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Could Michigan Change The Course Of The GOP Race?

For this week’s politics Slack chat, we preview today’s primaries and caucuses. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Check out our live coverage of today’s primary elections.

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micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s not quite as super as Super Tuesday, but it’s Tuesday and there are elections, so that’s something. Republicans vote in four states: Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii. Democrats go to the polls in two: Michigan and Mississippi. So let’s set the stakes in each state one by one. Let’s start in Michigan. Clare, who’s favored in the GOP race? And what should we be looking for in the results?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Well, Donald Trump is still favored to win in Michigan, and that lovely little bifurcated state is pretty much the big prize of today.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Don’t call my state bifurcated, Clare.

clare.malone: It’s gimpy, man. I just call it like I see it.

natesilver: Just gonna plant this little clip here:

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Where’s the Columbia Lions football clip?

clare.malone: I think as far as what we’re looking for in the results, especially following some unexpected results on Saturday, where Trump didn’t win some states we thought he might, we’re looking to see if people have slumped a bit in their support of him. John Kasich has been spending an awful lot of time in Michigan, and Trump might have turned off some sensible Michiganders with his Thursday night debate performance, so it’ll be interesting to see what the win, place, show is up there.

Oh, and to Nate’s above, all I have to say is muck fichigan.

natesilver: Our polls-plus model gives Trump an 8 percent chance of losing Michigan. Which is not high, obviously, although also not zero.

In general, today isn’t a huge day for delegate allocation because everything is quite proportional. But Michigan will matter for The Narrative, will it not? And in turn how everything plays out between now and March 15.

clare.malone: I think the narrative point is key here — Mitt Romney, I’ll note, recorded robocalls for Kasich and Rubio, both in Michigan.

harry: The state has 59 delegates at stake, with a 15 percent threshold, and awards its delegates proportionally. One candidate can take all the delegates if they clear 50 percent, but no one is likely to do that.

micah: Will Marco Rubio clear 15 percent?

natesilver: I’d put Rubio at less than even money to reach it. Our polls-plus model puts him at 14 percent, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some last-minute tactical voting shifting from Rubio to Kasich.

harry: Yeah, there are signs Rubio will not make the threshold. Moreover, there are signs from the latest Monmouth University poll that Rubio is declining and Kasich is rising quickly. It’ll be interesting to see if Kasich beats out Ted Cruz for second and if he can replace Rubio as the mainstream conservative in the Illinois primary next Tuesday; Trump leads in Illinois but is only at 33 percent in our weighted polling average for the state.

The narrative coming out of Michigan could be that Kasich has some momentum, and that’s important since next Tuesday is do or die for Kasich in Ohio, where our polls-plus model has him as a slight favorite but our polls-only model has him as a slight underdog.

natesilver: If Kasich comes close to Trump in Michigan, that will obviously bode very well for him in Ohio. If Kasich beats Trump — well, I think that’s a different ballgame.

clare.malone: That’s all assuming that a lot of people who have recently joined the Trump train are doing so because they figure he’s got the momentum so why the hell not — Kasich winning in Michigan might get some of those people to stop a little.

micah: Clare, what is Trump’s appeal in Michigan?

clare.malone: It’s the whole white working-class Democrats demographic that we’ve been hearing so much about as one of the big strongholds of Trump support. Michigan is filled with people who have been hurt by globalization, jobs leaving the country, etc., and there’s something about the Trump aura and his promises to return America to greatness that really speaks to the Rust Belt; it’s a nostalgic region in many ways.

natesilver: While Michigan’s economy has recovered quite nicely — unemployment is around 5 percent — its working-class population has been through some hard times in the past decade or two.

clare.malone: Right. There are a lot of notions of perpetual underdog-ness that are a big part of the region. That’s up Trump’s alley.

natesilver: There are parts of Michigan that are good for each of the candidates, however. Western Michigan has more evangelicals than you’d think, which will be good for Cruz. It has a fairly pragmatic state Republican Party, which could be good for Rubio. And it borders Ohio, good for Kasich.

Part of the reason Trump might hold on there, in fact, is because the rest of the vote will split two or three ways.

harry: Rick Santorum did quite well in Michigan in 2012. One other thing I’d like to point out is that the primary in Michigan is open. It’ll be interesting to see if we get a crossover vote from independents and Democrats who want to stop Trump, as they tried to do in Virginia, or if the openness merely allows Trump to do well as he has tended to do in open contests so far.

natesilver: John McCain won Michigan in 2000, for what it’s worth.

micah: Before we move on, give me some vote/delegate benchmarks: What would be good for Trump/Rubio/Kasich/Cruz?

harry: To be on track to win the nomination, per our benchmarks, Trump should get 25 delegates, Rubio 23 and Cruz 22. Kasich isn’t even listed on our tracker.

micah: Well, Kasich, even if he wins Ohio and Michigan, doesn’t really have a delegate path to the nomination, right?

harry: Kasich is basically playing for a contested convention.

clare.malone: Right. He said it would be “exciting” the other day.

natesilver: I’m just going to take our polls-plus forecast and basically add 3 percentage points to everyone to say what would constitute a “good” night. Trump would love to get 40 percent, which would quiet some of the talk about his having a ceiling, although the mid-to-high 30s would probably still suffice for him to win. Kasich would love to get in the high 20s. Cruz would love to break 25 in a state that wasn’t expected to be good for him. Rubio would just like to get on the board with some delegates, which means 15 percent.


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micah: OK, what’s going to happen on the Democratic side in Michigan?

clare.malone: Democratic side: Hillary Clinton probs gonna win that one. #analysis

natesilver: Yeah, Trump losing Michigan wouldn’t be a Lakers-Warriors upset, but it would be a big upset. Clinton losing would be an ENORMOUS upset.

harry: Clinton, by the way, has led in every single poll taken in Michigan, and it’s a state that Bernie Sanders should win if he is to have any shot at the nomination. According to our demographics-based targets, Sanders would win Michigan by 4 percentage points if the race were tied nationally.

micah: Let’s go to Mississippi GOP …

clare.malone: Mississippi could be another place for Cruz to shine, right?

micah: Isn’t Trump favored in Mississippi?

natesilver: Trump is favored in Mississippi. Though we haven’t gotten enough polls to run a forecast for the state, he’s won every surrounding state. You could get into an interesting argument about whether Mississippi or Michigan is the more likely upset state, I suppose.

harry: Mississippi is fascinating to me because it is the last Deep South state to vote. (Florida is not the Deep South.) So far, Trump has been able to win with support in the lows 40s in the Deep South. But there were strong signs on Saturday that Cruz was taking supporters from the other non-Trumps, and Cruz nearly won in Louisiana. Can he do the same in Mississippi tonight? It may be too little too late in terms of the delegates, but it would be something else given that the polling hasn’t generally been all that close.

natesilver: Yeah, so that’s why it’s tricky. Mississippi should inherently be stronger than Michigan for Trump. But, also, there’s a clear anti-Trump to coordinate around in Mississippi but less so up north.

clare.malone: Right, I think Cruz is actually the most interesting guy to watch tonight. He’s the most proven spoiler so far this race — I’m still on the Maine results. And if Cruz can kill the Rubio faux-momentum with more strong finishes or even notch an upset in, say, Mississippi, well then … what the heck does that do to the race? That’s probably mostly just a thought exercise, since it seems unlikely Trump would fall that far but still.

natesilver: Weird question, but is Rubio hoping for Trump to have a kinda-good night?

micah: Honestly, I’m not sure anything helps Rubio beyond winning states.

clare.malone: Hmm … maybe in some twisted way, yes. That campaign, Rubio’s, is obviously in a little bit of turmoil — there were reports from CNN that some campaign aides were thinking that he should drop out pre-Florida if he doesn’t do well today. If Cruz did well and Rubio didn’t, that wouldn’t look so hot.

harry: It depends on whether or not Rubio can come away with a victory or two, say in Hawaii or Idaho.

natesilver: Would a Hawaii win matter for The Narrative? We won’t get results in until the wee hours of the morning. BTW, I hate The Narrative, but it matters more than usual in this case because both voters and party actors are trying to coordinate around several different strategies.

Let’s talk Idaho, though. A Rubio win there would be a real surprise.

micah: Harry seems to think it’s possible.

clare.malone: Last poll in February had Cruz in second behind Trump.

harry: I just think it’s unknowable, and I do know that Rubio campaigned out there recently. I would not trust any of the polls from that state, to be honest. It’s a closed primary, and it is rarely competitive.

clare.malone: KNOWN UNKNOWNS!

natesilver: That poll had Trump up. But it’s also a couple of weeks old, and we know that Cruz has gained on Trump nationally since that time. Also, Cruz has an outright lead on Trump in Google searches in Idaho, which seems meaningful if we’re looking for little scraps of information. I think Idaho leans Cruz.

harry: Concur with Nathaniel’s assessment.

micah: And Hawaii?

natesilver: Betting markets have Rubio favored there, I guess on the theory that he does well on islands? Or in states where people are nice, like Minnesota? Hawaii is an island with really nice people, so maybe it favors Rubio?

clare.malone: Yeah, for some reason, I see Hawaii as a Rubio state: Rich Republicans with island houses. I think the idea would be that Hawaii Republicans are analogous to those rich suburbanites who love Rubio in the Midwest and elsewhere.

natesilver: I dunno, though, Cruz seems like a pretty good default pick in eccentric caucus states too.

harry: Hawaii has a lot of Mormons at the BYU campus. It is not a Trump state.

clare.malone: Want me to fly out and see what Cruz’s Hawaii ground game is like?

natesilver: Also a lot of Mormons in Idaho. One annoying thing about Nevada is that the entrance poll didn’t include a breakout of LDS voters.

clare.malone: Anecdotally, they were fairly split between Cruz and Rubio when I talked to people in Nevada.

micah: Two more things before we wrap: 1) Clinton is favored in Mississippi by a ton, right?

harry: Clinton is a HUGE favorite.

natesilver: Yeah, and Sanders is even at some risk of not getting 15 percent, which would deny him any delegates.

clare.malone: Whoever can spell “Mississippi” fastest wins that primary, I believe. So could be a tossup. But Clinton is pretty verbally dexterous, so I’d concur with the stats guys on this.

harry: And this is the whole problem with Sanders’s campaign. It’s not just that he loses states; he loses states by a big margin. You can’t do that when delegates are allocated proportionally. Clinton learned that in 2008, and Sanders is learning that now.

natesilver: I feel like we’re underselling the importance of Michigan to the Democratic race. It should be among the more representative states to have voted so far. A fairly large black population, but also some huge college campuses. Liberal-ish but not super liberal. So if Clinton wins there by 20 or something, it doesn’t bode well for Sanders. Then again, I have a gut feeling — WHICH YOU SHOULD TOTALLY IGNORE — that Sanders could beat his polling there.

clare.malone: I mean, if Sanders does well with working-class whites, then maybe he could, sure.

harry: What’s your definition of beating polling, Nate? I do think he’ll beat the Mitchell poll that had him down 37 percentage points.

natesilver: The polls have sorta been all over the place on the Democratic side in Michigan, so fair point. Our polls-only forecast has it at Clinton +21. But I’m talking single digits, I suppose. Err … I’m not predicting single digits, but I think Bernie’s range is a little wider than our model has it.

micah: Let’s say Sanders keeps it close, what would that suggest about the overall state of the Democratic race?

clare.malone: Well, it would depend on which types of voters he did well with, right? If he did better with minority voters, that could say something significant.

harry: According to our delegate tracker, Sanders should win a majority of delegates if he’s on pace to win the nomination. If he falls short of that but is competitive, I think it means Clinton isn’t blowing him away nationally but she has a clear lead.

natesilver: It might suggest a little bit of complacency on the part of Clinton’s voters. In sports, we’d call Michigan a “let-down game.” Michigan was also home to one of the most famous upsets in polling history, when Engler beat Blanchard in 1990 as Democrats thought they had it in the bag and didn’t turn out to vote.

harry: Nate was 12 for that one. Let’s just say I was younger.

clare.malone: A young man never forgets his first polling upset.

micah: All right, to close, let’s play our headline game; what will the headline of The Wall Street Journal be tomorrow morning?

clare.malone: “DOW PLUNGES,” which is basically what it is 50 percent of the time.

natesilver: “DOW RISES.”

harry: “Mike Bloomberg’s decision continues to sadden Wall Street.”

natesilver: Micah, I’m better at New York Times headlines.

clare.malone: “Trump Tramps Through Three States” (Could not get one more “T” for the life of me.)

micah: I like that.

natesilver: Trump Survives Challenge As Rivals Look To Sharpen Pitch

clare.malone: Or flatten it (that was a music joke that … fell flat).

micah: Nate, what the hell does that mean?

natesilver: I mean, the modal outcome is pretty ambiguous. Trump wins MI/MS but not by as much as we would have expected a couple of weeks ago. Loses ID/HI but nobody pays much attention to them. Status quo, so you get a weird ambiguous headline.

clare.malone: Basically, everyone is just waiting for NEXT Tuesday: “Nation Waits With Bated Breath For A Week From Now.”

harry: I’d like to point out that we still have contests before next Tuesday. The Virgin Islands Republican caucus is on Thursday, and the Guam and Washington, D.C., Republican conventions are on Saturday. I will be following those closely because I have no life.

natesilver: We want to break some news here, actually. We contacted the Virgin Islands Republican Party and confirmed that their caucus is on Thursday. Other sites list the date incorrectly.

micah: BREAKING!

natesilver: No, seriously. They’re having their caucus on March 10, not March 19.

micah: Credit to Aaron Bycoffe.

natesilver: Credit to Bycoffe, yes. Also the Republican National Committee’s rulebook, which says March 10.

micah: Harry, we still need your headline!

harry: I don’t do Times headlines, but my Daily News headline is “Clown Wins Two States.”

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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