CLEVELAND — Bernie Sanders scored a critical upset in Michigan's Democratic primary Tuesday, winning a narrow victory over front-runner Hillary Clinton in a state where polls had showed him far behind, and proving once again to be a competitor when most had counted him out.
The Vermont senator is still miles from catching up to Clinton, who won a commanding victory in Mississippi's primary Tuesday night and holds a significant delegate lead. Sanders headed into Tuesday's contests about 200 delegates behind Clinton, not including so-called superdelegates, and desperately needed a win to remain a legitimate contender in the race.
The Michigan victory, Sanders' first in a big and relatively diverse state, buys his campaign a lifeline and puts him back on a path that could at least conceivably end in him accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in July. And it underscores still lingering weaknesses with Clinton's candidacy.
Just as Clinton and her allies began moving to ease Sanders aside and prepare for the general election, the results in Michigan suddenly make next Tuesday's contests here in Ohio, and in Missouri and Illinois, seem more competitive.
"This was a fantastic night," Sanders said at a late-night press conference in Miami, which his campaign scrambled to assemble hours after he had given his formal remarks for the night. "Our strongest areas are yet to happen."
It also adds new urgency and relevance to the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Wednesday night in Miami.
His advisers had long predicted the beginning of March would be rough for them, thanks to the high concentration of southern states with large African-American populations that so far have favored Clinton by wide margins. But with those states now in the rear view mirror, Sanders' campaign expects to sail into friendlier waters later in the month, beginning next Tuesday. The campaign has even begun to eye North Carolina, which also votes that day, but will likely lag in Florida, a delegate treasure trove where Clinton is heavily favored.
Clinton's campaign tried to appear unrattled by Tuesday's outcome, saying the delegate count would ultimately still favor them. Because delegates are awarded proportionally in the Democratic nominating process, her 67 point margin in Mississippi meant she racked up a larger net gain Tuesday, even after losing Michigan. Sanders never meaningfully competed in Mississippi.
"We feel confident she is going to be the nominee, but the race will continue to be competitive through the next week," Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters at a Clinton rally in Cleveland Tuesday night. "We would like to wrap it up as soon as possible because you don't want the Republican nominee to get, if they wrap up soon, we don't want to be far behind them."
Operatives with both campaigns, the press, and virtually the entire world headed into Tuesday night seemingly convinced that a win for Sanders was out of reach in Michigan — and thus probably for his entire campaign. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls gave Clinton a 21.4 point lead going into primary day.
After Sunday's debate in Flint, reporters covering the Sanders campaign questioned how much longer they would be assigned to it after the Vermont senator turned in a debate performance that, while feisty, included some real flubs like defending his vote against the TARP bailout plan in 2009 that included hundreds of millions of dollars of relief for Michigan's troubled auto industry.
But the voters of Michigan had other ideas, and the night stretched on with polls too close to call long after both Sanders and Clinton had spoken and their supporters went home.
"If Michigan is in play, Ohio is in play," said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group that has not endorsed either Sanders or Clinton. "Both candidates have an incentive to continue engaging in a race to the top on Elizabeth Warren-style economic populism issues."
Sanders was boosted in Michigan by young people and independent voters in the state's open primary. And he did much better among African-Americans in Michigan than he did southern states, as his operatives had long expected, though he still fell behind Clinton.
"Bernie closed a big gap, and he closed it fast," said Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, a progressive group that endorsed Sanders and boosted his grassroots effort. "Tonight, the Sanders campaign proved once again that you shouldn't count them out — because the political revolution is spreading fast."