Heading into the Michigan Democratic primary last weekend, Bernie Sanders looked beaten. Severely behind in delegates and having just barely held his own against the presumptive coronation of Hillary Clinton in early states, the independent socialist from Vermont was nearly 20% behind his rival in the polls in Michigan.
Polling wizards at fivethirthyeight.com gave him a about a 1% chance of carrying the state and even his most ardent supporters seemed deflated. Even as his national polling figures improved and Bernie had transformed from a nobody into a serious contender, it seemed Clinton would strike him down early.
But Michigan was “feeling the Bern”.
In what has been called one of the biggest polling upsets in recent US presidential history Bernie Sanders took Michigan and all of a sudden anything seemed possible for the crowdsourced campaign of the 74-year-old socialist firebrand.
And today as we stand on the cusp of another electoral maelstrom where the states of North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Florida and Illinois this is where the Bernie Sanders campaign will make or break itself. Depending on how today’s vote goes the Sanders campaign and the movement it has inspired may sputter out or may surge forward renewed.
The big thing that pushed Bernie over the line in Michigan was trade. The United States has been the instigator or signatory of a number of international treaties on free trade (such as NAFTA and GATT) that have seen good, middle-class manufacturing jobs outsourced from places like Michigan where they underpinned the livelihoods of so many people for so long. Throughout his 40-year long political career Bernie Sanders has been outspoken and opaque in his criticism of these secret trade deals and their detrimental effect on the American working class who are seeing their steady jobs go up on smoke, replaced by a vaporous economy of apps and espresso that many find difficult to navigate or earn a substantial living from.
Though Clinton has pivoted on the position of trade as she has realised what a big issue it is in the minds of voters in states across the deindustrialised “Rust Belt”, which includes the likes of Ohio and Illinois, she certainly doesn’t have the bona fides on defending America workers that Sanders has. Clinton’s political career has been one long pirouette between contrasting positions, twisting herself with the changing political winds of the time. Is this Clinton, the “progressive defender of American workers”, the same Clinton who was such an outspoken cheerleader for NAFTA along with her husband, as well as the supporter of the controversial international treaty called TTIP?
This campaign has been one that has given us an interesting revelation: Hillary may in fact be some kind of shape shifter. Watch and be astounded as the woman who staunchly supported the Defence of Marriage Act for years realises that she might attract more voters be being a candidate who staunchly defends LGBT rights. You’ll hardly believe your eyes as Hillary Clinton, who described black youths as ‘superpredators’ and helped to begin the period of mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States, assures you that she is the true heir of Obama’s legacy and the hero that America’s minority community needs. Even if Hillary Clinton loses the Democratic nomination she can still console herself by knowing she is one of the finest magicians ever to take to the stage.
Bernie for his part has been remarkably consistent. Even if you hate him you can acknowledge that he has principles on which he won’t budge. This is a guy who was marching with Martin Luther King while Hillary Clinton supported the devout segregationist Barry Goldwater. This is guy who held Vermont’s first gay pride parade in the 1980s. Hillary Clinton is the woman who only recently praised Nancy Reagan’s record on AIDs; a first lady who started out her political career probably thinking AIDs was just the latest acronym for one of her husband’s ramped up defence projects to put Soviet-destroying lasers on the moon or something, and only after the disease had claimed close to 40,000 lives began to think maybe it might be something to worry about.
Today is a big day for the campaigns and by the time we wake up tomorrow we will probably have a good idea of whether we should polish the tiara for Hillary or whether Bernie will fight this battle all the way to the convention. Right now it depends on whether the five states that vote today prefer a man who has stuck by his principles of forty years or a woman who values seem amorphous and smoky and who, if she changed into an animal, I wouldn’t even be surprised at this point.