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Politics

Essential Politics: Divided they stand: The parties have their nominees, but not unity

The Republican nominating contest ended this week with a bang and a few whimpers; the Democrats’ version drags on with the outcome no longer in doubt, but the endgame still contested.

On both sides -- but particularly in the GOP -- party unity remains elusive.

Good afternoon, I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in the presidential campaign and highlight some particularly insightful stories. 

THE MAP FAVORS CLINTON

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If we learned nothing else in these past 12 months, it should be that politics can surprise us. Anyone who can prove that a year ago, he or she forecast Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, please step forward and collect your reward. For the rest of us, humility is in order.

But humility doesn’t require blindness. Trump has won just over 10 million votes in the GOP primaries. Winning the general election will require closer to 70 million, and he has a very long way to go.

Trump shot to the top of the GOP polls by early July of last year -- within weeks of declaring he was a candidate -- and almost never relinquished his hold on first place. Touting those polls has been a big part of his routine on the stump.

Today, those same polls tell a very different story. Scores of surveys have been taken pitting Trump against Hillary Clinton in hypothetical matchups. With the exception of a very few, they have shown Clinton ahead by an average of about seven points. Polls of key swing states show the same.

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And, no, it’s not true that polls taken in the spring have no value in predicting the fall election. What matters isn’t the date of the poll, it’s the amount of information voters have about the candidates. In most elections, most voters don’t know much about both candidates until the fall campaign, so polls taken earlier incorporate a lot of uncertainty.

Clinton and Trump both have universal name recognition, and voters have strong feelings about them.

Can a candidate change an entrenched image? Of course. But it’s not easy.

As Mark Z. Barabak and I wrote in surveying the electoral map, Trump starts out in a very deep hole. Some major swing states, most notably Florida, currently seem out of his reach, in part because of the divisions within the GOP and in part because of Trump’s deep unpopularity among Latino voters.

Trump’s best chance would seem to be an effort to win over blue-collar white voters in the industrial belt and flip states in an arc from Pennsylvania up to Wisconsin, most of which have gone for the Democrats in each of the last six elections. It’s a very tall order, and right now, there’s no evidence he’s succeeding.

THE GOP’S GREAT DIVIDE

As the week drew to a close, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan continued their feud, with Ryan saying he was “not ready” to support Trump, and the nominee responding that he was “not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.”

As Lisa Mascaro wrote, the spat is not just about power in the party, it’s a reminder of their very deep disagreements over important policy issues: foreign policy, government spending and international trade among them.

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That’s a big problem for Trump. In these days of heightened partisanship, presidential candidates typically get about 90% of the voters within their own ranks. The goal for both parties becomes maximizing turnout. If Trump ends up with just 85% of Republicans, rather than 90%, that could be enough to put closely contested states out of his reach. 

Right now, 85% seems a high goal. At this summer’s GOP convention, the list of notable Republican absences may be longer than the roll call. George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain. Of the GOP’s living presidential candidates, only former Sen. Bob Dole has said he will attend the convention, and he added that he has not decided if he will vote for Trump.

But the problem for Ryan and other GOP leaders who oppose Trump is that Republican voters have clearly decided that they prefer him to the much-disliked party establishment. As Cathy Decker wrote just after Trump won his final victory in Indiana, Republican voters all year have shown two things above all else: “They were desperately concerned about the economy. And they wanted an outsider to fix it.”

THE DEMOCRATS’ SLOG

Over on the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to campaign even though there’s virtually no chance of his overtaking Clinton.

The voters mostly don’t mind --  in exit polls of primary states, about three-quarters of Democratic voters have said the campaign has energized their party.

Clinton has more or less ignored Sanders of late. Her campaign spent no money advertising in Indiana, where she lost to Sanders this week, and it doesn’t plan to spend any in West Virginia, where she’s all but certain to lose next week. She needs to win only about a third of the vote in the remaining contest to clinch the nomination, although she clearly would like to do better than that, particularly in California.

Sanders, by contrast, has spent a lot. He out-spent Clinton in New York and in Pennsylvania, but lost both contests by big margins. Indeed, he spent so much -- even as his fundraising has dwindled --that his campaign is low on cash heading toward California, the country’s most expensive political market, as Chris Megerian and Evan Halper reported.

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Clinton’s campaign began the month with about $30 million cash on hand. Sanders’ campaign refuses to say how much cash it has -- typically a sign of trouble -- and while it has vowed to campaign heavily in California, there is little sign yet of a campaign organization.

All that, plus the end of the GOP contest, means that California voters, once again, will miss out on a truly contested primary. That’s a disappointment to political junkies in the Golden State, as Decker and Seema Mehta wrote. 

For everyone else, it means fewer annoying political ads on TV.

Meantime, though, as the remaining primaries play out, we’ll continue to bring you all the results and analyses on Trail Guide and on our Politics page

And you can keep watch on the delegates in both parties with our Delegate Tracker, which shows where each candidate stands and where each has won support.

THOSE DARN EMAILS

Clinton has several remaining headaches -- figuring out how to make peace with Sanders and his followers, preparing for debates with Trump, making final decisions about general election strategy.

But shadowing all that is the continued investigation of her email practices while secretary of State. Just recently, the FBI interviewed Huma Abedin, one of her closest aides, as Del Wilber reported. To some extent, that’s good news for Clinton because it signals that the investigation is close to an end. But it’s also a reminder that the saga isn’t over. If you haven’t already, read Wilber’s profile of the FBI’s second-ranking official, the man who, as much as anyone, will make the key calls on the email investigation.

Most legal experts doubt that Clinton faces any significant legal jeopardy in the case, but until it’s over, she clearly faces political risk. 

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That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide at our politics page and on Twitter at latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.


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