The outsiders have struck back.
In the stunner of the evening, Bernie Sanders narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in the Michigan Democratic primary Tuesday, after polls showed her ahead by more than 20 points. And Donald Trump, who had faced questions over whether he had peaked, won three out of four Republican contests Tuesday, expanding his delegate lead over Ted Cruz.
Mrs. Clinton came away from the evening with more delegates than Senator Sanders, owing to her blowout victory in the Mississippi primary. She remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But Senator Sanders’s unexpected victory in Michigan, beating Clinton 50 percent to 48 percent, gave the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont new momentum.
“Frankly, we believe that our strongest areas are yet to happen,” Sanders said in remarks to reporters in Miami.
That could be more than just spin. The Southern primaries, where Clinton has dominated based on her strength with African American voters, are largely over. Next week, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina will vote, states that – like Michigan – have seen deep blows to manufacturing over the past 20 years. In Michigan, Sanders pounded hard on the “disastrous” trade deals that he blames for the state’s loss of blue-collar jobs.
Sanders also performed better with black voters than he had in Southern states, winning a third of African-Americans in Michigan, compared with just 10 to 20 percent in Southern contests. And while young voters, a key part of Sanders’s base, have failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to overcome Clinton’s strengths, they did show up in Michigan.
Voters under age 45 represented more than 40 percent of the Michigan Democratic electorate, and supported Sanders by about 2 to 1.
Why the polls were so off in Michigan – one of the great survey failures of recent history – will be a subject of extensive inquiry. But in the immediate aftermath, polling guru Nate Silver had some theories.
“Based on the demographics of the state, it probably narrowly favored Clinton,” Mr. Silver wrote at FiveThirtyEight.com. “But then, perhaps some of her voters didn’t show up, or voted in the GOP primary instead, because it didn’t look like Clinton needed their vote.”
Heading into next Tuesday’s contests, which also include delegate-rich Florida, Sanders can now credibly say, “Ignore the polls,” as he focuses relentlessly on income inequality and the hollowing-out middle class. The well-funded Sanders, fueled by millions of small-dollar donors, has pledged to stay in the race all the way to the Democratic convention in July. And even if catching Clinton in the delegate race remains a longshot, Sanders’s message is now guaranteed a larger platform – a message that has already moved Clinton to the left.
Trump wins, nothing changes
On the Republican side, Trump regained his mojo with strong performances in three of Tuesday’s four GOP contests – Michigan, Mississippi, and Hawaii – after polls had shown his national support dipping slightly. Senator Cruz of Texas, who won the Idaho primary handily, solidified his position as Trump’s main rival.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who hoped to win Michigan as a launch pad into his home-state primary next Tuesday, came in third, close behind Cruz, and tied Cruz in Michigan delegates won.
But the big loser of the night was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who won zero delegates. Rumors swirling that he’s under pressure to drop out even before his state’s primary next Tuesday don’t help.
Once seen as a bright light of the Republican Party’s future, Senator Rubio has struck many voters as either not ready for prime time or a creature of the GOP establishment or both, and risks damaging his political future if he loses here next Tuesday in the winner-take-all contest. But Rubio insists he’s in it for the long haul – and has seasoned Republican strategists gaming out strategies for the convention in July. In the event that no one candidate arrives in Cleveland with a majority of delegates, Rubio hopes to emerge as a consensus pick.
But that plan may get Trumped, as the braggadocious billionaire won the day Tuesday. At his victory press conference in Jupiter, Fla., Trump, ever the showman, came across as more QVC than GOP, hawking Trump wine, Trump steaks, and Trump water, set out on a table for display.
He also crowed about beating the GOP powers-that-be, desperately trying at this late hour to stop the Trump train.
“I want to thank the special interests and the lobbyists because they obviously did something to drive these numbers,” Trump said.
Still, the exit polls in Michigan – the day’s biggest contest – showed Trump’s continuing problems within a deeply divided Republican electorate.
“Half of GOP voters in the state said he’s not honest and trustworthy. Forty-seven percent said they would not be satisfied with him as the nominee,” ABC News polling analysts write. “Ted Cruz beat him on both of these measures – and also tipped Trump in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup, 44-39 percent.”
But Trump still came out ahead in a fractured field. Divide-and-conquer remains the story of the Republican nomination race.