Last night’s primary results produced a shock win for Bernie Sanders in Michigan where polls had had him trailing Hillary Clinton by about 20 points almost right up to the election. On the morning of the election yesterday, the poll guru Nate Silver had predicted a greater than 99% probability of a Clinton victory. Harry Enten says that “Sanders’s win in Michigan was one of the greatest upsets in modern political history.”
Although his margin of victory was narrow (49.9%-48.2%), it defied the narrative that Sanders had support mainly in rural and largely white states. While Clinton’s lopsided victory in Mississippi resulted in her delegate lead increasing, she has to be worried that the Michigan victory will give the Sanders campaign a huge psychological boost.
Clinton had hoped that the southern states would be her ‘firewall’ that would halt the surge of Sanders after the first few primaries. That held true. Mississippi was the last of the southern states. But the second part of that strategy was that his defeats in the south would shut down or at least seriously weaken his campaign when it returned to the larger, more urban, and industrialized states and that has not happened. She now has to brace herself for a tough fight ahead in terrain that does not favor her so heavily though she still has a commanding lead in delegates and has a high probability of eventually winning.
On the Republican side, the big story has to be Donald Trump’s big wins last night. For awhile, pundits and commentators were saying (yet again!) that his novelty value seemed to be wearing off and that his support may have peaked, pointing as evidence to a closing of the gap between him and his rivals in national polls. The concerted attacks on him by Fox News, the party establishment, super PACS, and Mitt Romney in the last week seemed designed to deliver a knockout blow to a weakened candidate. And yet, there he was last night, victorious once again by winning three out of the four contests (Michigan, Mississippi, and Hawaii) and coming in second in Idaho where he had not campaigned at all. He gloated in his victory speech and ridiculed his opponents and critics, saying that they had taken their best shots at him and even after they spent $38 million in ads against him, he had emerged even stronger than before. This must be galling to the party establishment. Last night he seemed to offer an olive branch to the party, saying in his victory speech that he thought Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, two of his harshest critics, were probably nice guys and he could get along with them, just two days after he lambasted them for their attacks on him.
Ted Cruz won Idaho, where he had campaigned heavily, and came in second to Trump in the other three states. He will thus be able to credibly argue that he is the most viable challenger to Trump and that everyone should coalesce around him, something that the party establishment will find hard to stomach.
The big losers last night were Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, John Kasich. Rubio came in third in Hawaii and Idaho and fourth in Michigan and Mississippi and his campaign seems to be in free fall, getting a mere 9.3% in Michigan and a disastrous 5.3% in Mississippi and not winning any delegates at all yesterday. He keeps saying “Wait until Florida!” His refrain is similar to John Kasich who switched third and fourth place finishes with Rubio. He too says “Wait until Ohio!” Kasich has set expectations so low that he would have spun even a second place showing in Michigan as a victory but as it turned out, he was edged into third by Cruz.
Currently Rubio trails Trump by about 15% in Florida and Kasich trails Trump by about 5% in Ohio. But even if they both pull off wins in those contests next Tuesday, it is not clear that wins in their home states would mean anything. But losses would mean the end of their campaigns.