Hillary Clinton's narrow, surprise loss in Michigan on Tuesday shouldn't stop her march to the nomination, but it offers clear warning signs about her possible weaknesses in the Midwestern states up next on the primary calendar.
Clinton was counting on her attacks on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders over whether he supported the auto bailout to buoy her in Detroit's backyard, and she had made the Flint water crisis a cause celebre to connect with the state's African-American voters.
Those arguments should have helped her there, as they should help her in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri on March 15. Sanders’ ability to counter them with backing from young and white working-class voters gives Clinton's camp reason to worry, especially since Michigan polls had shown her with a sizable lead.
“We came from 30 points down in Michigan and we’re seeing the same kind of come-from-behind momentum all across America,” Sanders said in a statement. “Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign.”
Clinton lost Michigan by less than 2 points with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Clinton's overwhelming win in Mississippi will help her maintain a wide lead in the delegate count.
“While we obviously would have liked to win both contests, the combined result moved us closer to securing the nomination,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters on Wednesday. He rejected the notion that Clinton’s auto attacks backfired and said the campaign will “continue to talk about it.”
Public polling showed Clinton with a 20-point lead over Sanders, though her aides began cautioning last week that internal polling showed a much tighter race and her schedule suggested that her team was feeling the pressure. “We always told you all that the polls were a lot closer” than public numbers suggested, communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters as the initial results showed a tight margin.
Sanders and his team had insisted that a win was possible, and he leaned hard on his opposition to trade deals and Clinton’s past support of them.
In Michigan, Sanders benefited from an open primary in which seven in 10 independents voted for him, according to exit polls. They made up 28 percent of voters. Clinton had a 57 percent to 41 percent edge over Sanders among the Democrats who made up 69 percent of those who voted.
Those numbers may not bode well for Clinton next Tuesday, when Ohio and Missouri hold open primaries, and Illinois and North Carolina allow voters to request Democratic ballots on primary day. Only Florida, with 246 delegates to the Democratic convention—the most to be awarded from a single state since the start of primary season—has a closed primary, and Clinton appears poised to win there.
Clinton visited Flint, Michigan, amid its water crisis just before the New Hampshire primary at the invitation of the city’s mayor, Karen Weaver. The mayor later endorsed the former secretary of state, but Clinton didn’t return to the state again until last week. She spoke Friday on corporate taxes and trade from the factory floor at auto parts maker Detroit Manufacturing Systems, and spent the weekend and Monday in the state, including signing on at the last moment for a town hall appearance on Fox News Channel.
Sanders, meanwhile, made several trips to Michigan in the past few weeks, spreading his populist message of reducing income inequality and promoting universal healthcare and free college tuition beyond Detroit proper at large rallies in Ypsilanti, East Lansing, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, Dearborn, and Ann Arbor. He also held a community meeting in Flint late last month to discuss the city's water crisis.
Speaking after Clinton gave her primary-night speech in Cleveland and before it was clear where the final balance would lie, Palmieri said that the makeup of the electorate gave Sanders an edge. “Demographically Michigan looks a lot like states that Senator Sanders does well in,” she said. Exit polls showed that 68 percent of those who voted in the primary are white, and that they went for Sanders 57 percent to 42 percent. “That’s always coming in at a disadvantage for us in the primary.”
Both campaigns say they’re on a strong path toward the March 15 primaries and beyond.
“We feel going forward she’s got a great economic message to sell in Ohio and Illinois,” Palmieri said, and Clinton is doing well in North Carolina and Florida.
Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver sees his candidate’s strength coming after next week. “After March 15, in particular, it gets incredibly strong for us, and I think what you’ve seen now is people said, ‘Bernie Sanders can’t win in a large industrial state’ or ‘a large diverse state,’ and you know what, it’s just not true,” he said.
While exit polls showed Clinton won the African-American vote in Michigan, Sanders did much better Tuesday with those voters than he had in states across the south, earning 30 percent support.
—With assistance from Arit John and Margaret Talev.