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A Sanders surprise, but what does it really do for him?

It may not have been Super Tuesday, but voters sent shock waves through the 2016 campaign on Tuesday.

Bernie Sanders upset Hillary Clinton in the large, diverse state of Michigan, despite pre-election polls showing her with a substantial lead. The Vermont U.S. senator's breakthrough there, powered by his edge among white voters and improved performance among younger African-Americans, rattles the confidence of pundits and politicians alike in their early assessments of upcoming contests in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Clinton had been presumed to have the advantage based on her edges in national and state polls.


Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. acknowledges his supporters on arrival at a campaign rally, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Miami.
Alan Diaz | AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. acknowledges his supporters on arrival at a campaign rally, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Miami.

Donald Trump defied fierce attacks from mainstream Republicans led by Mitt Romney to win comfortably in disparate regions of the country. In Michigan, he defeated Ted Cruz and regional favorite John Kasich, the governor of Ohio. In Mississippi, he proved again that his "New York values," as Cruz calls them, can thrive in the South. Though Cruz, a Texan, has considered Dixie his stronghold, he lost by double digits to the billionaire businessman.

Cruz won Idaho, extending his success in some smaller states that play to his organizational strength by selecting delegates through caucuses. But Trump immediately followed that defeat by winning the caucuses in Hawaii. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who had hoped to win Hawaii, trailed badly there and in the other three states that voted Tuesday.

The good news for Clinton is that, while losing narrowly in Michigan, she routed Sanders in Mississippi. As a result she extended her lead in pledged delegates to roughly 200.

As the contest grinds on, the Democrats' preference for awarding delegates in proportion to voting results make it difficult for Sanders to overcome that deficit. Squeakers like Michigan, thrilling and unexpected as it was to his team, won't do it; he'll need to win big in large states like Ohio, Florida, New York and California. However, his victories in Michigan and elsewhere could give him greater leverage in setting the party platform.

The good news, if any, for mainstream Republicans who loathe Trump is that the party turn to winner-take-all contests still make it possible to deny Trump the ability to amass a delegate majority. That hope begins with the possibility that Rubio can overcome his deficit in the polls to capture his home state of Florida on March 15, and that Kasich can do the same in Ohio.

Yet Trump's consistent success thus far makes both long shots. The safer bet, based on the last voting returns, is that shaky nominees in both parties — Clinton for the Democrats and Trump for the Republicans — will face off in a November general election that challenges all conventional calculations.