The Democratic primary in Michigan is still too close to call as of 10 p.m. EST after Sen. Bernie Sanders made a final push to slow Hillary Clinton’s momentum in a state that both campaigns considered the gateway to the next, and probably decisive, phase of the campaign.
Meanwhile in Mississippi, Clinton had always been favored, and Sanders did not seriously contest that race, which Clinton was projected to win easily when polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern. As in a swath of Southern states she won handily last week, Clinton’s victory in Mississippi was due to her strength among African American voters – who turned out in numbers unmatched in other states that have voted this year, according to preliminary exit polling reported by ABC News.
Clinton has now won 13 states in this Democratic primary contest, including eight from the old Confederacy, where black voters are a major force in any Democratic race. Sanders has won eight states but – because his victories were in smaller states, and because Clinton has dominated among superdelegates, who make up their own minds – he is far behind in the race for delegates to the Democratic convention.
Michigan was the prize Tuesday, with 130 delegates at stake and bragging rights to a big, diverse state outside either candidate’s previous areas of strength.
On the eve of the primary, Clinton urged her supporters to vote so that she could quickly wrap up the Democratic nomination.
“The sooner I can become your nominee, the more I can begin to turn my attention to the Republicans,” she told a crowd of nearly 900 in Detroit.
As voters went to the polls, Clinton spent Tuesday morning campaigning at a local shop in Detroit, Avalon International Breads. In what has become an Election Day ritual, she ordered espresso and pastries, posed for dozens of selfies, and urged patrons to support her.
She moved on to next-door Ohio – which will vote next Tuesday – for a primary night party as results in Michigan came in.
Sanders aides in recent weeks had played up Michigan as a key place the campaign could win, calling it a “showdown state” and a bellwether for upcoming contests in industrial Midwestern states.
He campaigned hard in Michigan, holding large rallies across the state over the past week and hammering Clinton for what he called her record of failure on trade and job protection – an appealing message in a state that has lost manufacturing jobs.
“While others waffle, Bernie is fighting hundreds of thousands in new job losses,” said the narrator of a Sanders television ad in heavy rotation in the state.
“We hope that there is a higher voter turnout here in Michigan,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday as he left the state for Florida. “From what I’m hearing, turnout seems to be pretty good. We have a history of doing very, very well when voter turnout is high, when working people come out in large numbers, when young people come out in large numbers.”
Clinton focused on turning out African American voters, who, while not a majority of the Democratic electorate in Michigan, are a reliable and concentrated constituency. She has championed the residents of majority-black Flint, beset by a lead-poisoning crisis. She secured the endorsement of the city’s mayor and made her response to the lead crisis a major part of her outreach to African Americans.
Sanders’s aides readily acknowledge that he has to start winning some big states to have any chance of catching Clinton in the delegate count. The candidate left Michigan early Tuesday afternoon and headed to Miami, where he held an evening rally. He plans to actively campaign in Florida, which has a key primary next week, though aides concede that it will be a tough fight, in part because of demographics. The state has a large elderly population, which has been a Clinton strength.
Sanders, by contrast, has done far better with younger voters.
Sanders aides said he is also targeting other states that will vote next Tuesday: Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
Clinton’s advisers had sought to raise expectations for Sanders in Michigan, where he was believed to have an advantage among the working-class, whiter Democratic electorate. Her advisers said they were confident she would win, but they were reluctant to look too complacent.
Campaign manager Robby Mook sent out a fundraising plea Tuesday that suggested she could lose one of the day’s contests. “It’s absolutely critical that we pick up the momentum we need to take the last of March’s big contests,” the pitch read.
“In just one week, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri will vote, with 691 pledged delegates at stake – that’s almost as many as Super Tuesday. If we can bring home a substantial portion of those delegates, we can make a decisive statement that Hillary will be our party’s nominee,” Mook wrote.
“But if Bernie narrows our lead too much, this primary could drag on for months, siphoning time and money away from the work we need to start right now to win in November.”
Because of his online fundraising prowess, Sanders’s aides have argued that he has the luxury of more time than would otherwise be the case, given his deficit in the delegate chase.
Many candidates drop out of presidential races because they run out of money. Sanders doesn’t face that danger anytime soon.
In the closing days of the Michigan contest, Sanders found himself largely playing defense, seeking to push back against a charge made by Clinton in Sunday’s CNN debate in Flint that he opposed funding an auto bailout important to Michigan voters.
Sanders debuted a one-minute radio ad Monday accusing Clinton of “trying to distort the truth about Bernie’s record” and saying the senator from Vermont “has always been on the side of Michigan workers and working families.”
Sanders made the same argument during a series of rallies Monday in Michigan, telling an Ann Arbor crowd of more than 5,700 that “of course I voted to defend the automobile industry.”
During the debate Sunday, Clinton said that there was “a pretty big difference” between the two candidates on a $14 billion auto rescue package that was of particular interest to voters in Michigan, as well as in Ohio, which holds its primary next week.
“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said during the debate. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry.”
Left unmentioned was a 2008 Sanders vote in favor of an auto bailout. The vote that Clinton referenced was on 2009 legislation to release money for a Wall Street bailout, some of which was used to help auto manufacturers.
“I was very disappointed the other night in the debate, when Secretary Clinton suggested I was not supportive of the automobile bailout,” Sanders said Tuesday as he left Michigan. “That is absolutely untrue. Of course I supported those workers. It’s unfortunate that Secretary Clinton tried to imply otherwise.”
Sanders said a win in Michigan would be “significant” and provide momentum, but he reiterated his plans to continue running for the nomination regardless of the outcome.
“There are 50 states in the country,” he said. “Every state is important.”
Michigan “is a very significant state for me and for Secretary Clinton,” Sanders said. “But let me also remind everybody, sometimes we forget it, that these states are not winner-take-all states.”
Sanders and his aides have argued that the back end of the primary calendar is more favorable to them.
“We think we’re really strong out on the West Coast – in California, Oregon, state of Washington,” Sanders said. “We have a good shot at New York state. We think we have a clear path toward victory.”
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Abby Phillip, John Wagner, Anne Gearan