Big Surprise

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I have a hard time remembering another political upset quite as big as Bernie Sanders totally unexpected victory last night over Hillary Clinton. Ironically, the best analogy I can remember is Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire over Barack Obama in 2008. To bring us back to that moment just over eight years ago: Barack Obama had just scored a not totally unexpected but still stunning victory over Clinton in Iowa. The New Hampshire polls swung heavily in Obama’s direction. It looked very much like Obama was about to all but knock Clinton out of the race. It was a string of days with immense drama and a mounting mood of poignance as Clinton soldiered on in the face of what seemed like the shattering end of her presidential ambitions.

There was a much discussed moment on the trail over the final weekend where she teared up discussing why she was running for president. As I said, the New Hampshire campaign drew to a close in a climate of ecstatic expectation on the Obama side and a mix of funereal poignance and foreboding among Clintonites. Much like last night, the apparent losing campaign did not make much of an argument that the polls didn’t show the reality of the situation. Both, I think, expected to lose.

And yet, in a totally unexpected reversal Clinton won – much, I suspect, to her own campaign’s surprise. There’s never been a totally adequate explanation of what happened. Were the polls simply wrong? Or did they miss a major shift in opinion in the last couple days over the weekend. In the pollsters’ defense, that was about as politically volatile a moment as you can imagine.

As we know, Clinton won and dramatically shifted the narrative of the campaign. She didn’t win in the end. But she changed what looked to be a quick knock out end to the 2008 campaign into a lengthy, state-by-state slugfest that was about as lengthy and intense as any primary battle we’ve seen in the modern presidential selection process era.

This win does not have those kinds of implications. Sanders would need to follow up with comparable victories in states like Illinois, Ohio or Florida to fundamentally shift the nature of the race. But this does force us to take a good look at the current polls in those states and see if there’s something not unique to Michigan which caused them to be so far off the actual result.

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