Donald Trump won convincing victories Tuesday in Michigan and Mississippi, the day’s biggest Republican presidential primaries, suggesting that the intensified GOP establishment assault on Trump’s character and record had failed so far to wound the front-runner for the nomination.
Early returns in Michigan showed Trump with a clear lead over Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while in Mississippi, Cruz was running a strong second. In both states, Trump galvanized the huge populations of white working-class voters with his populist economic pitch, nativist rhetoric and outsider appeal.
Running far behind in both primaries was Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida), who was on track to record among of his poorest results of the season, in danger of finishing below the 15 percent threshold to win any delegates in either state.
The latest round of balloting – which also includes a primary in Idaho and caucuses in Hawaii – comes at a critical juncture for the Republican Party. The runaway front-runner only a couple of weeks ago, Trump has been forced onto the defensive by his own missteps and by a barrage of savage attacks from his rivals and opposing super PACs.
In Michigan, the night’s marquee context, Kasich was poised to register a big surprise. The Midwesterner has been largely counted out of the national conversation, but Kasich campaigned harder across Michigan than any other candidate, holding upbeat town hall meetings throughout the state. He was banking on a strong finish there for a needed jolt heading into his must-win home-state primary next Tuesday.
Rubio, who is struggling to recover from a string of poor finishes in recent contests, was bracing for more disappointment. Polls showed him at risk of finishing in last place in Michigan, though he appeared poised to perhaps do better in Idaho and Hawaii, both states where his campaign had made investments.
Rubio, who spent Tuesday campaigning in Florida, where he is under intense pressure to win, sought to brush aside Tuesday night’s results as early returns in Michigan and Mississippi began rolling in.
“I believe with all my heart that the winner of the Florida primary next Tuesday will be the nominee of the Republican Party,” Rubio told a crowd in Ponte Vedra Beach. He then directly confronted Trump: “It’s not enough to stand up here and say you’re going to make America great again. You deserve to know how.”
Cruz was resurgent on Saturday, when he beat Trump in Kansas and Maine and came close to toppling him in Kentucky and Louisiana. The senator from Texas was hoping to creep up on Trump again on Tuesday and remain relatively in contention in the all-important delegate count.
At stake Tuesday were 150 convention delegates, which were to be awarded proportionally based on candidates’ performances by congressional district in each of the four states. Each state has thresholds for receiving delegates; in Michigan, for instance, candidates must finish with 15 percent of the vote or better to qualify for delegates.
For Trump, Michigan represented the first test of his electoral strength in the Rust Belt, where he believes his populist pitches on trade, jobs and immigration resonate deeply with working-class voters. Michigan is the kind of Democratic-leaning state – Pennsylvania is another – that Trump and his advisers have argued he could make competitive in a general election.
Trump faced another test in Mississippi, a heavily Republican Bible Belt state where he has long been favored because of his anti-immigration, nativist rhetoric. He held a massive, raucous rally on Monday evening in Madison, Mississippi.
Early network exit polling reported by CNN showed Mississippi primary voters divided sharply along ideological lines between Trump and Cruz, with 46 percent identifying as “very conservative,” the most of any contest this year. Strong conservatives have been Cruz’s best constituency this year, and he led Trump by roughly 10 percentage points in the preliminary data. But Trump led by at least 20 percentage points among Republicans who identify as somewhat conservative or moderate.
Fully 85 percent of Mississippi Republican primary voters said they were evangelical Christians, the exit polling shows. Cruz has focused on appealing to evangelicals with a socially conservative message, but in Mississippi as elsewhere, Trump appears to have blocked Cruz from gaining an edge. The early data found Trump with a small edge among evangelical Christians and a 2-to-1 lead among non-evangelicals.
Trump won Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee in landslides last Tuesday, and he was expected to do the same in Mississippi. But whether Trump’s win margin mirrored his 22-percentage-point lead over Cruz in Alabama or his much narrower, four-point win over him in Louisiana, would indicate whether Trump’s popularity was slipping among conservatives.
Some recent polls nationally and in key states have been warning signs for Trump, indicating that his refusal to immediately disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, his debate-stage quip about his manhood, and the attacks on his business dealings and character – or a combination of all three – were taking their toll.
Trump was counting on big wins in Tuesday’s contests, followed by a strong performance in Thursday night’s debate in Miami, to put himself back in full control of the nominating contest before next Tuesday’s potentially determinative primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
But the GOP establishment has been trying to keep Trump on his heels. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, recorded phone calls sent to Republicans in Michigan and other states voting Tuesday on behalf of Rubio and Kasich. Romney has not endorsed a candidate, but he has become a fierce Trump critic, and in the calls he urged Republicans to vote against Trump.
“I believe these are critical times that demand a serious, thoughtful commander in chief,” Romney says in the calls. “If we Republicans were to choose Donald Trump as our nominee, I believe that the prospects for a safe and prosperous future would be greatly diminished – and I’m convinced Donald Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton. So please vote tomorrow for a candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton and who can make us proud.”
Making the rounds on television shows Tuesday morning, Trump predicted he would finish strongly in the day’s balloting.
Asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” whether the barrage of attacks was “drawing some blood,” Trump replied: “No, I think we’re doing very well. But certainly they’re spending tens of millions of dollars fighting me, the establishment.”
Trump noted he was “way up” in the polls in Michigan and Mississippi, was ahead in Hawaii, and was “doing well in Idaho,” adding: “I love their potatoes.”
Tuesday’s biggest prize is Michigan, which awards 59 of the 150 delegates. Although polls have shown Trump with a substantial lead, Cruz made a hastily scheduled stopover in Grand Rapids late Monday, hoping to mobilize conservative voters there.
Michigan has relatively few evangelical voters and is hardly tailor-made for Cruz, though there are strong social conservative and libertarian strains in the Republican base. Cruz saw an opportunity to capitalize on his gains in last weekend’s contests and take advantage of Rubio’s struggles to possibly finish a strong second.
The candidate on the rise in Michigan seemed to be Kasich, who approached the state like a governor’s campaign, visiting every corner – including the remote Upper Peninsula – and racking up a bushel of endorsements from local officials.
Kasich said Tuesday on MSNBC, “You can feel the momentum here in Michigan, thank goodness.”
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker