How Bernie Sanders won Michigan in 2016, and what to watch for on Tuesday

Bernie Sanders won all but 10 of Michigan’s 83 counties against Hlilary Clinton in 2016, providing him with a narrow victory and upset in the primary.

LANSING — Michigan is once again looking like a must-win state for Bernie Sanders. 

The Vermont senator and democratic socialist stunned political pundits in 2016 when he narrowly topped Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, outperforming polls that had shown him trailing the party’s eventual nominee by double digits. 

Sanders small Michigan win — 17,186 votes, a less than two percentage point margin — had big implications, providing momentum and fueling fundraising that allowed him to stay in the race longer than expected. 

Four years later, Sanders is once again attempting to overcome a Democratic establishment that has rallied around former Vice President Joe Biden. This time around Sanders got a fundraising and ad spending edge, but Biden has momentum after a strong Super Tuesday. 

Sanders is hoping for a repeat on Tuesday, planning four rallies this weekend, beginning tonight with one in Detroit.


Sanders’ 2016 win here illustrated his grassroots power and appeal to disaffected voters, in some ways foreshadowing the kind of voter rebellion against the status quo that propelled Republican President Donald Trump to a similarly narrow general election win.

Young voters played a large role in Sanders’ win, turning out in unexpectedly large numbers after Sanders barnstormed college campuses across the state. 

Like Trump after him, Sanders dominated Clinton in rural Michigan to overcome her edge in Metro Detroit, including the vote-rich Democratic stronghold of Wayne County. Sanders also fared well liberal pockets of mid and west Michigan.

Sanders’ poor performance in Detroit pointed to his struggle to connect with African-American voters in 2016. He’s made efforts to broaden his appeal over the past four years but will again face strong competition for votes in the state’s largest city and beyond. 

Who felt the Bern?

Sanders surprise 2016 performance in Michigan cemented his status as a formidable challenger to Clinton, who entered the primary season as the heavy establishment favorite after a lengthy career in public service and party politics.

Clinton won five of the state’s 10 most populous counties — including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb — but Sanders cleaned up elsewhere, winning 67 of the state’s other 73 counties. 

Kent County proved key for Sanders. Democratic voters in the former GOP stronghold broke sharply toward the Vermont senator. 

Sanders won Kent County by 34,824 votes, an 11.7 percentage point win that helped propelled him to victory.

Wins in larger counties like Kent, Washtenaw, Kalamazoo, Ingham and Ottawa allowed Sanders to overcome a major hole in Detroit and Wayne County, where Clinton topped him by 120,664 votes. She won Oakland by 16,274 votes and Macomb by just 2,702 votes, or about 1.4 percent.

Kent County again could be decisive on Tuesday.

Two years after Sanders won, voters in Michigan’s fourth-largest county backed Gretchen Whitmer for governor in the 2018 Democratic primary, opting for a moderate over the progressive candidate endorsed by Sanders, Abdul El-Sayed.

Metro Detroit always plays a huge role in Democratic primaries, and Tuesday will be no exception. 

If Biden is able to maintain huge margins in Detroit and Wayne County, Sanders will need to count on continued support in liberal counties like Washtenaw and more rural parts of the state. 

Delegate math

Metro Detroit is especially important in the Demoratic primary because Michigan awards delegates proportionally based on both the statewide vote and results within congressional districts. 

And the number of delegates per district are based on Democratic turnout in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, which was highest in Metro Detroit.

Back in 2016, the state had a total of 130 delegates to award to the Democratic field, including 45 statewide and nine each from the 13th and 14th Congressional districts. 

Sanders’ narrow win in the statewide election gave him an edge of just one delegate. But he topped Clinton by three delegates from congressional districts, giving him a 67-63 delegate win overall. 

Sanders biggest win came in the 1st Congressional District, a sprawling district that includes Traverse City in northern lower Michigan and all of the Upper Peninsula. He won the district by 15,499 votes, a 20.7 point margin that allowed him to capture four out of six delegates.

Clinton only won three districts, but her wins were big hauls — she won six of nine delegates in both the 13th and 14th Congressional Districts in Metro Detroit. 

She also won the 5th District and was close enough to split delegates with Sanders in the 9th and 11th.  

Sanders won 11 of 14 congressional districts in 2016, but two of those wins were so narrow that he split delegates with Clinton. He earned a single-delegate edge in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 12th districts.

This year, the Michigan Democratic Party will award 43 statewide delegates and 82 congressional district delegates, a total of 125 pledged delegates. Candidates must win at least 15 percent of the vote statewide or within individual congressional districts to qualify for any delegates. 

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, which includes portions of Wayne and Oakland County, is the biggest prize, with nine delegates at stake. There are seven delegates at stake in each of the 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th congressional districts, all of which include parts of Metro Detroit. Candidates can win between four and six delegates in the other districts. 

A dominant performance in Metro Detroit could turn a narrow statewide win into a significant delegate advantage. 

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