Vermont senator had trailed in polls by more than 20 points but opposition to free trade and growing African American support won votes in rust-belt state
Bernie Sanders pulled off his biggest win of the Democratic presidential race on Tuesday, defeating Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary on a night which also confirmed strong anti-establishment support for Donald Trump in the battle for the Republican nomination.
In an industrial state hit hard by the decline of manufacturing, the Vermont senator’s consistent opposition to free trade deals appears to have been a decisive factor, but he also showed signs of weakening Clinton’s dominance among African American voters.
The shock victory – by a margin of around 3 percentage points when his win was first projected by Associated Press – comes despite Sanders trailing the former secretary of state by an average of 21 points in recent opinion polling.
“What tonight means it that the Bernie Sanders campaign, the people’s revolution that we are talking about, is strong in every part of the country and frankly we believe that our strongest areas are yet to happen,” said the senator at a hastily arranged press conference in Miami.
“I want to thank the people of Michigan who repudiated the polls which had us down 20-25 points and repudiated the pundits who said Bernie Sanders wasn’t going anywhere,” he added.
With 130 delegates, Michigan was the second-largest prize of the election so far, but the proportional system used throughout the presidential primary by Democrats means Clinton will still end the night ahead thanks to a decisive win in Mississippi.
Her 83-16 point victory there, bolstered by overwhelming support among African American voters, was widely expected and matched similar wipe-outs for Sanders elsewhere in the south. Exit polls showed that 89% of black voters in Mississippi’s Democratic primary supported Clinton and made up 69% of the electorate.
Yet Sanders’ success in Michigan was helped by the fact he significantly improved his performance with African American voters. While Sanders had struggled in the south to get above 15% of the vote with black people, exit polls in Michigan showed the Vermont senator winning 30% of the African American vote. In an electorate that was a quarter African American, the improvement in Sanders’ margin was enough to make the race unexpectedly competitive for him.
The question now is whether Sanders can build on recent momentum to make the national race competitive again.
Before Tuesday’s elections, Clinton was ahead of Sanders by 673-477 pledged delegates and – with the vast majority of super delegates too – was nearly halfway to securing the 2,383 needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.
But she has yet to win a state in the north by a convincing margin – squeaking wins in Iowa and Massachusetts by only a few thousand voters – and Sanders won three of the latest four states voting over the weekend.
Crucially, several big battlegrounds next week share a similar demographic profile with Michigan, including Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, which vote on Tuesday 15 March.
But first, the two candidates are expected to clash again on the economy at a televised debate in Miami on Wednesday night.
Tempers frayed at the last debate in Flint, Michigan, at the weekend, when Clinton accused Sanders of voting against the auto industry bail-out – a charge he vehemently denies and that appears not to have swayed voters at the centre of the US car industry.
As final votes were being tallied on Tuesday night, it appeared Clinton was ahead in Detroit itself, but tied in Flint, where the two also clashed over who was doing more to help the city with its recent water crisis.
At a party for Clinton supporters in Detroit, many were shocked as results began to flood in – especially as just a day earlier their candidate had effectively called on Sanders to drop out and “end the primary”.
“I’m on the edge of my seat,” said US representative Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a Clinton supporter. “We worked so hard for this.”
Some supporters wandered out of the bar about 10pm, confident that she would pull off a victory.
“We got this,” one woman shouted back at me as she left the bar. She patted the man next to her on the shoulder. “We’re going to win this.”
But Mike Newbecker, a field engineer and business owner based in Newport, Michigan, wasn’t as confident. “You can’t take any state for granted,” he said.
In his view, a loss in Michigan wouldn’t dent Clinton’s prospects but it could energise Sanders supporters and push the Democratic primary into the summer.
“He’s a good guy. I like his message, and we’re going to need his help in the general,” he said.