When the polls opened in Michigan Tuesday morning, Bernie Sanders did not have a lot to be optimistic about. His campaign was at a clear disadvantage: The Real Clear Politics average of polls had Hillary Clinton leading in the state by 20 points — and none of the surveys taken this year had him losing by anything less than 10 percentage points.
So when Sanders won Michigan by a point and a half, he had much to celebrate; one prominent number-cruncher called it "one of the greatest upsets in modern political history." The Sanders campaign sent out a triumphant email repeating that claim, and promising Michigan was not an outlier. "[W]e're seeing the same kind of come-from-behind momentum all across America," it said.
Michigan was both a big win for Sanders, and a huge loss for pollsters. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver could find just one other contest in which the polls were so wrong: New Hampshire, in 1984, when averages had Walter Mondale up by 17 points, and Gary Hart pulled out a nine-point win instead.
It was the kind of magical victory that Sanders has been promising supporters really can happen — but it was also a narrow victory, and the pragmatic Clinton campaign was quick to point out that it doesn't put much of a dent in the massive pledged-delegate deficit Sanders still has to make up.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook sought to squash any momentum Sanders hoped to harness from his unexpected win in a phone call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. "He bet big there, and he pulled it out after a hard fight, but still ended up behind in the delegate race," he said.
Mook went on to contrast the victory Sanders eked out in Michigan against Clinton's massive, 66-point triumph in Mississippi. "In percentage terms," Mook said, "it was actually Sanders' worst defeat of the race so far. His result was so low that he nearly missed the 15 percent threshold for viability."
Michigan has nearly 100 more delegates than Mississippi, but the huge margin by which Sanders lost, in a state where candidates must win at least 15 percent in a given congressional district to claim any delegates at all, will really hurt him. The results were still being tallied on Wednesday, but Mook said early signs indicate "it is possible that we may end up netting four times as many delegates out of Mississippi as Sanders netted out of Michigan."
As confident as the Clinton campaign sounded Wednesday (100,000 more Americans cast their ballots for Clinton than Sanders on Tuesday! 4.8 million Americans have voted for her in the primary — more than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat!), there were signs they're deeply worried about three Michigan-like states set to vote next week: Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Polls show Clinton leading by more than 20 points in those contests, but Mook seemed intent on managing expectations for those states, warning that "all three will be competitive.
"We would all be well advised to treat the polling coming out today and throughout this week with skepticism," he said.Watch speech highlights from the Michigan primary Tuesday evening.