09 March 2016

The Michigan Mystery

Senator Sanders won the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan by a very narrow margin, but it now looks like his mightiest blow of the campaign so far. The Vermont socialist is showing endurance and unexpected strength. Michigan was most unexpected and may go down as a debacle for opinion pollsters on a level with their call of the 1936 presidential election for Alf Landon. They were predicting a comfortable victory for Hillary Clinton, but as Wired magazine points out -- and they're not the first -- conventional polling simply isn't reaching the younger voters who form Sanders's base because pollsters haven't yet adapted to the age of the smartphone. Their polls are based disproportionately on callers who can be reached on landline phones, and they disproportionately favor Clinton. Beyond this apparent blind spot, opinionators were predicting a Clinton win since the last debate, believing that Sanders was alienating minorities with his body language and word choices, and that Clinton had nailed him by bringing up his vote against a bailout bill she credited with saving the Detroit auto industry. As far as demographics went, Sanders benefited because blacks, despite Detroit and Flint, formed a smaller part of the overall vault, while those who voted favored Clinton by a considerably smaller margin than their counterparts in southern states. The real color that dominated in Michigan may be rust. As many have noted the morning after, Michigan favored the two candidates, Sanders and Donald Trump, most hostile to bipartisan free-trade orthodoxy. Whatever else they were thinking by voting for either man, their Michigan supporters deserve credit for not thinking as consumers first, as Republicans in particular want them to do when it comes to working-class issues like trade, wages, etc. For nearly two hundred years, the argument for free trade has been an argument for the primacy of consumers' interests, as laissez-faire advocates have urged citizens to think of themselves primarily as consumers who can only benefit from tariff-free competition. They've said the benefit comes when domestic manufacturers are compelled to make better products, but the real benefit, such as it is, has always been cheaper products, better-made or not, and the real consequence inevitably is jobs lost. This has only grown more obvious once labor markets around the world could compete practicably for the privilege of manufacturing products. The reigning consumerist ideology asks each of us only to think of our own pocketbooks, but doing so is an economic equivalent of the "first they came for..." complacency Martin Niemoller denounced in Nazi Germany. No job or sector of a national economy is an island, after all, and both Sanders and Trump signal that they understand this, though Trump, as a Republican, is still more likely to scapegoat government and labor for the mass outsourcing he denounces. Michigan may show the ascendancy of a protectionist electorate that no Republican but Trump is likely to win, while Clinton's challenge, should she prevail over Sanders, is to repudiate a major part of her husband's legacy. Enduring uncertainty about what she stands for -- the right thinks her a far leftist, but of course the left knows better -- helps explain the Michigan result as well. The state wasn't exactly make-or-break for Sanders given his wins over the weekend, but it was certainly the greatest opportunity this week for Democrats to say that they don't want this primary campaign to be over just yet. Just as the more ideological Republicans are keeping Senator Cruz viable, either to stop Trump or to force him towards orthodoxy, so many Democrats, including many donors, are keeping Sanders in the running, even while realistic about his long-term chances, in order to show Clinton what a real Democrat, or a real liberal, or a real progressive should look like -- and I don't mean the gender.

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