Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump easily won Tuesday’s New York primary. That was entirely expected and consistent with recent polling. Here’s what the road ahead looks like for the two frontrunners and their closest competitors.
1. Will Sanders settle? Despite his loss last night, Sanders has a lot to be proud of. He has defined the policy terms and terrain of the primary. He’s exposed the serious generational divide within the party. He has gone from an asterisk in the polling to basically tied with Clinton in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll. And yet, the math simply isn’t there for him to win the nomination. According to our friends at NBC, Sanders would need to win 59 percent of the remaining pledged delegates - and 71 percent of the remaining pledged and super-delegates in order to capture the nomination. This requires Sanders to suddenly catch fire, or have Clinton totally and utterly collapse. Neither looks likely at this point. The most recent polling shows Clinton up double digits in the April 26 primary states of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Many have noted that the heated rhetoric from Sanders has put Clinton on the defensive and is taking a toll on her image. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz noted that instead of growing stronger and more popular as this primary has worn on, Clinton has grown more unpopular and looks weaker than ever.
This has many Democrats, especially those loyal to Clinton, arguing that Sanders should drop out. However, Sanders staying in isn’t as important as what he does once the race ends.
All primaries, even those that are relatively tame, cause bruises and scars and produce rifts within the party. The question is how - and if - those rifts heal. The best way to heal those wounds is to have the candidates unite. The 2008 primary was considered “good” for the party because it inspired and energized Democrats. But, we forget that Clinton’s embrace and endorsement of Obama soon after the contest concluded was a key factor in ensuring that the base remained engaged and united.
Will Bernie give Clinton the same sort of unity hug? And, if so, how? And when? After attacking Clinton as a phony and a stooge of Wall Street for the last few weeks, can Sanders effectively sell her to his already skeptical base of supporters? Can a man who sees most forms of compromise or nuance as a form of selling out, really embrace the contradiction that is Hillary Clinton? This is why his attacks on her are damaging. Not just because it raises her disapproval ratings. But, because it makes it harder for him to seem like he’s authentically behind her.
2. Will Trump stay focused? Many commentators have noted that Trump’s speech last night was the most disciplined and on message he’s been the entire cycle. No opponents were taunted. No reporters were shoved. No voters were singled out for insult. That this is considered a big deal tells you everything about Trump’s challenges as a candidate and Commander-in-Chief.
Yet, “discipline” and “Trump” are words that rarely stay together for very long. Sure, he kept it together last night. But, we also know he’s one shiny object or one perceived slight away from losing his tightly controlled message.
More important, as we learned in the 2012 campaign there’s no such thing as a political “Etch-A-Sketch.” All the stuff that Trump has said and done up until now doesn’t magically disappear now that he’s decided to act more presidential. The Democrats and the Clinton campaign are going to make sure voters see that side of Trump - 24/7.
3. Can Cruz’s delegate strategy hold? Ted Cruz is about to hit a rough couple weeks. Trump is up big in the April 26 primary states, leading Cruz by 24 points in Pennsylvania,16 points in Maryland and 29 points in Connecticut.
Cruz’s next opportunity for a win isn’t until May 3rd in Indiana. A win here by Cruz, as well as a solid showing in California on June 7, could be enough to keep Trump under the 1237 threshold. Cruz is also winning grassroots battles for delegate selection and slating with the goal of securing the nomination via a floor fight.
And, it looks likely that Trump will come up just short of the majority of committed delegates. The folks at fivethirtyeight.com have projected that based on the polling/demographics of the remaining primary states, Trump is expected to enter the convention with 1,191 delegates or 46 delegates short of 1,237. Yes, that means it’s technically possible for Cruz to win a second or third ballot in Cleveland, but it’s not likely to be popular among rank-and-file GOPers. Even before Trump’s win in New York, 62 percent of GOP voters said that the candidate with the most votes, even if he doesn’t have the majority of the delegates, should be the nominee. Cruz may keep winning the delegate slating, but if he keeps losing states, his fight for a second ballot will become even less popular.