NPR logo Another Primary Night's Results Confound (At Least Some) Expectations


Another Primary Night's Results Confound (At Least Some) Expectations

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders celebrate after victories in Tuesday night's contests. Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Alan Diaz/AP hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Alan Diaz/AP

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders celebrate after victories in Tuesday night's contests.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Alan Diaz/AP

The latest day of primary voting was bad news for one leading candidate, good news for another and a setback for popular campaign narratives in both parties.

You may have heard that Hillary Clinton was about to extend her Super Tuesday dominance to Mississippi and Michigan, putting the campaign of Bernie Sanders on the ropes once and for all. The Clinton story seemed all the more plausible given her feisty show in her seventh debate with Sanders and the struggle he seemed to have in more populous states.

And you may also have heard the reports of Donald Trump's momentum finally stalling out. Over the weekend, in votes in Kentucky and Louisiana, late-deciders had broken against him. Trump still won those states, of course, but only because so many people voted early for him.

This Trump scenario made sense given the millions of dollars in attack ads paid for by rivals and by independent superPACs opposed to his nomination.

But not so fast. As it turned out, it was the Clinton juggernaut that lost a wheel in Michigan — while Trump's model stayed very much on track. He lost late-deciders again, but it mattered even less than it had in the earlier tests.

Sanders, for his part, once again defied expectations. Michigan responded to his assault on trade deals, while not entirely buying Clinton's late attacks on his voting record on the auto industry bailout.

Clinton may also have been expecting higher turnout among African-Americans, who backed her with 65 percent of their vote but did not supply enough votes to overcome Sanders' advantage outside of metropolitan Detroit. Clinton also failed to win the county that is home to Flint, the city with lead-poisoned water that she had made the focus of her campaign.

Once again, Sanders reprised his astounding dominance of the youth vote, taking 87 percent of the votes of those under 30. He also won an overwhelming number of counties, large and small, throughout the state.

The Republican Narrative Remains Unchanged

Yet another storyline that crashed and burned Tuesday concerned a candidate running well out of the money so far this season. This was the myth known as "the emergence of John Kasich," the Ohio governor many hoped might become the establishment alternative to Trump.

Kasich went all-in for Michigan in hopes of generating momentum ahead of his do-or-die primary in his home state on March 15. But Kasich finished third, a hair or two behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He may still win Ohio next week, but he will not be a factor anywhere else on a day when three other top-10 states will vote (Florida, Illinois and North Carolina).

For his part, Cruz once again showed himself the master of the small state event (he won in Idaho) and the second-place finish (Michigan, Mississippi, Hawaii). Despite his maddening failure to defeat Trump in Southern states with big populations of evangelical white Protestants, Cruz has hung tough and racked up delegates.

He is now just 99 delegates behind Trump. If he could win a few of the winner-take-all states, he could catch him, although the prospects of that appear increasingly remote. And if there is any GOP candidate with a chance of preventing Trump from reaching 1,237 delegates for a first-ballot nomination, it is now Cruz.

It might help Cruz stop Trump if his fellow freshman senator, Marco Rubio, dropped out rather than contest his home state of Florida next week. But Rubio has vowed to remain for that test, even though he remains behind Trump in Florida polling and must battle Cruz and Kasich for votes there.

Truth be told, Tuesday was a night of total frustration for Rubio, demonstrating how utterly his campaign strategy has failed. He not only finished third or worse in Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii — he won exactly zero delegates for the night. His delegate count is now further behind Cruz than Cruz is behind Trump.

Rubio was the young and charismatic candidate many Republicans had hoped would step up as the anti-Trump. But Rubio's recent attempts to do so with personal putdowns and constant attacks may have backfired, judging by his performance since he adopted Trump's slashing speaking style. Setting aside a small-turnout event in Minnesota and a primary in Puerto Rico, Rubio has now staggered winless through two-dozen primaries and caucuses.

Clinton's Delegate Lead Still Dominant

In the cold light of the day-after, it is possible the results from Tuesday will look different. Had Clinton eked out another 20,000 votes or so in Michigan, the headline might have been about her crossing the halfway point in pursuit of the 2,383 delegates needed to nominate on the first ballot at the July convention in Philadelphia. She has 1,221 now. Sanders has 571.

The most frustrating element of the battle for Sanders is that even his best night since New Hampshire did not avail him in the delegate tally. Clinton's 66-point dominance in Mississippi won her nearly all that state's cache of 36 delegates, while Sanders' razor-thin margin in Michigan meant the two candidates split that state's 130 delegates almost evenly.

All of that makes it difficult for Sanders to overcome Clinton's delegate lead, even if he continues to best her in the voting booths from here through June. Sanders strategist Tad Devine is fond of saying the race is a marathon, not a sprint, but winning a race of any duration still requires you to finish first.

Sanders needs to make a habit of doing just that, and by wider margins than his breakthrough in Michigan gave him. Still, however steep the climb may appear, this Tuesday made it harder than ever to count the Vermonter out.