This column appeared in Dome Magazine.
Bernie Sanders managed to steal the spotlight from Donald Trump last week -- and not just in “Saturday Night Live” skits.
Sanders began drawing screaming crowds last year, not unlike Trump (though without the violence), but his rallies have barely been a blip in TV coverage. In contrast, Trump’s events have been regularly carried live on cable news, which already awarded him wildly disproportionate coverage for his stunts of the week (insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly, refusing to debate, savaging “Little Marco” Rubio, etc.).
But Michigan changed all that -- at least for a night. Sanders’ stunning, poll-defying win in the Democratic primary grabbed all the headlines on March 8, handing Trump the unfamiliar status of second billing.
Every Michigan poll had foretold a Hillary Clinton win -- and most by double-digits. In fact, the last poll of the Michigan primary, released by Mitchell Research, showed Clinton with a bone-crushing 37-point lead.
Most reporters were expecting an 8 p.m. call on the Dem side (9 p.m. if news outlets bothered to wait for polls to close in the Western U.P.).
But that’s the funny thing about elections. The people still get to vote -- and they have a way of surprising you.
Sanders jumped out to an early lead that evening, impressing national observers. Cynical Michiganders like myself kept waiting for the tide to turn, as cities like Flint and Detroit have a tendency to dump their results at the end.
But while the state enjoyed record turnout, voting was actually down in the Clinton stronghold of Wayne County. So Sanders hung on, winning by 18,051 votes, according to unofficial returns. (Fun fact: 20,092 Democrats voted “uncommitted,” which exceeded Sanders’ margin).
It was an epic upset, made sweeter by the fact that Sanders had defied all the polls and pundits (including me).
Trump won, too -- and by an impressive 12-point margin in a four-way field. But that was remarkably similar to Trump’s polling average, so the results were instantly overshadowed by the Democratic race.
Ironically, Trump actually deserved more attention than Sanders that night -- for once. Because while Trump was methodically marching on to winning the GOP nomination, Sanders actually fell further behind in his quest to become the Democrats’ standard-bearer.
How is that possible? Well, it’s not a conspiracy. And no, it doesn’t even come down to Democratic “superdelegates,” which make Sanders supporters see red.
It’s just basic math. Trump won three out of four states that held March 8 contests -- Hawaii (11 delegates), Michigan (25) and Mississippi (24). Ted Cruz won the Idaho caucuses, where Trump took second with 12 delegates.
In total, Trump walked away on March 8 with 78 out of the 150 delegates available (52%), much to the chagrin of the #NeverTrump forces. That brought him up to 469 of the 1,237 needed to capture the nomination, or 38%.
The bombastic billionaire’s big wins this week, particularly in Florida and Illinois, showed he’s definitely on pace to amass the most delegates going into the Republican National Convention in July -- if not to win the nomination outright.
Meanwhile, Democrats had only two primaries on March 8 -- Mississippi and, of course, our fair Michigan.
Sanders’ narrow win in the Mitten State earned him 67 pledged delegates (not superdelegates), but Clinton was close behind with 63. The Magnolia State was a Clinton blowout, 83%-17%. That gave Clinton 32 pledged delegates to Sanders’ four.
So, in total, Clinton took home 95 pledged delegates and Sanders had just 71. That helped pad the former Secretary of State’s total lead of 774 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 553, with 2,383 needed to clinch the nomination.
As all Democratic contests award delegates on a proportional basis (not winner-take-all), it’s even more difficult for Sanders to catch up -- especially when he lost every primary this week, including Florida by a 31-point margin.
Clinton does hold a massive lead with the controversial “superdelegates” -- elected officials and other party poobahs -- but they’re not bound to support her. If Sanders does put together a string of large-margin victories and overtakes her in the pledged delegate count (which would be a far more impressive feat than his surprise Michigan win), you can expect superdelegates to flip to his side. That’s what we saw in the Clinton-Barack Obama 2008 battle royale.
Even though Sanders probably won’t win the nomination, he’ll likely always have a soft spot for Michigan in his heart. Thanks to us, he was the biggest story in the world, at least for one news cycle.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.