When Hillary Clinton lost the Michigan primary in 2016, some analysts described it as one of the biggest upsets in the annals of modern political history.

Michiganians yawned.

After all, this is the state where Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular Republicans ever, lost the party primary not once but twice.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson not only won the Democratic caucuses here in 1988 — his first victory in a major industrial state in two presidential campaigns — but did so by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

And Alabama Gov. George Wallace — yes, that George Wallace — easily won the Democratic primary in Michigan five years after the Detroit riots of 1967.

Welcome to the Michigan primary, where anything can happen and usually does.

“It’s probably the most unpredictable state in the union,” said Mario Morrow, a Detroit political consultant. “You just don’t know what Michiganders are going to do.”

What accounts for this taste in political outsiders, fringe candidates and demagogues?

In some cases, the front-runner took the state for granted. In others, members of one party wanted to create havoc for the other side by voting in its primary. In still others, a charismatic candidate or cause captured the fancy of residents.


Just because Michigan is quirky doesn’t mean it’s wrong, political analysts say. In fact, it would behoove candidates to learn from their missteps in the state.

Because of its diversity in age, race and residential areas, Michigan is a swing state whose voters are representative of the nation, analysts say.

For losing candidates, the shocking results of Michigan primaries often portended trouble down the road.

U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who was defeated by segregationist Wallace in the Michigan caucuses, would also lose the state in the general election, along with every other state save Massachusetts.

Clinton’s 2016 defeat by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in Michigan was a harbinger of how she would do later. She also lost Michigan in the general election by 10,704 votes, a critical factor in her defeat by Donald Trump.

“The primary kept Bernie alive and let him be a factor in the race,” said former Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who backed Clinton in 2016 and former Vice President Joe Biden this year. “It hurt her and helped her lose to Trump.”

If Clinton had won the Michigan primary, which was followed by her victory in Ohio, she could have hurt Sanders’ viability as a candidate, Blanchard said.

As it turned out, Sanders’ victory helped propel his candidacy throughout the entire Democratic race, Blanchard said. It limited Clinton’s ability to focus on the general election and left her a weaker candidate against Trump.

One reason for Sanders’ surprising win in Michigan might have been overconfidence by Clinton, political consultants said.

The former secretary of state under President Barack Obama had a lot of reasons to feel that way.

She won the state primary in 2008, although her strongest competitor, Obama, didn’t participate.

That was the year Michigan wanted to boost the importance of its primary by holding it in January. But the Democratic National Committee said the move violated its rules and it wouldn’t seat the state’s delegates at the national convention.

Another reason Clinton liked her chances in Michigan was the polls. They all showed her far ahead. One had her winning by 37 percentage points.

“She took the election for granted,” Morrow said. “She probably was already decorating the White House.”

But many of the polls were limited to landlines, which skewed heavily toward older voters. Ignored were younger residents, who favored Sanders and would turn out in unusually large numbers.

Clinton spent little time or money in Michigan, and her staff was dwarfed by Sanders’.

She lost the race by 1.4 percentage points, 49.7% to 48.3%.

Open contests

Another reason for the volatility in Michigan primaries is voters don’t have to register with a political party.

That allows them to cast a ballot in whichever primary they please.

Residents who normally support one party have crossed over and voted in the primary of the other party.

That’s apparently what happened in 2000 when Democrats and independents voted in the Republican primary, giving U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona a stunning victory over Texas Gov. George Bush, 51% to 43%.

Bush would later win the nomination, but Democrats savored embarrassing Michigan Gov. John Engler, a strong Bush supporter who had promised the state would be a firewall against McCain’s challenge.

“The Dems weren’t participating in the (Democratic) primary at all, so everybody was free to cross over,” said Mark Grebner, a political consultant and Ingham County commissioner.

The open process also played a role in Wallace’s shocking victory in 1972.

The Republican Party mounted a statewide campaign to get its members to vote in the Democratic contest against front-runner McGovern.

But the Alabama governor also was helped by an issue that raged across Michigan, especially in Macomb County.

Wallace opposed mandatory busing and turned the primary into a referendum on the explosive topic.

“When he demonstrated there were these forces and attitudes in the public, and that they could be brought into the Democratic Party, it caused enormous uproar and change in party structure and everything else,” said Morley Winograd, a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman who is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California.

Wallace to Jackson

After Wallace’s win, the Democratic Party tried to prevent future surprises by reverting to caucuses.

The conventional wisdom about a caucus is, by limiting the number of voters, party pros have more control over the outcome.

But charisma is charisma.

In the 1988 caucuses, Jackson drew strong support among blacks in Detroit that, coupled with votes from Arab Americans and college students, overwhelmed front-runner Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts.

Jackson won with 54% of the vote.

“There was a limited turnout (overall) but massive turnout in Detroit. It overpowered everything else,” Blanchard said.

Michigan lawmakers also tried to snuff out primary mischief by doing away with open primaries.

In 1988, they passed a law that required voters to declare a party preference before voting in the presidential race.

Four years later, the Michigan primaries turned out just like the party leaders wanted: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush both won, practically securing their nominations for the general election.

But voters weren’t happy. They liked keeping their party affiliation private, and were sore about having to divulge it for the 1992 race.

Three years later, Michigan lawmakers dropped the party preference requirement.