Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) won Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary with 50.1 percent of the vote Tuesday night after an unexpected surge of voting in the state broke records and pushed him over the edge.
Sanders’ rival in the Democratic contest, Hillary Clinton, earned 48 percent of the vote. His victory comes as a surprise, as previous polls suggested a decisive victory for Clinton with a RealClearPolitics polling average showing her leading by a 21.4 point margin. This is the biggest upset since the 1984 New Hampshire primary, when Walter Mondale, who was favored to win by 17.1 percent, lost to Gary Hart.
Because Michigan’s delegates are allocated proportionally, Sanders is slated to gain 77 of the state’s 130 delegates from his victory, with the other 53 going to Clinton.
The senator did particularly well in cities like Ann Arbor where there is a large population of young, white liberals, and where turnout was unusually huge. At the University of Michigan, students appeared to be leaning toward Sanders based on student interviews outside of polling places by the Daily.
LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of the campus chapter of Students for Sanders, said Tuesday night that Sanders’s success should worry Clinton as he continues to do well in states he was predicted to lose.
“Considering where he was just nine months ago, his progress has been immense” he said. “The fact that Sanders is still standing and viable despite the heavy front-loading of states favorable towards Clinton should worry the former Secretary of State. Sanders' campaign likely still has its best days ahead of it.”
In a statement, Sanders thanked Michigan voters, referencing the poll data prior to the election that incorrectly indicated Clinton would win by significant margins.
"I am grateful to the people of Michigan for defying the pundits and pollsters and giving us their support. This is a critically imporant night," Sanders said. "Not only is Michigan the gateway to the rest of the industrial Midwest, the results there show that we are a national campaign."
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said he thought the student vote — particularly coming out of Ann Arbor — likely gave the Sanders campaign an extra push in Michigan.
“I don’t think that there is any question that there has been a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm behind Sanders lead by huge voices,” Irwin said. “I think Sanders campaign has really benefited from the momentum that student support can give him.”
However, Communications Prof. Josh Pasek noted that voter turnout numbers did not indicate a significant increase in Ann Arbor.
“These numbers are not huge, but Bernie did seem to do very well,” he said. “It doesn't suggest that we are seeing something truly overwhelming from the University itself.”
Pasek said Sanders’ success likely came from better ground organization and campaigning.
“I think it’s probably the case that the Sanders’ campaign was just better organized and did a better GOTV job in the state of Michigan,” he said. “At least compared to what we thought we would see based on the pre-election polls.”
One other state, Mississippi, held its Democratic primary alongside Michigan Tuesday, which Clinton won with close to 80 percent of the vote. With a total of 166 delegates available between the two states, Michigan was the more impactful of the two primaries because of the 130 delegates it had up for grabs. Despite the loss in Michigan, Clinton still maintains a lead in the overall delegate count.
Both candidates had a strong focus on the state in the days leading up to the election, with Clinton and Sanders both rallying in Michigan on Monday — Sanders on campus at the Crisler Center and Clinton in Detroit — where they discussed many familiar points and some Michigan-centric issues.
The primary also follows a Democratic debate in Flint on Sunday held in partnership between CNN and UM-Flint. The debate spent considerable time discussing Michigan-centric issues including the Flint water crisis and Detroit Public Schools’ crumbling infrastructure.
Following Tuesday’s primary, most of the remaining delegates will come from more moderate and diverse states where Sanders has not done as well in the past, in comparison to early voting states where much of his support has come from young white voters.
Pasek said Michigan’s primary determines whether Sanders can do well in these types of states, indicating whether he still has a competitive chance at the nomination.
“Given that dynamic, Bernie needs to come relatively close to winning — if not to win — to show that he can really show that he can take a state that isn’t the kind of state that he has been winning so far,” he said.
LSA sophomore Taiwo Dosunmu, communications director for University’s chapter of College Democrats, said before the polls closed Tuesday that the group hoped to continue Democratic momentum on campus, by encouraging students to vote by opening voter registration booths throughout the year and distributing information on polling locations.
Dosunmu added that while the group does not endorse any particular candidate, its main goal is to encourage students to vote.
“Our main goal is to have turnout be as high as possible," he said. "On a college campus turnout is essential. When students vote, Democrats are able to win.”