Bernie Sanders is aggressively targeting key Democratic primaries in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri next week after a shock victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan revealed that concern about trade policy may be emerging as a central theme of the US presidential election.
The narrow win for Sanders in Tuesday’s primary, the first test of Rust Belt sentiment in 2016, confounded pollsters who had shown Clinton consistently ahead by an average of 21 points in 19 separate opinion surveys in the state .
Even the Vermont senator’s own campaign team appeared stunned by the result, which came down to a nail-biting finish in Detroit and remained too close to call almost all evening before Sanders ended just 1.5 percentage points ahead.
“This is a critically important night,” said Sanders in a statement issued after an earlier campaign rally in Miami, where there was barely any mention of the unfolding cliffhanger 1,300 miles away.
“Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign,” he added. “We already have won in the Midwest, New England and the Great Plains.”
“This was a huge disappointment,” said Silvia Tineo-Perez, a volunteer with the Clinton campaign at a bar in Detroit where campaign staff were watching results come in. “I can’t believe it.”
After a day spent knocking on doors, Tineo-Perez said she had noticed a gender and generational gap between Clinton and Sanders. Still, she ended the day feeling confident that Clinton would win the industrial state.
“This worries me,” Tineo-Perez said of Sanders’ win. “I was really afraid of that.”
US congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan, said the loss in the state was a setback but she was confident this didn’t disrupt Clinton’s path to the nomination.
“It’s a 50-50 delegate split,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to move on and learn from this. The people spoke. That’s where we are.”
Clinton supporters sought solace in the narrowness of the win which, due to proportionality rules in the Democratic primary, means she secured 57 of the 122 delegates on offer in Michigan but swept 29 out of 33 in Mississippi – where Sanders lost by a landslide margin of 82.6% to 16.5% earlier in the evening.
“No matter what, Hillary Clinton will add more than a dozen delegates to her 200+ lead over Sanders,” wrote her press secretary Brian Fallon as the grim news from Michigan sunk in.
Clinton has racked up her commanding 759-546 lead among these “pledged” delegates thanks to decisive wins in the mainly southern states voting so far in the primary race.
She also has the overwhelming support of party-selected “superdelegates”, who are committed to her by a margin of 461-25, but could theoretically change their endorsements.
Together this means she is already halfway to the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination outright, even though only 22 states have voted – 9 for Sanders and 13 for Clinton.
But only North Carolina remains still to vote in the region where the former secretary of state is most popular, and she has yet to secure a state outside the South by anywhere near the same margins, winning Iowa by just 0.3%, Massachusetts by 1.4% and Nevada by 5.3%.
The Sanders campaign now also has a degree of momentum after winning four of the past six states since Super Tuesday, including Kansas, Nebraska and Maine, something that may make it hard for Clinton to justify relying on her superdelegates for victory if she and Sanders are close on pledged delegates.
Despite eschewing wealthy donors who bolster Clinton’s Super Pac coffers, Sanders has also received a record-breaking 5m small donations, which gives him the money to continue campaigning all the way to the convention in Philadelphia, even if the delegate mathematics become insuperable and the campaign becomes more of a protest movement.
Yet his supporters point to exit polls in Michigan that suggest the 74-year-old “democratic socialist” is finally beginning to attract more diverse supporters. He performed twice as well among black voters in Michigan than his recent dismal showings in the south, a factor which meant Detroit could not save the state for Clinton.
A critical factor now is whether he can build on similar signs that support may be broadening among Latino voters, another huge constituency in the Democratic primary.
This was not enough to prevent Clinton taking an early important win in Nevada, but was seen as a factor in Sanders’ victory in Colorado last week and – judging at least in part by the enthusiastic welcome he received in Miami this Tuesday – may help make Florida more competitive than initially thought.
The overriding difficulty for Sanders is that to catch Clinton before July’s party convention, he has to not only beat her in most of the remaining states but win by margins of up to 20 points to compensate for all those southern losses.
Though the credibility of pollsters took a pounding on Tuesday after the Michigan surprise, all recent surveys show her ahead by huge margins in the five states voting on 15 March: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina.
To stand even a small chance of usurping Clinton for the nomination, Sanders therefore not only needs to continue winning the sort of narrow victories he achieved on Tuesday in Michigan, but he needs to pick up a new surge of momentum that can turn these upsets into the kind of landslide he saw in New Hampshire .
In Ohio, Missouri and perhaps Illinois, the hope is that this will come from voters who are warming to his uncompromising opposition to recent free trade deals and a general critique of the “rigged economy” that is seen as more authentic than Clinton’s discussion of inequality.
The importance of these issues to the 2016 electorate was confirmed on Tuesday by the strong performance of Donald Trump in the Republican nomination race, which saw him take Michigan by an 11.6-point margin.
Despite heaviest media attention on his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump’s opposition to trade appears to be a major factor for his support among working class voters.
Both Trump and Sanders have heavily criticised the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) struck by Clinton’s husband and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) brokered by Barack Obama.
Though Clinton now says she is also opposed to TPP, she was a supporter of negotiations during her time as secretary of state and is seen as generally more friendly to big business interests thanks to a history of donations and payments by Wall Street.
In Michigan, she tried to focus instead on a vote against the Wall Street bailout by Senator Sanders in 2009 which also involved some money to bail out the auto industry.
But in the state where this mattered most, voters for now seem more convinced that her opponent better represents the interests of the industrial working class.