What Tuesday’s primaries showed us: Hillary v. Bernie-and a semantics hint for Clinton
Hillary won big in Mississippi, which continued her sweep of the southern states. This only reinforced what we already knew–that in states with large numbers of African-American voters on the Democratic rolls, she has it all over Bernie. Not that Bernie isn’t sympathetic to the problems facing African-Americans. It’s just that the Clintons, Hillary and Bill, have a long and steady history of working for that demographic’s issues, while Sanders, even with a civil rights foray during his youth, has not given the priority to Black issues. This can be explained away, or at least attempted to, because most of Sanders’ political life has been spent serving the interests of lily-white Vermont. His supporters will say that his focus on class conflict, and the plight of labor, automatically includes the interests of Black workers. For many, I suspect, this kind of explanation will resonate about as much as Hillary’s support for the Import-Export Bank as a means to bring jobs to Michigan did. Which is to say, not very much at all, without some boring and abstract explanations that aren’t possible in what, by necessity, are mostly repetitive message and sound bite campaigns. Furthermore, the south is more agricultural than the kinds of industrial states Bernie’s message most resonates with. Of course, these same southern states are mostly in the Red column during Presidential general elections, which makes Hillary’s loss in Michigan, which often votes Democratic in those same elections, more problematic. So, even though Hillary ended the evening closer to the magic number of delegates needed for nomination than Bernie, her unexpected loss in Michigan requires significant deconstruction. The urgency of this need is apparent when one considers that Ohio, with similar demographics to Michigan, only with fewer Black voters, comes next Tuesday. Ohio is doubly important in that it’s a winner-take-all primary and a key swing state in the general election. Moreover, Ohio’s voting often predicts cohort voting in neighboring Pennsylvania, without whose support it’s nearly impossible for the Democratic candidate to win the Presidency in modern times.
So why did Hillary underperform so badly in Michigan? Part of the explanation can be found in assessing how the polls that had her winning Michigan by an average of 21 points (albeit a few late polls showed that figure had narrowed to 10 points), were so off the mark. Late momentum possibly accounts for some of that error. But not the bulk of it. What then?
First and last we can point to another underrepresentation of Independents in their samples. Michigan allows Independents to declare, for one party primary or the other, at the last moment. Exit polls showed that Independents broke for Sanders over Clinton nearly 2.5 to 1. Independents in open primaries can give fits to pollsters. But the warning signs were there from the previous non-southern primaries. Independents were voting in greater numbers than history would suggest. But not logic. Both Sanders and Trump proved in the earlier primaries that their supporters were strongly motivated to vote–and both numbered many Independents, including first-time voters, in their ranks. The pollsters’ samples for open primaries should be adjusted for this higher turnout by Independents. Both Trump and Sanders were huge beneficiaries of the anger toward establishment politicians. This much is certain, many answers to exit polling questions indicated that they gave high priority to what, for lack of a better term to categorize various responses to polling questions, I’ll call the “Throw the bums out!” position. Those voters went for the outside-the-establishment candidates, Trump and Sanders.
Election night pundits were quick to blame Clinton’s tactic of asserting that, during Sunday night’s debate in Flint, Sanders didn’t support the auto-bailout for a goodly part of her loss in Michigan. This supposedly played into Clinton’s most vulnerable area, her high “untrustworthy” ranking. For a few, it might have. Especially when combined with the anti-establishment issue, it might have influenced a few voters who were marginal about actually voting to vote. But, coming so late in the campaign, I am doubtful it contributed significantly to her underperformance. Though it is an issue that Hillary’s camp will have to address and correct before Ohio’s vote. Here’s what I would suggest:
To my thinking, Bernie’s vote against the bailout can still be a positive for Hillary. But it must be framed differently. Semantics matter. What happened was this: Bernie opposed a bailout bill that had the usual amendments attached to it, which were necessary to get it passed. Instead he supported a “purer bailout” bill which was defeated. Bernie’s refusal refusal resulted in a vote against the bailout. This can be pointed out, not as evidence of Sanders’ opposition to saving jobs for workers in the auto industry, but as evidence of how he sets lofty goals that most of us, including Hillary support, but are unreachable, and thereby accomplishe little. The net result, and I would frame it exactly that way, was a vote against the bailout, which might have cost the auto workers their jobs–a sacrifice on the alter of ideology. Ignoring practical politics and taking utopian stands instead of working toward reachable goals is a weakness, I would point out, if I were Hillary. The net result in this case was a vote against the successful bailout bill. But the criticism of Bernie, not as a framer of goals, for which she should laud him, but as a possible President who has to deal with practical politics, is that he would fail on reachable goals. This could cost Americans improvements to the Affordable Health Care Act, and for students in debt, restructuring and reducing the interest on the student-debt. If Sanders had brought enough senators over to his position opposing the actual bailout bill, there would have been no bailout! This kind of straight-shooting would be truthful and would raise further questions about Bernie’s suitability to be President. It behoves Hillary to focus more on the visionary versus a “get-things-done” candidacy. This can be done without insulting Bernie’s supporters. We need visionaries. But we need a “get-things-done” president, albeit one who is appreciative of the visionary’s reminders. This kind of argument resonates with many of Hillary’s supporters; it can be used to affect marginal Independents, who are now supporting Bernie. It couldn’t hurt her in the truthful and trust ratings either.