WASHINGTON/BEIJING – Hillary Clinton took a monumental step toward clinching the Democratic party’s White House nomination Tuesday, while Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable rush to victory hit a bump in Ohio.
Trump won key Republican primaries in Illinois, North Carolina and Florida — where he thumped home state Sen. Marco Rubio, who immediately announced he was suspending his presidential campaign.
“This was an amazing evening,” a buoyant Trump told supporters. “We’re going to win, win, win and we’re not stopping.”
Rubio’s loss was a major setback for Republicans trying to stop the bellicose businessman, whose populist anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim stance they say will split the party.
But the 69-year-old Trump was denied a clean sweep by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who carried his home state, a key general election battleground.
Trump may now struggle to reach the 1,237 delegates necessary to avoid a challenge at the party’s nominating convention in July in Cleveland.
“The bottom line after tonight: it looks like Trump will not have a majority of delegates in July,” said Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.
There were fewer problems for Clinton, who defeated her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in Florida, North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio. The primary in Missouri appeared very tight, with Clinton also tipped to win there.
Sanders now faces an almost impossible task to catch up with Clinton’s formidable delegate advantage.
“It’s pretty much impossible to see how she would not be the nominee,” said David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College.
“Bernie Sanders would need to start not only winning states, but winning states by very wide margins in order to make up the numerical deficit that he is now in,” Hopkins said.
Clinton has also won between 70 and 90 percent of the black vote in most states, and two-thirds of Hispanic voters cast ballots for her in Texas and Florida, according to exit polls.
Those margins guarantee her a key advantage in states with significant minority populations. Several of those states — mainly in the West — remain on the primary calendar, including California.
Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa, said that Sanders has trouble connecting with minority voters.
“His message is simply the kind of economic message that you hear day in, day out about millionaires and billionaires and Wall Street and big corporations,” Goldford said.
“He’s never really done identity politics, when he talks about the concerns of women, or African-Americans, or Latinos,” he said.
“She has always done identity politics. She is very comfortable doing that.”
The scope of Trump’s victory against Rubio in Florida will shock the Republican establishment as much as it will raise hopes the party can challenge in the one-time swing state come Nov. 8.
President Barack Obama carried the state in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.
If Trump cannot reach the magic number before the Republican convention in July, he risks seeing the party’s nomination slip through his fingers if delegates end up voting in numerous rounds in what is known as a brokered convention.
“It’s almost certain that he will have at least a plurality of the delegates,” Hopkins said.
“The question is whether the people who oppose him can stop him from getting the majority before the end of the primaries.”
Kasich, meanwhile, openly called for a contested convention and vowed to campaign on.
“I want to remind you, again tonight, that I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land,” he said.
Ted Cruz, an ultraconservative senator from Texas, also remains in the Republican race. Projections by U.S. media showed him trailing Trump in another close race in Missouri.
By staying in the hunt, Kasich prevents Cruz from becoming the anti-Trump camp’s standard-bearer.
His strategy is basically to keep Trump from winning a majority of delegates, and emerging at the convention as the unlikely consensus candidate.
In such a scenario, “the Trump supporters will be absolutely furious,” Goldford noted.
“They may well bolt the party or stay home in November,” he warned — not a good option for the Republicans, in the face of the Democratic Party’s grass-roots machine, which works hard to maximize maximum turnout in the election.
Republicans will now have to decide whether to rally behind one candidate or siphon votes away from Trump as a team.
Trump’s incendiary attacks on immigrants, threats of mass deportations and a proposal for a wall on the border with Mexico have ignited the campaign trail and drawn condemnation in some quarters — the latest being from President Barack Obama.
Without pointing the finger directly at Trump, Obama professed to being “dismayed” at some of the comments during campaigning.
“We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities — at Americans who don’t look like ‘us,’ or pray like ‘us,’ or vote like we do,” said the president, who along with his wife Michelle cast absentee ballots in their home state of Illinois.
But Trump’s populist message has resonated — even with some Democrats like 69-year-old Katharine Berry.
“We don’t need all these illegals,” she said outside a polling station at the Zion Lutheran Church in Canton, Ohio. “They’re taking our jobs, they’ve got all these rights, Americans don’t have rights.
“I voted Democrat today. But if Trump wins, then I’m going to vote for him in the general election.”
Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang expressed confidence that ties with the U.S. could endure this year’s “eye-catching” election, even as voters carried China-critic Trump closer to the Republican nomination.
Shared interests would continue to provide the foundation for relations between the world’s two largest economies regardless of the election outcome, Li said Wednesday in a news conference to wrap up annual legislative sessions in Beijing. China’s No. 2 leader was asked about China-bashing by the candidates at the same time votes from five U.S. state primaries were being tallied.
“No matter how the choice will be made and who will become the president, I believe the general trend toward further development of China-U.S. relations will not change,” Li said.