By Liz Fields and Olivia Becker
Bernie Sanders narrowly won the Michigan primary on Tuesday night, keeping his campaign in the race as Hillary Clinton continues to hold a strong delegate lead in the Democratic presidential primary.
Sanders’ win in Michigan, though small, was unexpected. Clinton led in the state by double digits in recent polling and yet Sanders edged her out on the final ballot by 50-48 percent. Michigan was the big prize on Tuesday night with the most delegates up for grabs, but after Sanders defeated Clinton there by just two percentage points, the candidates will essentially split them down the middle because the race was so close. Sanders will take 65 of Michigan’s delegates to Clinton’s 58, according to the New York Times.
The former secretary of state, who was already outpacing Sanders in the delegate race, solidified her lead over the Vermont senator with a massive 83-16 percent win in Mississippi on Tuesday, crushing him in the contest by nearly 70 points. Clinton took 29 of Mississippi’s delegates after carrying off an easy victory in the state, where she was polling more than 50 points ahead of Sanders ahead of the primary. Sanders earned four delegates in the state.
Clinton scored well among black voters in Mississippi, continuing a trend that has seen states with large black populations rally around the former secretary of state, particularly in the South. The Magnolia State is 37 percent African-American and has the largest number of black elected officials of any state.
Both candidates campaigned fiercely in the lead-up to Tuesday’s primaries, especially in Michigan, where the pair clashed over their records in rescuing the auto industry, a pillar of the state’s economy, from the 2008 financial crisis. During the Democratic debate in Flint on Sunday night, Clinton accused Sanders of casting a vote against the auto bailout and essentially choosing not to save the industry. In the aftermath of that testy exchange, the Sanders campaign released a flurry of emails and a radio ad contesting Clinton’s assertion.
Related: Clinton, Sanders Get Testy in Flint, Michigan, Ahead of Major Primary Contest on Tuesday
Sanders did in fact vote for a $14 billion auto rescue package in December 2008, but that bill failed after Senate Republicans blocked it. He voted against a separate bill in January 2009 that provided some additional funds to auto lenders, which ultimately passed. But the majority of funding from that second bailout bill went to the banks and Sanders said he could not support it.
Michigan was also the biggest prize of the night on the Republican side with 59 delegates, the most for any state that voted on Tuesday night in the GOP contest. Donald Trump remained the undisputed leader of the pack, winning the Michigan primary with 37 percent of the vote.
Trump was followed in second place by Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ended the race in a near-tie at 24.9 percent and 24.4 percent of the vote respectively. Each will take 17 delegates from Michigan, while Trump earned 25. Senator Marco Rubio finished in last place with about 10 percent of the vote, failing to reach the 15 percent threshold to earn a single delegate in the state.
But while it was another difficult evening for Rubio, it was yet another big night for Cruz who won the Idaho caucuses by nearly 20 points. Cruz has now won seven states to Rubio’s one and Kasich’s zero. And he’s running just about 100 delegates behind Trump’s campaign. Tuesday night’s big win in Idaho, even though it carries few delegates, helps Cruz to reinforce the fact that he is the only candidate who has shown that he can beat Trump.
Yet Trump also won big victories in Hawaii and Mississippi on Tuesday night.
Related: Flint Sees the National Political Spotlight Two Years After Its Water Was Poisoned
Tuesday’s contests are a prelude to a much larger battle in the 2016 primary races for both parties. Next week, on March 15, big states like Illinois, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina will cast their votes in both contests, handing out large groups of delegates that could make-or-break the remaining campaigns.
Those contests will be particularly important for Republicans, as the primaries in Florida and Ohio will be the first to give out their delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
Kasich has campaigned hard in Michigan and his surprising performance there gives his campaign a needed boost going into that critical primary in his home state of Ohio on March 15.
Rubio, meanwhile, has the most ground to make up and is pinning much of his campaign’s future on performing well in his home state of Florida next Tuesday. He decided to spend last several days campaigning exclusively in Florida in a last ditch effort to save his campaign by winning his home state.
Cruz has apparently decided to do everything in his power to try to stop that from happening. His campaign, along with the various super PACs supporting him, are planning on unleashing a torrent of advertisements attacking Rubio in the Sunshine State ahead of the primary.
The strategy seems to be an attempt to cement the Republican race as a two-man contest between Cruz and Trump, in the hopes that Rubio’s supporters will fall over to Cruz once Rubio drops out.
“Donald is benefited by multiple opponents in this race,” Cruz said at a rally in Idaho on Saturday. “Because if the rest of the votes are divided, it allows him to win with the plurality of 35 to 37 percent.”
On the Democratic side, Sanders is looking ahead to March 15.
Ahead of the expected losses on Tuesday night, the Sanders campaign sent a fundraising email noting that there are still important contests in the states of Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina in the next seven days, and called on supporters to “continue to stand together and fight.” But that was before his surprise win in Michigan.
Sanders followed up with an email to supporters late Tuesday night to fundraise off the back of the victory.
“That’s a major, game-changing victory for our campaign. The corporate media counted us out. The pollsters said we were way behind. The Clinton super PACs spent millions against us across the country. We were hit with a dishonest attack in the debate,” Sanders said in the email to supporters, referring to the auto bailout argument. “But we won, again… and if we continue to stand together, we can win this nomination.”
As Sanders continues to work to rack up additional delegates in a tight nomination race, Clinton has increasingly focused on her frontrunner status and appeared confident in her impending nomination. At a town hall in Detroit on Monday night she even went so far as to compare Sanders’ campaign to her own failed 2008 run for the White House.
Clinton said she hoped Sanders would continue to work with her after the election is over “the way I supported President Obama after I dropped out back in 2008.”
Follow Liz Fields and Olivia Becker on Twitter: @lianzifields and @obecker928 – Vice News