No Democratic presidential candidate had campaigned in Traverse City, Michigan, in decades until Sen. Bernie Sanders pulled up to the concert hall near the Sears store Friday. Some 2,000 people mobbed him when he arrived, roaring in approval as he called the country’s trade policies, and Hillary Clinton’s support for them, “disastrous.”
“If the people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America and against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders,” Sanders said in Traverse City, about 250 miles north of Detroit.
Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.
For Clinton, it was a stinging defeat in a state that she had made a symbol of her campaign, pledging to help the citizens of Flint overcome its contaminated water crisis in a rare display of passion and outrage from a candidate who is often reserved. The results were also a reminder of her weakness among two key voting blocs: working-class white men and independent voters.
The setback will almost certainly lead her to sharpen or even rethink her economic message, which does not seem to be reaching voters who feel betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of free trade and left behind by the forces of globalization and deregulation. The first big test will come Wednesday night, when the two candidates debate in Miami, and then in the major industrial states that vote on March 15, including Ohio and Illinois.
Despite the loss, Clinton still has a large lead among delegates and was likely to pick up more than Sanders on Tuesday night because of her lopsided win in Mississippi.
Still, Michigan was a big prize for Sanders, who had poured money and time into the state, and he is certain to capitalize on the attention it will bring. He began advertising heavily about a month ago, spending nearly $2 million, while Clinton was more focused on the Super Tuesday contests held last week.
One ad, according to advisers to Sanders, was especially effective: It portrayed Sanders as the only candidate who had consistently opposed the free trade agreements many Michigan voters blame for job losses.
Sanders also seized on trade in a Democratic debate Sunday, a faceoff that many analysts felt Clinton had won, but that his advisers believed had conveyed his intensity and sincerity on economic fairness.
Despite Clinton’s advantages, including the support of much of the state’s Democratic establishment, the Sanders campaign showed deft organization and strategy: Sanders crisscrossed the state, speaking to more than 41,000 people, and his campaign opened 13 offices and hired 44 staffers to carry his message. He also visited places that were largely overlooked by the Clinton campaign, including Traverse City and Kalamazoo.
Beverly Christensen, a retired pilot, said she had waited in line for a couple of hours to see Sanders at his rally in Traverse City. She called it “huge” for Sanders to come to the area, saying she could not recall another presidential contender visiting since the home-state favorite Gerald Ford stopped by.
“To have him show up here — it was like he was a superstar just coming to our small town,” Christensen, 68, said in a telephone interview. “We felt like we were being heard and being listened to, and that was really important.”
In Grand Traverse County, the home of Traverse City, Sanders won with about 64 percent of the vote. He also performed especially well in counties that are home to major campuses like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Western Michigan University.
As results flooded in Tuesday night, Sanders said he had felt the race shifting in his favor in recent days as he talked with autoworkers, union leaders and college students, who all seemed eager for a more assertive progressive agenda.
“If you understand that two weeks ago, we were 30 points behind, it is very clear, as I felt, that we have a lot of momentum with us,” Sanders said in an interview. “Many of the vibes we were getting were very, very positive. I knew, I knew that these polls that had us 20 or 30 points behind were wrong.
But even Sanders seemed surprised by the outcome: He had no victory speech prepared, instead holding a seven-minute news conference from Miami as the votes were being counted.
While Michigan’s economy has recovered substantially since the economic crisis, its unemployment level has continued to hover above national averages. More problematic, some analysts fear that many have simply stopped looking for work as the state’s labor force has shrunk.
Although the auto industry, which fuels the regional economy, has rebounded significantly from the lows of 2008, Detroit only recently emerged from bankruptcy.
“He was strong and forceful on trade, and persuasive with a lot of Michigan Democrats who have seen what’s happened to their economy over the past 20 years,” said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign.
When Clinton accused Sanders at the debate of opposing the 2009 federal bailout of the auto industry, and then began broadcasting a radio ad about the issue on Monday morning, Sanders advisers scrambled to come up with an ad of their own, explaining that Sanders had supported the bailout but opposed earlier aid for Wall Street that included some money for car companies. While the Clinton ad was unmatched on the air for several hours, Sanders advisers said their ad was up on Monday night and covered by the Michigan news media — enough to halt the effectiveness of the Clinton spot, they argued.
Sanders’ Michigan operation ultimately drew on hundreds of volunteers to make phone calls and help transport voters to the polls on Tuesday, while other aides used a string of short advertisements — some lasting five seconds or less — to spread the message about Sanders on Facebook and Twitter.
Sanders performed particularly well among white voters — especially white men, but also white women — and he won independents strongly. He lost to Clinton among Democrats and minority voters.
Clinton’s advisers had been fearing a loss, and the team sent her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, to campaign around the state. Her campaign’s leaders are worried that Sanders could upend her recent momentum if he parlays his narrow victory in Michigan into wins next Tuesday in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, where he is focusing his resources.
Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign, and other advisers pointed to Clinton’s significant lead in delegates and said the team would like to “wrap up” the primary campaign “as soon as possible.”
“We feel confident she is going to be the nominee, but the race will continue to be competitive through next week,” Palmieri said.
Clinton is competing hard in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, as well as in Florida and North Carolina, which also vote Tuesday. Her aides are confident that even if she loses the three Midwestern states to Sanders, she could still come away with more delegates that night, because her victories in Florida and North Carolina would most likely be bigger than his in the other states.
Amy Chozick, Steve Eder and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.