U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders won a heavily unexpected upset victory in Michigan’s Democratic primary Tuesday — and that victory was marked by a historic voter turnout for the state, especially among young voters.
Multiple polling places ran out of ballots as a record 2.5 million voters went to the polls or voted absentee — soundly beating a previous 1972 record of 1.9 million votes cast.
In previous primaries and caucuses, much of Sanders’ support has come largely from young, white, middle class voters, while Clinton has fared better with Black voters. In Michigan, Sanders held onto his usual demographic, earning 57 percent of the white vote and 67 percent of voters under 45 with numbers closer to 80 percent for millennials, according to CNN exit polls.
Charles Shipan, University of Michigan political science and public policy professor, said large turnout numbers were one of the main factors contributing to Sanders’ victory in Michigan.
“A huge turnout happened,” he said. “And that’s the biggest predictor of how Sanders is going to do in an election. If he can get a high youth turnout ,then he does better.”
Locally, Sanders did extremely well in Washtenaw County, where he won by an 11.7 percent margin. Voter turnout in Washtenaw was slightly higher than the state average: 39.85 percent of the voting age population in Washtenaw cast ballots, compared to 31.6 percent statewide. Turnout was also elevated in Ingham County, home of Michigan State University, at 35.91 percent.
LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of Students for Sanders, said he thought student turnout strongly aided Sanders’ victory in Michigan.
“I would definitely say that students helped Sanders' cause in Michigan,” he said. “In most states we've seen Sanders perform well in, students have been taking to the polls to make their opinion heard.”
Shipan said youth turnout is historically lower because many young people are not registered to vote. However, when they are registered in equal numbers to other age groups, turnout is approximately the same, he said.
Since the beginning of the year, several student organizations have launched large efforts to encourage registration, including the University’s chapter of College Democrats and Central Student Government, with voter registration booths across campus. On election day, the groups — both of which don’t endorse specific candidates in the primary — also distributed information on polling locations and encouraged students to go vote.
Shipan said this sort of activity would largely benefit Sanders, given the portion of the youth vote he typically earns.
“There’s no doubt that it helps,” he said. “Given that Sanders draws a lot of support from young voters, any effort in general to increase student awareness of how to vote and how to register is going to help him disproportionately.”
Another component to Sanders’ victory was his overwhelming support among independents — CNN exit polls showed him winning 71 percent of independent voters.
Michigan has an open primary system, meaning individuals can vote in a party's primary without needing to be registered with that party.
Shipan said that system likely benefitted Sanders, noting that many Democrats who would have supported Clinton may have felt confident that she would win based on the polling numbers and instead voted in the Republican primary in opposition to frontrunner Donald Trump.
In polls leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Clinton was projected to take the state by over 20 points.
“I suspect that the extent that there were Democrats who crossed over to vote in the Republican primary as an anti-Trump vote, Clinton lost more people than Sanders did,” he said. “The open primary aspect benefitted him.”
Sanders also did well among Black voters in Michigan compared to previous primaries, competing roughly at a 2:1 margin with Clinton in Michigan and decreasing leads in counties she was expected to win handily, such as Wayne County. The breakdown of voters was a significant contrast to Clinton’s win in Mississippi the same night, where she captured 89 percent of the Black vote according to exit polling.
Shipan said Sanders’ improved performance among Black voters was one factor in why the polls were wrong, with voters who were predicted to go for Clinton sticking with the senator instead.
“He didn’t do great, but he did far better than anywhere in the South,” he said. “That has previously provided (Clinton) with a huge margin of victory in states with a large Black population, but not to the same extent.”
Kolenda said he thought Sanders’ record on trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, instituted under President Bill Clinton, were a major player in his success.
Sanders has repeatedly come out against various free-trade policies, arguing that they negatively impact blue-collar workers, a demographic prevalent in the state of Michigan.
Clinton has responded to Sanders’ claims by citing her decision to vote against a trade pact while serving as senator, the only trade agreement to be put to a vote during her term.
Kolenda said these types of workers are largely impacted by Sanders’ strong stance on this issue, noting that they may have helped combat a predicted drop in young voter turnout from many college campuses being on Spring Break Tuesday.
“Blue collar workers of Michigan have not forgotten that,” he said. “This factor may also have contributed to high millennial turnout despite the fact that many campuses are on vacation this week.”
Echoing this idea, Shipan said Sanders’ message resonates with blue-collar workers in Michigan who feel that they have been slighted.
“Sanders’ message resonates more in Michigan than in some of the earlier states due to the fact that Michigan workers have the perception that they have been hurt more by trade deals in the past,” he said.
As the election cycle continues, with four more states headed to the polls or to caucus in the next week alone, the question remains whether Sanders’ performance in Michigan should be seen as a one-time occurrence, or an indication for how he will do in the remainder of the race.
Communications Studies Prof. Josh Pasek said since the Sanders campaign has a large base of small donors and remains well-funded, the senator will likely remain in the race until the convention in July.
However, Pasek said despite his ability to stay in the race and recent successes, he is likely too far behind Clinton in the delegate count to win the nomination.
Currently, Sanders has 574 delegates. Clinton has 1,222 delegates, though 461 of those are superdelegates, who pledge support independent of voter outcomes and can switch candidates at any times. 2,383 delegates are required to secure the Democratic nomination.
“The problem for Bernie is if he fares just as well as he did in Michigan for the remainder of the race, he will lose by a considerable margin,” he said. “It appears — based on Michigan — that he is improving his performance, but it is not clear if that improvement is enough that he can actually win the nomination at this point.”
Students for Hillary outreach director Anushka Sarkar, an LSA sophomore, said the group is proud of Clinton’s performance overall inprimaries as she ended the night with more delegates. Students for Hillary will continue campaigning for Clinton moving forward in the election by holding phone banks including one aimed at Ohio voters given the state’s upcoming primary.