The U.S. presidential campaign has entered the home stretch. The victories of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican front-runner Donald Trump in the New York primaries last week consolidated their positions as likely nominees. Neither outcome is guaranteed, of course, but if the two win primaries this week — and both look set to do so — then the nominations are theirs to lose.
In the Democratic race, Clinton beat the projections when she walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders in her home state. Her 16-point margin of victory outpaced forecasts, leaving Clinton with 1,930 delegates, just shy of the 2,383 needed to secure the nomination. Most observers believe that Clinton has sewn up the contest, although a wild card, such as legal troubles stemming from her email account while she was secretary of state, could derail the campaign. That is a long shot, however.
Sanders has 1,223 delegates and his supporters insist that voters are rallying behind him. The claim that momentum was swinging in his direction has been muted by Clinton’s win in New York. Sanders’ support is strong but he has limited appeal. Exit polls show that voters across the board back the front-runner. His claim that Clinton rode a tidal wave of support from early Southern primaries is true, but voters in those states look more like Democratic (and national) demographics that do his supporters.
The question now for Sanders is his strategy for the remainder of the campaign. Some in his campaign talk about fighting to the end. But others have conceded that they did not expect his candidacy to go as far as it did — an explanation for the poor showing in those early votes and subtle acknowledgement that the race is over. Sanders can take credit for successfully framing much of the campaign debates and for pulling Clinton to the left on many issues.
Some Democratic Party strategists want Sanders to accept defeat and work to heal the rift that has developed in the party in recent weeks as the campaign intensified. Questions remain about his commitment to the party. He identifies himself as a democratic socialist and has caucused with the Democrats for several years, and that relationship could win him a committee chairmanship if the Democrats retake control of the Senate this year. The Democrats’ record is mixed after bloody primaries, but in 2008 Clinton supporters rallied behind Obama after an especially nasty contest. Clinton is hoping that example will prevail.
The Republican race is also clarifying, but there are more doubts about whether Trump will capture the delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot at the convention, and, if he does, whether the party will coalesce behind him. Trump won 60 percent of the votes in New York (his home town), has 844 delegates, and needs 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination. Winning the 393 he needs to put him over the top is not guaranteed.
His rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is running a sophisticated ground game that aims to prevent Trump from securing a first-round nomination, anticipating that the rest of the party will rally around him as the anti-Trump candidate. (Given the animus toward Cruz among many in the GOP, this assumption may not be correct.) A first-round victory is crucial for Trump: Delegates are only pledged for that first vote. If no one wins a majority, delegates are free to vote for whomever on subsequent ballots and Cruz is hoping that fear and distrust of Trump among Republicans will drive them to him.
Cruz’s strategy requires that Trump not surpass the 1,237 threshold, and that the GOP sticks to that number. Trump has been “playing the refs” in recent weeks, complaining that the process is unfair and that as the leading vote getter, he should win the nomination even if he does not reach 1,237. There is some sympathy for that view, but threats of violence by his supporters if he does not prevail undercut wider support for Trump. Those threats are a reminder of the dangers a Trump candidacy poses for the GOP. Large majorities in virtually every demographic group say that they have negative or unfavorable views of him. Last week, his team said that Trump is prepared to act more presidential in an attempt to pivot to the center, dismissing his primary campaign as just a “role” he was playing. Many are betting, however, that Trump cannot constrain himself and will revert to form and his behavior will not only torpedo his campaign but that of other Republicans on the November ballot as well.
Yet even if Trump can stick to his cue cards — previous promises to behave have been short-lived — much damage has been done. His opponents will have ample material to remind voters of the “real Donald Trump” no matter how well behaved the candidate becomes. Even more worrisome for the party are his policies. It is not clear if the GOP mainstream is more concerned about Trump’s positions, whether extreme or empty, or his readiness to jettison them. Even if Clinton and Trump wrap up their nominations in the next few weeks, their head-to-head campaign promises to be a spectacle.
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