Americans in five states voted Tuesday in presidential primaries crucial to the White House hopes of frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton but that have also showcased the deep-seated discontent of a downtrodden working class.
Blue collar woes, immigration, trade and the specter of violent protests dominated the debate ahead of the primaries in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, elections so key to the shape of the Republican and Democratic nominating races some have dubbed it “Titanic Tuesday.”
For Republicans, the day may tell whether Trump can ride a tide of voter anger all the way to the Republican nomination in July, or whether he will face a hostile and bitterly divided party at a contested nomination convention.
For Democrats, the contests in the racially diverse, industrial Midwest will test Clinton’s electability outside of the South where African American voters have given her victory after victory.
Her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has denounced her support of free trade pacts in a part of the country that has seen manufacturing jobs disappear as entire industries have moved offshore.
The election will show whether the Sanders campaign has legs, complicating Clinton’s shot at the Democratic nomination.
– Battleground Ohio –
In Canton, voters made their way through the drizzle and dark to cast ballots when polls opened in one of the most closely watched races of the day.
Ohio Governor John Kasich is the home state favorite in the Republican race, running just ahead of Trump in pre-election polls and well ahead of Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Ohio, is a winner-take-all state with 66 delegates, making it a crucial battleground for Republicans intent on stopping Trump’s drive to amass the 1,237 delegates needed to win the party nomination outright, up from the 471 he has taken so far.
But Trump’s incendiary attacks on immigrants, with threats of mass deportations and a wall on the border with Mexico appeal even to some Democrats like 69-year-old Katharine Berry.
“We don’t need all these illegals,” she told AFP outside a polling station at the Zion Lutheran Church in Canton. “They’re taking our jobs, they’ve got all these rights, Americans don’t have rights.”
“I’m a Democrat, I voted Democrat today. But if Trump wins then I’m going to vote for him” in the general election,” she said.
Cruz supporter Michael Oleg, a 46-year-old registered nurse, said, “We’re seeing a lot of Trump sway. You’re seeing the frustration thing.”
Campaigning in Ohio, Trump has pitched his candidacy not to the core Republican electorate but to blue collar workers, attacking free trade deals and the loss of jobs to foreign competitors.
“Your steel industry is dead,” Trump said Monday. “I’m going to bring your industry back.”
In an interview with NBC News as polls opened, Trump said: “They hate the fact their coal and steel industries are gone. I think we’re going to do well in Ohio.”
– ‘Bimbo,’ ‘fat pig’ – –
Kasich, an upbeat study in contrasts with Trump, has campaigned on his record of turning around Ohio’s struggling economy, which he hopes will give him his first primary victory.
He decries Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and turbulent rallies as “disgraceful, frankly.”
“I mean, we’re not a country that spends its time slugging each other in the aisles or where the people who want to lead the country are insulting every group that he faces,” said on ABC News.
“I’m sure people are shaking their heads, saying, what’s happening to America?”
A Republican committee, or so-called super PAC, meanwhile aired a scathing ad in Ohio and Florida and on national cable television that shows women reading out misogynistic remarks Trump has made: “Bimbo,” “Dog,” “Fat pig.”
Asked on NBC if he’d like to take back any of the comments, Trump replied: “Let me tell you, every single poll of every single state I’ve won, of which I’ve won, you know, a vast majority, but every single poll coming out, the exit polls, I lead with women.”
Pre-election polls showed Trump leading by substantial margins in all Tuesday primaries except Ohio.
The races were closer in the Midwest but Trump had nearly a 20-point lead in winner-take-all Florida, the biggest prize of the day with 99 delegates.
In Florida, his closest competitor was Rubio, for whom a loss in his home state is likely to signal his exit from the race. Cruz has been Trump’s nearest competitor in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
– Clinton test in Midwest –
Clinton also went into the elections with huge leads in Florida and North Carolina, but with potentially closer races in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri where Sanders has gained strength amid the anti-status quo mood of the electorate.
“If we have a good vote, and people come out, we’re going to win in Ohio,” said Sanders, 74.
But Clinton already has more than half the 2,383 delegates needed for the nomination, and is looking to extend her lead over Sanders, who has half as many.
“I just want somebody in there who’s actually going to do what they say they’re going to do,” said Katherine Dunivent, a 28-year-old African American, who voted for Clinton in Canton.