bailed out the industry, but refused to sign onto the more expansive deal that also gave money to Wall Street.)
But that argument either boomeranged against Clinton or proved insufficient to blunt Sanders’ surge, which may make its use in the coming states problematic.
In the Republican race, Trump did Tuesday what he did last week — win wildly different states by swamping margins, victories that call into question the usefulness of efforts by establishment Republican to trip him en route to the GOP nomination.
Last week Trump won conservative Alabama and moderate Massachusetts. This week he won evangelical Mississippi and more secular Michigan.
What both states had in common was Republican anger: In Mississippi, more than 4 in 10 Republican voters described themselves as angry at how the government was working, and another 4 in 10 called themselves dissatisfied with the country.
In Michigan, 3 in 10 Republicans said they were angry, and more than half said they were dissatisfied. Together, almost 9 in 10 GOP voters in both states were disgruntled.
Those sentiments unleashed a huge desire for change that found its vehicle in Trump, who will now try to defeat Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on their home turf. Twin victories for Trump next week would come close to clinching the nomination for him.
Democratic voters were less disturbed than Republicans. Fewer than 2 in 10 Michigan Democrats said they were angry, and another 5 in 10 said they were dissatisfied. That was enough, however, to upend public surveys that found Clinton easily winning the state, and to deliver to her and her campaign an epic repudiation.
What she does in the next week will determine whether Sanders’ Michigan win was a fluke or yet another sign of a front-runner weakened.
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