What we’re watching as 4 states go to the polls

Martin Calderwood votes during the primary election at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss.
Martin Calderwood votes during the primary election at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss. –AP Photo/Oxford Eagle, Bruce Newman

Voters go to the polls in four states on Tuesday, with Michigan the biggest prize for both parties. Donald Trump seeks to strengthen his position as the Republican front-runner, while his rivals look to slow his drive toward the nomination. For the Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont faces a crucial test in his upstart campaign to derail Hillary Clinton. Here are some of the things we will be watching in the contests in Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi.

Is Trump Fading?

Trump had a rough week. He faced attacks from the party establishment and criticism for his debate performance on Thursday before barely outpacing Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Saturday in Kentucky and Louisiana, and losing to him in Kansas and Maine, where Trump was considered a favorite.

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But it is not clear whether he struggled to win because he had lost ground or because anti-Trump voters had consolidated around Cruz. Trump’s share of the vote on Saturday was roughly in line with what he had won on Super Tuesday; Cruz finished with a far higher share of the vote than his Super Tuesday total.

The outcome Tuesday could be telling. If Trump were to replicate his Super Tuesday performance, he would take about 35 percent of the vote in Michigan and 42 percent in Mississippi. If he were to lose significant ground from last week’s vote, it could present an opening for one of his rivals.

Will Rubio Continue His Slide?

It seems clear that Cruz benefited on Saturday from the somewhat sudden slide of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio managed only 17 percent in the Kansas caucuses on Saturday — and that was his high-water mark across four states for the day. He bounced back with a decisive victory in Puerto Rico on Sunday, but that might not stop him from dropping in the states with the two largest delegate hauls on Tuesday: Michigan and Mississippi.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has devoted substantial time to Michigan, and, according to local Republican officials backing Rubio, he has cut into the core of Rubio’s support: upscale, suburban Republicans. Rubio also faces the prospect of losing similar voters in Mississippi to Kasich, while anti-Trump conservatives drift to Cruz there.

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The good news for Rubio is that he could fare much better in the two other states that vote on Tuesday: Idaho and Hawaii. But as any West Coast Heisman Trophy contender knows, late-night success can often be missed by a press corps faced with Eastern time zone deadlines.

Who Will Win the Race Within the Race?

Though Cruz benefited from Rubio’s weak performance in Kentucky and Louisiana, it is not clear whether he can make the same gains in Michigan. It is a blue state with relatively few evangelical voters, and Cruz has struggled so far in such states.

Instead, Kasich could be the candidate who benefits from Rubio’s struggles. He is a relatively moderate governor from a neighboring state, and polls show he has moved into a tight race with Cruz for second place.

The race for second is a test for both Cruz and Kasich as each looks to present himself as the strongest Trump alternative. The second half of the primary season includes many Democratic-leaning states, like California, New Jersey and New York. A strong second-place showing in Michigan would ameliorate concerns about Cruz’s ability to compete in blue states; if Kasich were to fare better, it would set him up for a strong showing in his home state next week.

Is Michigan Sanders’ Best Bet?

On paper, Michigan should be a good state for Sanders. It is a white, working-class state that has been ravaged by outsourcing and ought to be receptive to Sanders’ message on economic issues. It is also a fairly liberal state, with big college towns like Ann Arbor and East Lansing. The state is whiter than the nation as a whole, and black voters — who have turned out in droves for Clinton in the South — make up roughly the same share of the electorate there as they do nationally.

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The burden for Sanders in Michigan is even higher because he needs to make up for losses in the first part of the primary season with even stronger showings going forward. The polls suggest that Clinton is on track for a decisive victory, so Sanders needs a surprise win to show he still has a path of his own.

Is Mississippi a Southern Bellwether?

Trump rolled through the Deep South on Super Tuesday, winning every state in the region, some of them in landslides. In Alabama, he routed his nearest competitor, Cruz, by more than 22 percentage points. But when the race came to Louisiana on Saturday, the outcome looked markedly different. Trump beat Cruz by about four percentage points, and he fared far worse among voters who cast ballots on Saturday than those who voted early.

The Mississippi primary will offer some insight into whether Trump is slipping with some of the party’s most conservative voters. Demographically, the state resembles its two neighbors, which had such different results. It is also filled with Christian conservative voters: 83 percent of those who cast ballots in the 2012 Republican presidential primary called themselves evangelicals. The good news for Trump is that, unlike Louisiana’s primary, Mississippi’s contest is not limited to Republicans, so he could benefit from the Democrats and independents who have been drawn to his candidacy. But if Trump is starting to slip with Christian conservatives — whether because of his innuendo about his manhood, Cruz’s growing strength, or both — it could be evident here.

Who Can Win the Bare Minimum?

Candidates must meet a minimum percentage of the vote in certain states to receive any delegates, which are allocated proportionally in the Republican race until March 15 (starting then, states can decide whether to hold winner-take-all or proportional contests). The more candidates who meet the threshold, the more delegates are scattered — and the less likely it is that any candidate can reach the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the convention.

Three of the four states where Republicans are voting on Tuesday have thresholds: To win delegates, a candidate must receive at least 20 percent of the vote in Idaho, and at least 15 percent in Michigan and Mississippi.

The two candidates most in danger of not reaching the minimum are Rubio and Kasich. Rubio learned how much that can hurt on Super Tuesday, when he failed to meet the threshold in three states and was denied all but a handful of delegates. If Rubio and Kasich are shut out entirely on Tuesday, it will push the Republican contest closer to a two-man race.

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