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Coming into Tuesday, there were two assumptions about the state of the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns — GOP front-runner Donald Trump was potentially on the ropes and Hillary Clinton was looking at a possible sweep.

Guess again.

The real excitement came on the Democratic side, as Bernie Sanders pulled the biggest upset of this campaign season, defeating Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary. This was a stunner. Clinton had led in every pre-election poll by double digits. In the end, she lost by 2 points.

So what happened? Two factors seem to have played a crucial role. First, Clinton easily beat Sanders among Democratic voters — winning them by 16 points. Her problem is that Michigan has an open primary and she lost independents by a whopping 42 points. Clinton appears to have been a victim, in part, of moderate independent voters choosing to cast a ballot for Republican John Kasich in an attempt to stop Donald Trump rather than vote in the Democratic primary for her.

The other factor is the youth vote. While Clinton easily won those over the age of 45 (and Sanders prevailed among voters between the ages of 30 and 44), the real story is the 18-to-29 cohort; Sanders won them by an extraordinary 81-to-18 percent margin. That was 20 percent of all voters in Michigan. This follows a consistent pattern for Sanders, who also swept the youth vote in earlier contests in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, and even in South Carolina, where Clinton won big.


It’s perhaps not that surprising. These are voters who have little personal connection to Clinton. They were toddlers when her husband was president. Moreover, they came of age with perhaps the bleakest economic prospects of any generation since the Great Depression. They are gravitating to a candidate with the most stridently populist economic message, who also happens to promise free college tuition. Both Sanders and Trump have tapped into a real sense of popular anger and alienation with the status quo — and while Trump has relied largely, though not exclusively, on non-college educated white voters, Sanders has mobilized young people.


Now having said all that, we should put Tuesday’s results in context. For all of Sanders’ success, Clinton emerged from the evening with more delegates because of her big win in Mississippi. In all, she’s won 1.8 million more votes than Sanders and has a significant delegate lead.

There’s no question that Sanders win will give him much-needed momentum heading into Ohio, Illinois, and Florida. Although narrow victories will give him a boost, they won’t give him the delegates that he needs to overcome Clinton. Still, it does mean that it will be a long drawn out fight for Clinton against an opponent with the resources and the support to stick around until the end. If she had won big in Michigan, the calls for Sanders to leave the race might have grown. That’s not happening now.

On the Republican side, Trump won the Mississippi and Michigan primaries handily, as well as the Hawaii caucus. In Mississippi, he received 47 percent of the vote. In Michigan, he won by double digits over Ted Cruz, capturing 37 percent. Any question about the Never Trump movement gathering steam seems to have been answered — at least for now. Once again, evangelicals and non-college educated whites are propelling Trump’s rise. But Trump also won college grads in Mississippi and narrowly lost them in Michigan. The diversity of his coalition — his ability to win support from so many different voters — is what is allowing him to win everywhere from the South to the Midwest to the Northeast, and it’s a good part of the reason why he continues to be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination.


It must also be said, however, that Trump is incredibly lucky to be blessed by such a terrible group of opponents. In Michigan, Kasich spent more time in the state than any other candidate, holding 11 events before the primary. All it did was net him 24 percent of the vote and a third place finish behind Cruz, who had one campaign appearance. It looks as though Kasich isn’t going to win in many places other than his home state of Ohio — and even there is in doubt.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations are in full-scale meltdown. He finished fourth in Michigan, with 9 percent of the vote. In Mississippi, it was another fourth place finish, with a pathetic 5 percent of the vote. And in Idaho, a state in which his supporters said they liked Rubio’s chances, he netted 17 percent for a third place finish behind Trump and Cruz, who won the caucus. At this point, you can stick a fork in Marco. Even if he wins Florida he has no chance of winning enough delegates to capture the nomination and while one can see the rationale for him sticking around for the convention in Cleveland — Why not? Anything can happen — he increasingly looks like an afterthought. The problem, of course, is that he’ll stick it out until Florida, thus playing the same role as Kasich in the Republican campaign — helping Trump.


In the end, Tuesday was unexpected but it likely did not change the fundamental trajectory of the race — a Clinton-Trump showdown in the fall.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.