A win is a win is a win, but what if the victory is over nothing? Or, in the case of New York Senator Hillary Clinton's walkover in the Michigan primary Tuesday night, no one?
As punishment to the state for moving up the date of its primary, the Democratic National Committee had stripped Michigan of its delegates, and the other major Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, had taken themselves off the ballot. But Clinton remained in the race and managed to grab 55 percent of the vote, putting her more than 50 points ahead of the next-closest named competitor, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who earned 4 percent.
But a potentially troubling result for Clinton is that 40 percent of Michigan voters (236,723 in total) opted to declare themselves "uncommitted," many in protest of the DNC's decision to withhold the delegates. Even worse, in a number of precincts, Clinton was actually beaten by the uncommitted vote, in some cases by as much as 5 percentage points.
"The Obama and Edwards campaigns apparently got the word out pretty well to their supporters to vote uncommitted," said Vincent Hutchings, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Michigan. "There's some thought that at some point they might reverse the decision to strip the delegates of their authority, and if they do, then Edwards and Obama wanted to have the opportunity to have those delegates vote for them at the convention, which they can do if they're uncommitted, but not if they write their names in. By state law, if the names were written in, then they wouldn't be counted."
Hutchings said exit polls suggested that Clinton would have won anyway, even if Obama and Edwards had been on the ballot. On the other hand, had they been on the ballot, it's also possible her rivals may have campaigned harder in Michigan and perhaps closed the gap a bit. Either way, Hutchings said the large uncommitted vote is not a sign that Clinton is in any trouble — or certainly no more trouble than she was in before.
Two demographics that did emerge as potential stumbling blocks for Clinton, though, were young and black voters. According to the CNN exit poll, among voters ages 18-29, 48 percent chose uncommitted, while Clinton tallied 43 percent of the vote among that age group, which her campaign has been heavily courting since her win in New Hampshire. CNN also reported that 68 percent of Michigan's black voters, who made up nearly a quarter of all Democratic voters, chose uncommitted over Clinton.
Though he agreed that a win is a win, Bill Ballenger, editor of the 20-year-old biweekly subscription newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said the 40 percent uncommitted vote was pretty "impressive," considering that two out of every five primary goers essentially showed up at the polls to vote for none of the above. "I think the story out of this election is that Hillary dodged a bullet by not being beaten by uncommitted," he said. "It wasn't an overwhelming victory, but it could have been a lot worse.
"It's been evident in Iowa and New Hampshire that younger voters are going Obama's way," he added, "and that [Clinton] does better with low-income and less-educated people and older people, and that's the demographic that came out for this primary."
If there had been a true three-way race in Michigan, Ballenger estimated that 40 percent of the vote would likely have broken down to something like 30 percent for Obama and 10 percent for Edwards, and Clinton would have still won handily. "The uncommitted vote was really a protest about the process and how it got botched up in the primary," he said. "And some people were so fed up and angry at not having a vote on the Democratic side that they figured the best they could do was vote uncommitted."