MIAMI — Bernie Sanders came here instead of giving a speech in Michigan, where public polling showed him down double-digits heading into primary voting Tuesday night.
Maybe he should have stuck around. Sanders won Michigan, a narrow but stunning victory that gives his campaign a new burst of energy in the Midwest — and shows it can beat the Clinton machine in a big state.
The Sanders campaign was prepared to call a narrow loss in Michigan a win, just as it did after the disappointments in Nevada and Massachusetts, two states where aides thought they would do better than they did. In the days leading up to the primary in Michigan, Sanders was lowering expectations as fast as he could, telling reporters he’d do his best but steering clear of the bombastic “momentum” language he used before Nevada, where he came up short in the caucuses.
The Clinton campaign, which public polling showed had double-digit leads for weeks, also tried to lower expectations. In the days leading up to voting in Michigan, aides told reporters things were much tighter for Clinton than public polling showed.
After Sanders underperformed on Super Tuesday — a performance that followed his shockingly poor showing in South Carolina — his top advisers gathered reporters at his Burlington, Vermont, headquarters to explain why Bernie would carry on despite losing Massachusetts. That state was one of five the campaign had targeted for the 11-state Super Tuesday. Sanders won four, but the Massachusetts loss was seen as particularly gutting given Sanders’ proximity to the state geographically as well as his campaign message, which hews closely to that of the state’s popular senator, Elizabeth Warren.
Reason number one, said top Sanders adviser Tad Devine: There was a path through Michigan. A win in the state would tee up momentum that put states like California and New York in play down the road, he said.
Sanders’ trouble with black voters was worse than expected in South Carolina and the rest of the Super Tuesday states. He and his aides said his performance among black voters would improve outside of the Deep South, where Clinton is well known and Sanders is not. Exit polls showed Sanders won 30% of black voters in Michigan — not a high total, but a dramatic improvement on states like South Carolina.
Sanders still lags far behind Clinton in delegates, and on Tuesday, he likely actually garnered fewer than Clinton — who won big in the smaller state of Mississippi.
But the campaign was quick to call Michigan a game-changer. The Deep South has no more primaries, they note, teeing up a map where they say they can compete. But Clinton still has a large lead in delegates, and a playbook that shows she can do well even in large states that appeared tailormade for a Bernie victory.