How Bernie Sanders Pulled Off the Biggest Political Upset in 32 Years — and What It Means

America may yet elect its first Jewish president next fall. That’s the bottom line from Tuesday’s primaries, thanks to the Democratic voters in Michigan.

True, Bernie Sanders remains a distinct long shot for his party’s presidential nod. But while a Sanders nomination is still unlikely, that’s a yuuuge step up from near-impossible, which is where he stood before the polls opened on Tuesday morning.

It’s not just that Sanders outperformed all the advance polling. Primary-eve polls had shown Hillary Clinton winning Michigan by anywhere from 13 points to 25 points. Instead, he won by 2 points — beating the predictions by double digits. The margin of the victory was enough for Nate Silver’s blog to call it “one of the greatest upsets in modern political history.” The last primary result that defied polls on this scale was the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1984, the blog reported.

Sanders’ 2-point win over Clinton was slim, but as Clinton’s allies had said after her narrow Iowa win on February 1, a win is a win. Sanders notched a victory in a major, Democratic-leaning state where he was expected to lose badly. If nothing else, it shifted the momentum of the race psychologically, at least for now, improving his chances for the next round. And boosting fundraising.

More important in the coming days, the Michigan result showed that Sanders’ appeal can extend beyond the small, rural and largely white states he’s carried so far, such as New Hampshire, Maine and Kansas. That was the pundits’ biggest indictment against him up to now. He was a boutique candidate. Now he’s a contender.

Michigan was the opening contest in the populous, industrialized states of the Midwest and Northeast where Democrats have their base. If Sanders’ poll-defying upset was something more than a fluke — which it may prove to be — then he stands a chance of carrying Ohio and Illinois next week and perhaps becoming competitive in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and similar big-ticket races in the weeks ahead.

The ultimate test, of course, is convention delegates. And here, realistically, Sanders still faces a Sisyphean challenge. Clinton’s primary victories to date have netted her far more delegates than he’s won. Even in Tuesday’s voting, where he won Michigan and she won the smaller state of Mississippi, she ended the day winning more delegates than he did. That’s because Democratic primaries award delegates in proportion to each candidate’s share of the state’s votes. Thus Clinton’s lopsided blowouts in the South, where Democratic voters are overwhelmingly black, have netted her more delegates than Sanders has garnered from his narrower victories in the North.

Together with her vast advantage in superdelegates — those Democratic Party leaders who get to decide on their own whom to support — Clinton now holds a daunting lead of 1,192 delegates to Sanders’ 545.. Sanders will need to start winning big in the remaining states, not only to catch up in pledged or primary-elected delegates but also to woo away Clinton-leaning superdelegates by convincing them that he’s the winner. It is indeed a long shot.

If Michigan narrowed Sanders’ odds, that’s partly due to several factors that are only now becoming evident. For one thing, the front-loading this year of Southern states, along with smaller, rural states in the North, had the effect of exaggerating Clinton’s advantage by inflating the importance of her lead among African American voters. Now that the South has voted, the rest of the race will play out in the Northeast, Midwest and West where blacks are a smaller percentage of the population.

What’s more, Sanders managed in Michigan to cut into Clinton’s advantage among African Americans, if only slightly, winning close to one-third, in contrast to the 10% to 20% he’d won among blacks in the South. His share among young black voters under 30 was close to 50%. That may be due to the demographics of blacks in the North, more urban and more liberal than in the South. Still, he’ll need to accelerate his inroads among minorities if he hopes to be truly competitive.

Another factor that’s just becoming apparent is the extent of the racial division between Clinton’s and Sanders’ support. It had been clear from the start that Clinton held a strong advantage among African American voters. It’s only now becoming clear that Sanders holds an advantage among white voters. His edge is slimmer than Clinton’s, but it’s fairly consistent.

One more oddity now coming into view is the unexpectedly slim advantage conveyed by competence, which is Clinton’s strong point. Her head-to-head performance against Sanders in debates has made starkly clear how much greater fluency she displays in a range of foreign and even domestic policy issues. Sanders is stirring on his signature issue of economic inequality. But when he’s asked to step beyond that theme, he’s hesitant, sometimes even petulant, almost as though he doesn’t even want to understand the world beyond his pet passions. Everything comes down to Wall Street and the billionaire class.

Sanders argues that his judgment at key moments, from trade treaties to the Iraq war, is more important than Clinton’s managerial experience. Watching the two of them grapple with concrete policy questions, though, it seems clear that she’s more prepared to step into the office.

The surprise that’s emerging as voters weigh in is that Clinton’s readiness for the job isn’t helping her much. Her main electoral advantage has been among the Democrats’ minority voting base. And whenever pundits, community representatives or voters themselves are asked to explain Clinton’s popularity in her key constituencies, it’s always — always — put in terms of familiarity with and loyalty to the Clinton brand. Her other main constituency, women over 45, isn’t much different, rhetoric notwithstanding. Her base loyalists are with her because of who she is. What she knows doesn’t seem to impress voters beyond that base. Sanders is gaining on her because those who can be swayed are moved by his economic promises and his odd, anti-charismatic charisma.

His momentum may not suffice to snatch the nomination from her by July. But it does lay bare her weakness as a campaigner — and her vulnerability to the viciously demagogic magnetism of Donald Trump. He’s wily, ruthless and utterly unpredictable. She’s predictable and scripted. He’s entertaining. She’s not.

Polls show her besting him in November. But as Michigan reminded us, polls can be very wrong.

Even if Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination, it’s not at all clear whether his appeal among white working-class voters is sufficient to cut into the Republicans’ decades-old advantage among white voters in general. That would be the key to the outcome in the event that the two aging New Yorkers, Brooklyn-born Sanders and Queens-born Trump, end up facing each other in November.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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