Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday stunned front-runner Hillary Clinton in the Michigan Democratic primary. Worse for her, exit polls revealed weaknesses on trade and honesty that bode ill for her general election prospects.
Among Democratic voters in Michigan, exit polls showed that 58 percent said trade takes away U.S. jobs, and they went for Sanders by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent. That could signal a vulnerability for Clinton, particularly if Donald Trump is her Republican opponent. She has waffled on the issue, first praising the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then coming out against the Pacific Rim trade pact amid Sanders’ blistering criticism.
Republican voters in the Wolverine State expressed nearly identical views on trade — 54 percent said trade takes away U.S. jobs. Trump won that group with 42 percent of the vote. He has argued that he will put states like Michigan — which last went Republican in a presidential election in 1988 — in play.
In the only other Democratic contest of the night, Clinton walloped Sanders in the Mississippi primary, as she has throughout the South. And like other Southern states, Clinton enjoyed near-unanimous support among black voters. But in the first contest with a significant number of blacks outside that region, Sanders produced his strongest showing yet among that voting bloc. He won 30 percent of black voters in Michigan, according to exit polls.
Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said there is some evidence to suggest that Southern black voters are more monolithic in primary voting than black voters elsewhere.
“Maybe it’s not the same among African-American voters nationwide,” he said.
If so, Sanders could give Clinton a tougher fight than she expected in large, diverse, northern and midwestern states with tons of delegates. Still, Grossman said, it is “fairly implausible” that he could beat her given the fact that all of the delegates are awarded on a proportional basis. That means that Clinton will pocket large numbers of delegates even when she loses.
For Clinton, the biggest concern might be the negatives she will carry to the general election. Among voters in Michigan, only 57 percent rated her honest and trustworthy. That is an alarming number considering the pool of voters was limited to partisans in a primary. Some 80 percent of those voters, by comparison, judged Sanders as honest.
Clinton has tied herself closely to President Obama, an immensely popular figure among black voters. It has served her well in using minority voters to construct a firewall against Sanders in heavily black primaries. Indeed, 87 percent of Mississippi primary voters want the next president to continue his policies.
But Michigan Democrats were less supportive of current policies. Only 51 percent said they should continue. In a general election, Obama will be less popular, still. His approval ratings among all voters regularly register less than 50 percent.
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Even in Mississippi, which provided Clinton with great news overall, there were signals of angst among the electorate. Among Democratic primary voters, 56 percent were dissatisfied or angry at the federal government — a government their party has run for seven years.
And Sanders shows no sign of going away, which means that at the very least, he will be able to spend the next four months exposing Clinton’s weaknesses while she tries to pivot to the general election.
“Bernie Sanders has plenty of money in the bank, and he can continue to campaign,” said Michael Traugott, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies.