NEW YORK – Tuesday night was an opportunity for Donald Trump to make up ground he needed to win the Republican nomination and, for once, he made the most of it. He even beat the polling projections for a change. His blowout in New York doesn’t quite put him back on track to reach 1,237 delegates and the nomination, but it appears he did what he needed to do: win almost all of the 95 delegates up for grabs.
Trump accomplished this despite having jumped out of the Red Queen Race he has been in ever since he declared his candidacy last summer. All along, he had managed to grab and maintain an unprecedented share of media attention by making more and more outrageous comments, attacks on the press, anti-democratic boasts and personal smears against his Republican rivals. The formula seemed clear, and Republican voters, who barely knew anything about the other candidates in that information environment, have supported him.
Suddenly, after the Wisconsin primary and his loss to Ted Cruz, that changed. He is still complaining about the “rigged” nomination process, but for the last two weeks he has been acting more or less like a normal candidate. His victory speech on Tuesday night — in which he repeatedly referred to “Senator Cruz” rather than “Lyin’ Ted” — was positively boring.
Everything worked: Trump finally cleared 50 percent in a primary, with plenty to spare. Of course, this was also his home state, one that was always going to be demographically welcoming for him. And Cruz was going to be a particularly weak candidate in the Empire State, having run against it earlier in the campaign.
Perhaps the media is so well-trained by now that it will give Trump plenty of attention no matter what he does. CNN’s pundits were gushing about how disciplined he sounded after his victory. Perhaps Republican voters who might have actively resisted Trump will be quick to forgive him if he will remain (relatively) subdued.
More on the delegate count: Nothing Trump could have done on Tuesday night, and nothing he can do next week in Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states he’s expected to win, can put him on a safe path to 1,237 bound and committed delegates. Unless something changes dramatically, the big states are still Indiana on May 3 and California on June 7.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won comfortably, as the polls and demographic analysis predicted. Nothing changes. Clinton still has the nomination locked up, and Bernie Sanders continues to run an impressive, but losing, campaign.
The Vermont senator has earned the right to fight on through June 7, but it’s not clear that going all out for a nomination he isn’t going to win is the best use of the energy and enthusiasm he has unleashed.
As for Clinton, we’re now entering the period when she’ll most likely get a bit of a public opinion surge. It might happen now, or after June 7, or perhaps not until the Democratic National Convention. But at some point, not only will the party be united behind her. She’ll also start looking like a winner in the media, and at that point her polling numbers will almost certainly rally.
This hardly means she’s a lock in the general election. But she’s about to hit a point where the process is going to stop hurting her favorability scores and start helping them.
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics. He is co-editor of “The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012.”