The once-improbable prospect of a Trump-Clinton general election showdown just got stronger.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton dealt a crushing blow to Bernie Sanders’s presidential hopes in Tuesday’s primaries, beating him in four contests, and leading in the fifth – Missouri – which remains too close to call.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump boosted his front-runner status, winning the most delegates at stake Tuesday and forcing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio out of the race by handing him a humiliating defeat in his home state.
But Mr. Trump failed to sweep, losing in Ohio to the state’s governor, John Kasich. It was Governor Kasich’s first win of primary season, giving him cause to stay in the race – even as he was mathematically eliminated from contention. Kasich’s only hope is for a contested national convention in July, where he somehow emerges as a “unity” candidate.
For now, though, Trump dominates in the delegate race, with 621 of the 1,237 needed to secure the nomination, as of early Wednesday. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz sits in second place, with 396.
To reach the magic number of 1,237 before the Republican convention in Cleveland, Trump would need to win some 58 percent of the remaining delegates, a tough task in a three-person race, but not impossible.
“A contested convention remains a 50-50 proposition, but should Trump fall just shy of the magic number, the GOP will be contesting him at its own peril,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Tuesday’s results revealed and reinforced several points about the strength of both Trump and Clinton.
For Trump, Tuesday’s victories came in spite of the front-runner’s unwillingness to condemn acts of violence by supporters at his rallies, which party leaders have urged him to do. Last weekend, Trump canceled a rally in Chicago after anti-Trump protesters infiltrated the venue and threatened to shut it down – leading to skirmishes between pro- and anti-Trump activists. Trump went on to win the Illinois primary Tuesday by 9 points, beating Senator Cruz 39 percent to 30 percent.
Trump supporters are known to back him early, and not budge from their position. And on Tuesday, exit polls showed continued popularity for his views. Some 52 percent of voters said they wanted an “outsider” for president, and of those, Trump won 69 percent of the vote.
Trump also won the majority of voters who want to deport undocumented immigrants, are “angry” at the federal government, favor a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, and are falling behind financially. He also won 47 percent of voters who oppose free trade.
“All are impressive results in a multi-candidate race,” writes pollster Gary Langer in an analysis for ABC News.
In remarks Tuesday night to reporters and invited guests at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump highlighted the millions of dollars of negative ads that his primary opponents and outside groups funded by the Republican “establishment” have run against him, to seemingly little effect.
“My numbers went up,” Trump boasted. “I don’t understand it.”
Still, Trump remains a deeply divisive figure in the Republican Party, as Tuesday’s exit polls showed.
“Among Republicans who did not vote for him this Tuesday night, 61 percent said they’d seriously consider a third party candidate if it were Trump vs. Clinton in November,” Mr. Langer notes. “Indeed, in another question, 45 percent of non-Trump supporters flatly said they would not vote for him in November if he were the party’s nominee.”
The prospect of Trump causing a formal split in the Republican Party seems as real as ever, if he goes into the convention with a majority of delegates – or close to a majority. But party regulars are at a loss over how to resolve the issue. Advisers to Trump and Cruz categorically rule out the idea of even allowing Kasich to compete in a contested convention, according to Politico.
“If Trump has hundreds more delegates than the runner-up (almost certainly, Cruz) and he is over 1,000 delegates, it will be exceedingly difficult to deny him the nomination,” write analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “In fact, to do so would be to guarantee a meltdown of historic proportions in Cleveland.”
In Tuesday’s Democratic contests, former Secretary of State Clinton beat Senator Sanders handily in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, beat him narrowly in her native state of Illinois, and fought him to a virtual tie in Missouri. Most important, she recovered her balance after losing to the Vermonter the week before in a stunning upset in Michigan. Sanders had hoped to continue his Rust Belt incursion with victories in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri with his message of economic populism and opposition to free trade but he failed.
Clinton won big among racial and ethnic minorities, as usual, but in Ohio, also won big among white voters, a cohort she had lost in Michigan. Among white women in Ohio, she won 61 percent to 39 percent, Langer notes.
“Clinton found her footing in Ohio on issues, as well, to some extent defanging Sanders on free trade – she won antitrade voters, a group Sanders took in Michigan,” Langer writes. “As many saw him as too anti-business as saw her as too pro-business. And four in 10 called his policies unrealistic, twice as many as said so about hers.”
In her victory speech Tuesday evening, Clinton pivoted toward a general election message that echoed both Sanders and Trump, repeatedly promising creation of “good jobs.”
“Good paying jobs are the tickets to the middle class and we're going to stand up for the American middle class again,” Clinton said. “We're going to stand up for American workers and make sure no one takes advantage of us, not China, not Wall Street, and not overpaid corporate executives.”
Still, despite a big deficit in pledged delegates, Sanders is certain to take his fight for the Democratic nomination all the way to the party’s convention in Philadelphia in July. He is still drawing large crowds, and money is still pouring into his campaign. The bottom line rule for candidates in both races is this: Have money, will campaign.