How big was Bernie Sanders Michigan win?

Sen. Bernie Sanders's upset victory in Michigan was of historic proportions, but he still lags far behind front-runner Hillary Clinton in the delegate count.

Alan Diaz/AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vermont, smiles during a campaign rally, March 8 in Miami. Sanders's upset victory in Michigan was of historic proportions, but he still lags far behind front-runner Hillary Clinton in the delegate count.

Bernie Sanders’s win in Michigan on Tuesday was a victory of historic proportions. Never before has a candidate with poll deficits the size Sanders faced in the Wolverine State come back to win a contested presidential primary.

The surprise will give his candidacy a yuuge Trump-sized boost, no question. It raises the issue of whether he can win next week in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois – other Midwest states troubled by industrial decline where polls seem to show Hillary Clinton far ahead.

What the win won’t do is propel Sanders to victory in the overall Democratic nomination contest. (Probably – anything is possible in an election cycle where the GOP front-runner hawks steaks at a press conference.)

But for Sanders the math is daunting. If you count unpledged “superdelegates” who have endorsed Clinton for president, she is now more than halfway to the 2,383 delegates she needs to win the nomination. Remember that she actually increased her delegate lead by 18 on Tuesday, due to her sweeping Mississippi win.  

Sanders is 650 delegates behind. At this point he would need to win around 60 percent of the remaining delegates to claim the crown onstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in late July.

That would require a fundamental realignment in the current race. Narrow victories in big states don’t net many delegates. Sanders needs smashing victories to make up his numbers deficit.

That’s unlikely to happen. Unlike Marco Rubio, who has collapsed because he’s everybody’s second choice, Clinton has a rock-solid base coalition of minority, older, and moderate voters. They should support her enough to ensure she can scratch out a victory if she has to.

And she may have to, indeed. Sanders has every incentive to fight this battle to its bitter end. He’s got plenty of money due to his ability to raise cash in small donations. He’s getting lots of attention for his core economic issues. He, too, has a rock-solid voter foundation of white liberals and younger voters.

It’s possible this means the Democratic contest won’t end until the convention. At the left-leaning Washington Monthly, they’ve gamed out upcoming contests based on current polls and voting trends, and that’s their conclusion.

Clinton will win a majority of the pledged delegates from states and caucuses, but fall just short of 2,383, in this calculation. Then at the convention her superdelegates will push her over the victory threshold.

The superdelegates aren’t pledged, so they’re free to bolt for Sanders, even if they’ve endorsed Clinton. They’re unlikely to do that, though, unless she stumbles and actually falls behind Sanders in the pledged delegate count.

The bottom line: the Democratic race is not getting wrapped up quickly. It may last longer than the corresponding GOP contest. The Michigan victory shows Sanders can hang around for quite a while.

“Sanders might want to lower the heat a bit to make it easier to unify the party later, but he’s still got plenty to fight for and so do his supporters,” writes Martin Longman of the Washington Monthly.

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