The night of the Indiana primary will go down in history as the day to the “Never Trump” movement within the Republican Party collapsed.
Just hours after the Midwestern state was put solidly in the Trump column, the real estate mogul’s arch-conservative rival Ted Cruz dropped out of the race, drawing the logical conclusion from of a devastating loss in what was widely dubbed a must-win race for him.
Trump’s remaining rival, John Kasich, finally also showed a sense of calculus on Wednesday by suspending his campaign. Mathematically, the Ohio governor would have needed 235 percent (!) of the remaining delegates up for grasp to clinch the nomination.
Less than six weeks before the end of the primary season and almost three months before the Republican convention, Donald Trump has cleared the field, defying his party’s establishment and an entire class of political pundits.
This is nothing less than a dramatic shift of narrative rarely seen in American politics. Just a few weeks ago, the Republicans were gearing up for a contested convention in Cleveland which would have meant political street fighting in a rough-and-tumble atmosphere with a totally unpredictable outcome.
Nothing of this sort is going to happen now. Yet, whether Trump will be able to win over a skeptical if not terrified party establishment at the convention remains to be seen. (Don’t expect members of the Bush clan or Mitt Romney to attend the coronation of the billionaire business celebrity.)
Trump’s primary rivals and other senior Republicans have argued that Trump’s lack of governmental experience and his unprecedented negative ratings – including among such crucial electoral groups as women, Latinos and young people – would doom his prospects in November.
But as Trump likes to remind people, the conventional wisdom has been wrong about him from the start. After all, his campaign, considered as nothing more than a joke a year ago, has defeated 16 primary rivals, including some of the Republican Party’s top governors and senators.
Trump is now going to face Hillary Clinton in November. The Democratic frontrunner was still not able to put away her socialist rival Bernie Sanders in Indiana, but given her overwhelming lead in the delegate count, she will in all likelihood reach the necessary number of delegates in early June.
Largely ignoring Sanders in her recent campaign appearances, the former secretary of state has already pivoted to a general election strategy, portraying Trump as divisive, dangerous and incompetent.
Trump, on the other hand, has started calling Clinton “crooked” and “a disaster” – which leaves little doubt about the nastiness of the campaign in the months ahead.
What makes this match-up so special, even historic – beside the fact that Clinton would be the first woman to become president -, is that both candidates share some eerie similarities.
During the primaries, both were strong in the northeast and south and did poorly in the west. Both also did poorly in caucuses, losing to their rivals’ superior ability to mobilize their respective supporters.
Most ominously, both are featuring by far the worst personal ratings among all candidates in their camps. According to polls conducted throughout the primaries, two thirds of Americans have a negative opinion of Trump, and roughly one in two voters has a negative opinion of Clinton.
Put it this way: this presidential election is going to be between the two most unpopular candidates in US history.
Numerous national election surveys have shown that Clinton has a big advantage. In 57 of the 60 polls that were conducted since the start of the campaign season, she is the clear winner against Trump with a poll-of-polls average of six percentage points. However, the latest CNN/ORC poll released on Wednesday showed a bigger margin, 54 to 41 percent.
The CNN poll also showed voters prefer Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, over Trump on how each would deal with a range of issues, including terrorism, foreign policy, immigration, health care and education.
Clinton’s advantage is even more obvious when the particularities of the US electoral system are taken into account. The future occupant of the White House is not determined in a single direct national election, but in an indirect state-by-state vote whose results are added up based on the winner-take-all rule.
Political scientists have found out that Clinton would just need to win all 19 states that have always voted Democratic in presidential elections over the last quarter century plus the battleground states of Florida. This would be a sufficient, albeit much smaller achievement than Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
More realistic would be that she wins many more battleground states from Colorado to New Hampshire and from Ohio to Virginia. She might even carry states with big minority populations that usually vote Republican like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, given that many Latinos and African Americans feel a deep mistrust of Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump shows no concern that the odds-of-the-moment might be stacked against him. “We’re going to win in November,” he declared at a victory rally at his Trump Tower skyscraper in New York. “We want to bring unity to the Republican Party. We have to bring unity.”