Election Season Is About to Get Dirty, as Trump and Clinton Clear Way for Head-to-head Combat

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.Credit: Reuters

Formally, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton haven’t been elected yet as their parties’ presidential candidates. Theoretically, if one of them were to be implicated this morning in a big corruption scandal, or exposed as having a secret second family with five kids, or accused of having spied for North Korea in their youth - all bets would be off. Otherwise, their sweeping victories in the so-called “Acela Primaries” on Tuesday night mark the end in practice of the primaries season. From such a blow, their rivals will be hard put to come back.

Their victory speeches - Trump with his “royal flush” in five northeastern states and Clinton with her four aces in all but tiny Rhode Island - already heralded an impending passage to a new phase, from an internal campaign to all out war against a common and external enemy. Their punch lines were reserved for each other, not for their current rivals. From Trump’s harsh onslaught against Clinton for “playing the woman card”, one can safely assume that the general election campaign will be even more demeaning and controversial, if one can imagine such a thing, than the turbulent primaries that will soon be ending.

Donald Trump after winning the New York Republican primary, April 19, 2016.Credit: Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

Of the two, Trump’s triumph was the more decisive and more impressive. The New York billionaire went five for five, collected close to 60 per cent of the vote in all, and garnered enough new delegates to make a successful run for the required 1237 majority more plausible than ever. The party may not have chosen him yet, but after Tuesday’s outcome, it will be much harder, to the point of self-destruction, to anoint another in his stead. The GOP will have to learn how to live with Trump, and, according to the projections of pollsters and experts - who have admittedly erred on just about everything - to lose with him as well.

Trump didn’t just beat Ted Cruz and John Kasich: he throttled them, he smashed them and then he wiped the floor with them. Cruz at least has an excuse, as someone who positioned himself as the archenemy of New York and its decadent neighbors, but Kasich? Up until a few weeks ago his advisers were touting Pennsylvania as the state in which Kasich would repeat his winning performance in his own Ohio, the Keystone State’s neighbor. In practice, Kasich finished an embarrassing third, with less than 20 per cent, a third of Trump’s votes. His “working arrangement” with Cruz, which seemed like locking the barn doors after the horses have bolted from the outset, looked even more juvenile in hindsight. It broadcast futility and a sense of desperation that may have actually boosted Trump by several crucial points.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a rally at the Boone County Fairgrounds, Indiana, U.S., April 23, 2016.Credit: J. Kyle Keener, AP

Trump laid to final rest his rivals’ claim after his initial victories that he had an unbreakable “ceiling” of 30-35 per cent of the vote. He achieved an absolute majority across the board, from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, among all sectors and groups of the largely white Republican constituency, including young and old, men and even women. He towered over Cruz among the Texas Senator’s hard-core supporters, devout evangelicals and strict conservatives.

The scope of Trump’s victories and almost clean sweep of delegates disrupted the careful calculations of the #NeverTrump campaigners, leaving them only a very narrow bridge from which to prevent him from winning the 287 delegates he now needs in order to achieve a 1237 majority. The optimists are still pinning their hopes on next week’s ballot in Indiana, in which Cruz enjoys substantial support, and then on district-to-district if not door-to-door guerrilla warfare in the grand finale in California on June 7.  Last night they resembled old generals still mulling war plans in their underground bunker long after their troops above have surrendered.

Following his triumphs on Tuesday, the Republicans will be hard put to portray Trump as a stranger in their midst, an alien with hostile intentions: when they look in the mirror this morning they will have to admit to themselves that this shoot-from-the-hip take-no-prisoners billionaire is an accurate reflection of their voters and of themselves. Many of them have been preparing themselves for just such a moment. They won’t go as far as New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who once again gazed with glowing, doe-eyed admiration as Trump gave his victory speech in midtown Manhattan, but they have been practicing accepted clichés such as the will of the voter as well as undeniable imperatives such as the holy duty to stop Clinton, at any price. Others, however, including conservative purists, old time Republican aristocrats and Congressional candidates who suspect Trump could sink their hopes for reelection, will keep their distance. Some, it is rumored, are still pining for a third party candidate who will save their honor and America’s soul.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters during a campaign rally at Dunmore High School, Dunmore, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 22, 2016.Credit: Justin Sullivan, AFP

Clinton won’t be facing such problems. Notwithstanding the resentment that has been nurtured among Bernie Sanders’ zealous supporters, she is part and parcel of her party. Unlike the frost and unease that is sure to accompany a Trump coronation, Clinton will be warmly embraced by her party, even by those who see her as a vulnerable and problematic candidate. Although Sanders is apparently finding it hard to let go of the intoxicating whiff of victory that overwhelmed him in recent months, he is beginning to adjust to life as it is. His terse statement on Tuesday night seemed to put less emphasis on deposing Clinton and more on forcing her and the Democratic Party to accept his demands.

Although Sanders surprised most experts by his ability to attract large swaths of voters to his relatively radical proposals, he never succeeded in overcoming the demographic obstacles that lay in his path from the outset. He beat Clinton in smaller and whiter states with open primaries but lost to her badly in larger states with mixed populations and ballots that were restricted to Democrats alone. With the exception of younger voters and white men, Sanders made very little headway with the party’s nucleus. He could have been elected easily if the Democratic Party were a youth movement, but among adults you cannot hope to win with only 29 per cent of women, 28 per cent of non whites and 20 per cent of voters over 45, as Sanders garnered in Maryland, according to exit polls. Even in a magical mystery tour like the one that Sanders has conducted in recent months, in the end it’s the big numbers that provide the bottom line.

Clinton has amassed over 90 per cent of the 2383 delegates she needs. Not only has a last minute reversal become mathematically impossible for Sanders, each Clinton victory produces its own momentum and diminishes the minuscule chances he once had. Sanders has yet to pledge that he will support Clinton, though he has promised to go all out to prevent Trump from entering the White House. After Tuesday, the pressure will be on for him to roll up his sleeves and start digging the trenches along with Clinton and the other Democrats.

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