When the doors to high school gymnasiums were shut, the exhausted volunteers headed home, the final results came as a surprise to some. Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont whose campaign has sparked nearly equal parts frenzy and derision, came out ahead of Hillary Clinton in Nebraska’s Democratic Caucus.
Last Saturday, while Sanders supporters were certainly optimistic for a win, it wasn’t exactly the most likely thing in the world. Bernie had lost in Iowa, one of the most important early Midwestern results. The closest state Sanders had won in was Colorado, which many Nebraskans would probably say is a league away in terms of culture. And Clinton’s lead certainly demanded respect. A Super Tuesday triumph at the beginning of the month seemed to put the race within arms length of being called for the former Secretary of State.
But triumph Sanders did, and convincingly at that. He garnered 12,664 popular votes to Clinton’s 10,334, a 55.1 to 44.9 percent victory. 15 Nebraskan delegates will be pledged to Sanders, and 10 to Clinton.
In Kansas caucus on the same day, he received over double the popular votes, with 26,450. No pundit would claim that Kansas and Nebraska are nomination-winning swing states for the Democratic party. But the wins set the bow-string for a much bigger beast: Michigan.
A genuine upset, Sanders’ win last Tuesday in Michigan sent a jolt of hope through the hearts of Sanders supporters everywhere, and may begin to illustrate a weakness emerging in Clinton’s campaign. Polls leading up to the nomination showed the Vermont senator around 20 points down on average, but his narrow victory put them to the lie.
It’s been widely remarked that Clinton struggles to appeal to the white working class, a demographic that states like Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Michigan would appear to be poster-boys for, and all of whom Sanders won primaries or caucuses in. The exception, and the state one would have to write off as an anomaly to make such a connection, would be Iowa. But with his little Midwestern core of states, Sanders has apparently exploited this Clinton weakness.
Taking a closer look at the results in these states, it becomes important to clarify that the class component of the “white working class” is more important. A few pundits invested in Clinton’s success have tried to write off these Midwestern states as racist due to this phenomenon: that they oppose Clinton because of her association with the Obama administration or perceived support of policies that would benefit persons of color. But that kind of reductive, dismissive analysis just serves to illustrate the divide between Midwesterners and establishment-serving beltway bloggers. A more critical analysis seems to counteract this idea completely.
Looking back to the Democratic primaries of 2008, Clinton struggled in many of the same states she had done in 2016. In Nebraska, for instance, she lost by an even greater margin to Barack Obama. Obama’s 26,126 popular vote count dwarfs Sanders’ modern 12,664, for a percentage of 67.56. Obama also beat Hillary in Kansas and Colorado. Dismissal of Hillary’s inability to appeal to white workers in the Midwest as a product of racism doesn’t really match up with the reality in which the nation’s first black president was nominated through the support of the region against Clinton the last go-around. And Michigan again illustrates the failure of this knee-jerk punditry, as it shows African-American voters supporting Sanders much more than in the South.
A more insightful analysis would emphasize Hillary’s struggle to relate to the working class in these states. Sanders’ support has rou-tinely trended younger than Hillary’s, a generation that now makes up the majority of the workforce. An establishment politician, with a dynastic family name, simply can’t inspire young workers the way a perceived outsider, with decades of union support and reams of pro-labor rhetoric, can.
To do complete fairness to the comparison between this year’s Demo-cratic nomination results and the results from 2008, it must be not-ed that Sanders has improved on Obama’s record in Michigan, where state leadership screw-ups cost him ballot status. Results are forthcom-ing from several key midwestern states, like this week’s Illinois, Ohio and Missouri primaries, which will doubtless shed even more light on the political forces behind the Democratic duo’s battle for nom-ination. But so far, wins in Mid-western states like Nebraska seem to illuminate a chink in the Clinton campaign’s armor, one that must either be patched, or be continually breached by Sanders in the weeks to come.