Polls will close at 8 this evening in Mississippi and in most of Michigan — a pair of states where both Democrats and Republicans are holding key presidential primaries.
In both of those states, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was leading among Democrats in pre-election polls. And in both, billionaire Donald Trump was leading among Republicans.
For Clinton, wins in these two radically different states — one in the Deep South, one in the industrial North — would all but clinch the Democratic nomination, making a comeback by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) all but impossible. Sanders, whose strongest showings have been in largely white states, had hoped to win over blue-collar whites in Michigan and black voters in both places. If Clinton wins both, that could be a signal that Sanders’s insurgent campaign has reached its limits.
For Trump, victories in the two states would not be decisive. He is still a long way from winning a majority of GOP convention delegates. Because Michigan and Mississippi will split their delegates among several candidates, his lead is not likely to grow by much on Tuesday.
But it would still be a key psychological victory for Trump, the now-embattled front-runner. Wins in these states would show that — despite furious attacks by rival candidates, a blitz of anti-Trump TV ads, and a highly unusual rebuke from his own party’s most recent presidential nominee — Trump can still win.
Republicans are also voting in Idaho and Hawaii on Tuesday, but Democrats are not. The results of those GOP contests will not be known for several more hours.
Early exit polls reported by CNN showed that Republican voters in Mississippi and Michigan were very unhappy with the U.S. government — a demographic that both Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have tried to woo.
In both states, almost 9 in 10 GOP voters said they were either dissatisfied or “angry” with the government, according to CNN.
CNN reported that, in both states, voters were also worried about economy, but Republicans in Mississippi were more likely to be worried about the issue. Roughly 8 in 10 Mississippi voters said they were worried, as compared to two-thirds in Michigan.
Republicans in Michigan and Mississippi were, however, deeply split on their views of immigration, CNN reported. In Mississippi, a majority say that immigrants working in the U.S. illegally should be deported. But most Republican voters in Michigan said those here illegally should be allowed to apply for legal status.
That view in Michigan could be a hopeful indicator for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who seems to be Trump’s closest challenger there. Kasich has criticized Trump for Trump’s exceptionally hard-line immigration policy, which includes a plan for the mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants now living in the United States.
In the Democratic race, Sanders made it clear Tuesday that — despite Clinton’s huge lead in delegates — he was not giving up without a fight.
Sanders announced shortly before 3 p.m. that his campaign is filing suit in federal court to block a move by the secretary of state in Ohio that would keep 17-year-olds from voting in the state’s presidential primaries.
Under current practice, Sanders said, anyone who will be 18 by the date of the general election has been allowed to participate in the primaries.
Sanders, who has performed exceptionally strongly with young voters in previous primaries and caucuses, made the announcement as his chartered jet was about to leave Michigan en route to Miami, where there is a Democratic debate scheduled Wednesday evening.
“We hope that there is a higher voter turnout here in Michigan,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday afternoon as he left the state. “From what I’m hearing, turnout seems to be pretty good. We have a history of doing very, very well when voter turnout is high, when working people come out in large numbers, when young people come out in large numbers.”
On the Republican side, establishment figures continued their barrage of attacks against Trump. On Monday, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney recorded a phone call paid for by the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that is being sent to Republicans in all four states voting Tuesday.
“Tomorrow you have the opportunity to vote for a Republican nominee for president,” Romney says in the call. “I believe these are critical times that demand a serious, thoughtful commander in chief. 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.”
Romney also recorded a similar call paid for by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, targeted at Michigan households with registered Republican voters.
Trump still leads his GOP rivals, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but the margin has narrowed and the party is now deeply divided over his candidacy. Trump maintains the support of 34 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, compared with 25 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), 18 percent for Rubio and 13 percent for Kasich.
In private conversations in recent days at a Republican Governors Association retreat in Park City, Utah, and at a gathering of conservative policy minds and financiers in Sea Island, Ga., there was an emerging consensus that Trump is vulnerable and that a continued blitz of attacks could puncture the billionaire mogul’s support and leave him limping onto the convention floor.
“I just don’t think he’s going to have enough delegates,” Kasich said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding, “At a convention, I think we’re going to pick somebody who can be commander in chief.”
But the slow-bleed strategy is risky and hinges on Trump losing Florida, Illinois and Ohio on March 15; wins in all three would set him on track to amass the majority of delegates. Even as some party figures see glimmers of hope that Trump can be overtaken, others believe any stop-Trump efforts could prove futile.
This moment of confusion for the Republican Party is compounded by the absence of a clear alternative to Trump. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich each are collecting delegates and vowing to fight through the spring. Among GOP elites, the only agreed-upon mission is to minimize Trump’s share of the delegates to enable an opponent to mount a credible convention challenge.
“It’s one thing if [Trump] goes to the convention and he’s got 48 percent, 49 percent of the delegates,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Rubio supporter, said in an interview. “Then it’s a hard thing to see if there’s a convention floor battle. But if he goes to the convention and he’s got 35 or 40 percent, that’s a whole different thing.”
Cruz, who made a hastily scheduled stopover in Michigan late Monday, arriving in Grand Rapids at 11 p.m., made a pitch in a bar to hundreds of voters who ate complimentary pasta as they waited for him.
“Poll after poll after poll, Hillary trounces Donald Trump,” Cruz said. “To those 65 percent of Republicans who think Donald Trump would be a disaster as the nominee, I want to encourage you to join so many others and unite behind this campaign.”
On Tuesday, Alex Ross, a 20-year-old student from Grand Rapids, said he was voting for Cruz and had confidence he could secure the nomination.
“Cruz is within striking distance of Trump, and after Florida it’s very likely Rubio will drop out,” he said. “With Rubio gone, it’s likely that Cruz beats Trump every time.”
Kasich showed no signs of backing down during his MSNBC interview Tuesday. “You can feel the momentum here in Michigan, thank goodness,” he said.
His base of support was evident in the views of voters such as Kate Hude, a 38-year-old attorney in Lansing who said she supported Kasich and feared that the other candidates “are destroying their party.”
“I’m anti-Trump, anti-Cruz, anti-Rubio, and the Democrats don’t need my help right now,” she said.
Trump, meanwhile, made the rounds on several television shows Tuesday morning. In a phone interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host George Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether the barrage of attacks was “drawing some blood.”
“No, I think we’re doing very well,” he replied. “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 “doing well in Idaho,” adding: “I love their potatoes.”
When Stephanopoulos noted that multiple critics have compared him to Adolf Hitler in recent weeks, Trump dismissed the comparison. “I don’t know about the Hitler comparison. I hadn’t heard that.”
“I have to be strong,” he added a minute later. “I have a tremendous following.”
In a separate interview with NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday, Trump said he was surprised that some people thought his decision to ask supporters at rallies to take a pledge to vote for him resembled Nazi rallies more than half a century ago.
“Honestly, until this phone call, I didn’t realize it was a problem,” he said. “If it’s offensive, if there’s anything wrong with it, I wouldn’t do it.”
In a separate interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he called the charge “ridiculous.”
Among the Democrats, Sanders held yet another series of large rallies across Michigan on Monday, including one that attracted 5,700 supporters in Ann Arbor. There, he scrambled to deny Clinton’s assertion in a debate Sunday night that he opposed funding the 2008 auto industry bailout, a claim he called “absolutely false.”
Sanders debuted a new minute-long radio ad Monday that accuses Clinton of “trying to distort the truth about Bernie’s record” and says the senator from Vermont “has always been on the side of Michigan workers and working families.”
“Of course I voted to defend the automobile industry,” Sanders told the Ann Arbor crowd.
During the CNN debate broadcast Sunday from Flint, Mich., Clinton said there was “a pretty big difference” between the two candidates on the $14 billion auto rescue package, which was of particular interest to voters in Michigan, as well as in Ohio, which holds its primary next week.
“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said during the debate. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry.”
Left unmentioned was an earlier Sanders vote in favor of the bailout. The vote that Clinton referenced was on legislation to release funds for a Wall Street bailout, some of which were instead used to help auto manufacturers.
“What I did not vote for was a middle-class bailout for the crooks on Wall Street,” Sanders told his audience there.
Clinton ended her campaigning in Michigan on the eve of the primary, urging her supporters to vote so that she can quickly wrap up the Democratic nomination.
“The sooner I can become your nominee, the more I can begin to turn my attention to the Republicans,” Clinton told the crowd of nearly 900 in the Motor City.
As voters went to the polls, Clinton spent Tuesday morning campaigning at a local shop, Avalon International Breads. In what has become an election-day ritual, she ordered espresso and pastries, posed for dozens of selfies and urged patrons to support her.
She is expected to campaign in Cleveland — which will vote on March 15 — as results in Michigan come in on Tuesday night.
Her advisers have sought to raise expectations for Sanders, who is believed to have an advantage among the working class, whiter Democratic electorate here. But polls show that Clinton has as much as a double-digit lead.
African American voters are expected to once again play a role in bolstering Clinton’s candidacy. In Michigan, she has championed the residents of the majority-black city of Flint, which has been beset by a lead poisoning water crisis. Clinton received the endorsement of the city’s mayor and made her response to the lead crisis a major part of her outreach to African Americans.
And she elicited roars from the crowd when she added of Trump: “We will not let a person like that ever become president of the United States.”
Robert Costa, Ed O’Keefe, Abby Phillip, Phillip Rucker, John Wagner, David Weigel and Niraj Chokshi contributed to this report.