Violence at Donald Trump’s campaign events and the ensuing controversy did not slow his march toward the Republican nomination, but it may have helped Hillary Clinton in her pursuit of the Democratic nod.
The boost that Trump has given Clinton was suggested in surveys of Tuesday voters. In Ohio, the industrial state in which Clinton and her challenger Bernie Sanders fought most fiercely, two-thirds of voters said that Clinton was the strongest candidate to defeat Trump, and they went for her by a factor of 4 to 1.
More than half the Ohio electorate actually embraced Sanders’ main argument in the state, that trade deals such as those Clinton has backed in the past had cost American jobs. But the majority of those voters sided with Clinton anyway.
Those who made up their minds on election day, and thus were most influenced by recent events, also went easily for Clinton over Sanders. All told, it suggested something of a cascade toward the former secretary of State as Trump has dominated news coverage of the campaign.
The 2016 race has been marked by gyrations, and it’s possible that there is another turn in store for Clinton. But it was hard to imagine a better setting for a Sanders victory than Ohio after his upset victory last week in Michigan. And, still, the Vermont senator, who had expended much time and money on the state, fell flat.
Clinton’s victory in Ohio, and thumping wins in Florida and North Carolina as well as a narrow one in Illinois, were important for political and psychological reasons.
Clinton has maintained a strong lead in delegates throughout the primary season and has an additional advantage in her sweeping lead among party officials who serve as superdelegates, unbound by election results. But she must still unify a party in which much of the passion has come from Sanders’ self-described “revolutionary” candidacy.
Winning in states that Democrats must carry in November’s general election makes that unifying task much easier. That would make her nomination one of acclamation rather than insider pull.
For Republicans caught in the midst of a civil war, meantime, Trump continued to soar above his opponents. He vanquished one of them as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio suffered an embarrassingly distant second-place finish in his home state and departed the race. That development, too, could count as a Clinton victory of sorts, given how concerned Democrats had been about facing the young, fresh-faced Rubio in the general election.
The GOP race now features a tug of war below Trump between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is trying to consolidate the non-Trump factions of the party, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose win in his home state Tuesday gave him fresh reason to stay in the race.
Both Clinton and Trump came into Tuesday’s voting with something to prove — Clinton that her humbling loss in Michigan was a fluke and Trump that yet another crisis would not weaken his hold on his voters. Both accomplished what they set out to do, and both tried to turn attention Tuesday night to the general election.
That move is in both of their interests. For Clinton, the supposition that she will be the nominee, the increasingly likely Democratic outcome, could cause a slow decline in support for Sanders, as undecided voters tend to gravitate to a winner.
Apart from a glancing congratulation to Sanders, Clinton spent her entire victory speech aimed at November and the prospect of a showdown with Trump.
"Our commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it," she said. She cited Trump’s support for deporting the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally and for banning Muslims from entering the country.
"That doesn’t make him strong; that makes him wrong," she said. "To be great we can’t be small; we can’t lose what made America great in the first place."
Then, as if her reference to Trump’s campaign slogan didn’t make her target clear enough, she said: "This isn’t just about Donald Trump. All of us have to do our part.” But of course, it was about Donald Trump.
Trump, for his part, opened his election night remarks by praising Rubio, whom he had derided for weeks as "Little Marco," and telling his audience that he had recently spoken with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That was his way of suggesting his nomination was all but inevitable, which it may be.
He bragged that he’d won despite a multimillion-dollar array of ads against him. And he reminded Republicans that his candidacy has drawn in more and different voters to cast Republican ballots this year. Implicit in that, of course, is that if he is stripped of the nomination, those voters will depart, and the party will lose its third straight presidential election.
"We have a great opportunity," he said.
But the truth is not that simple. There’s a reason that Clinton wants to turn to the general election, and it is Trump. Specifically, his unpopularity among the broad swath of American voters.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found that two-thirds of registered voters could not see themselves supporting Trump in a general election. (Clinton’s number wasn't great, either, but at 56% hers was lower than Trump’s.)
No nominee in the history of polling has ever begun a presidential campaign with negative impressions as widespread as Trump has now.
In exit polls conducted in Ohio, perhaps the most significant state in the fall election, 3 in 10 Republican voters said they would not vote for Trump. In Florida, the second-ranking state in general election importance, a quarter of Republican voters said they could not cast a ballot for him.
Unless he can find a way to turn them around, those sorts of losses within his own party, coupled with huge opposition within Democratic constituencies such as minority voters and women, would give Trump no path to the presidency.
In both parties, the path forward requires salving the splits that have developed, and deepened, during the primary season. For Democrats, that seems an easier task. Even if Clinton has her Democratic detractors, they agree with her on important policy positions and have another reason to show up: a Supreme Court seat that probably will still be open when the next president takes office.
Trump mentions that opening in many of his speeches, as if to remind Republicans of the stakes involved. But his party’s divisions seem more resistant than the Democratic ones; among other things, many Republicans are concerned that Trump would nominate a justice too liberal for their tastes.
The party’s difficulties came into fresh view Tuesday when Rubio left the race with a broadside against the party establishment — for whom he was the most recent, if unsuccessful, anointed favorite — and against the forces that Trump has unleashed in dividing the party.
"Do not give in to the fear," he said. "Do not give into the frustration."
Rubio may have failed as a candidate, but his words spoke to the continuing fears among Republicans about what a Trump nomination would mean. And it spoke to the great advantage that fear of Trump, on the part of both Democrats and Republicans, delivers to Hillary Clinton.
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