The primaries aren’t over, but the general election has begun.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, bolstering their formidable leads in convention delegates after five Northeastern primaries Tuesday, are increasingly focused on the fall campaign they expect to wage against one another.
“I consider myself the presumptive nominee, absolutely,” Trump declared in New York.
In Philadelphia, Clinton’s victory speech was aimed at Trump. “Despite what other candidates say,” she said, “we believe in the goodness of our people and the greatness of our nation.”
Trump easily won Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Clinton won in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut, while Sanders won Rhode Island.
It sounds like the pitch for the ultimate reality TV show: an election that would pit two of the most polarizing figures in public life today in the race for the White House — one the wife of a former president, herself a former senator and secretary of State; the other a billionaire businessman who has never run for office before.
The primary results and exit polls in the contests provide clues about the outlines of a possible Clinton-Trump contest.
Two words: Brace yourself.
1. A different map
Trump brags that turnout in Republican primaries has soared this year — up more than 50%, compared with 2012 — and argues that as the nominee, he would put into play states in the Northeast and the Rust Belt where Republican candidates traditionally can’t compete.
Pennsylvania and Michigan have gone Democratic in the past six presidential elections, for instance, but they are home to many of the white working-class voters who give Trump his core support. Clinton leads Trump in both states, according to the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls, but her advantage is modest: 7.4 points in Pennsylvania and 8.6 points in Michigan. That’s a state she lost to Sanders in the March primary.
One sign of Trump’s potential strength: His margin in Pennsylvania was so decisive that the TV networks declared him the victor as soon as the polls closed, based on surveys of voters as they left polling places. Her lead wasn’t.
Democrats say Trump’s prospects in a few Democratic states would be more than offset by openings for Clinton to compete in typically Republican states if he is her opponent. Political scientists have predicted that increasingly diverse electorates eventually will shift states such as Texas from red to blue. Antipathy to Trump among Latinos and Clinton’s strength among African Americans could accelerate those trends.
Consider Arizona. In the 16 presidential elections since World War II, Arizona has gone Democratic only once, in 1996. But a statewide poll released Monday by the Behavior Research Center of Arizona gave Clinton an 8-point lead over Trump, 43%-35%. In North Carolina, which has gone Republican in eight of the past nine elections — the exception was 1976 — Clinton has a narrow edge in the statewide surveys.
2. No, you’re worse
Since the rise of modern polling, no major-party nominee has gone into a presidential election with negative ratings above 50%. In a Clinton-Trump race, both candidates would break that record. The latest USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, released Monday, showed Clinton with an unfavorable rating of 54% and Trump of 61%. Thirty-seven percent of likely voters had a positive view of Clinton, 28% had a favorable view of Trump.
Clinton has a dismal net negative rating of 17 points, Trump a catastrophic one of 33 points.
Both are so well-known that changing impressions is likely to be like reshaping concrete after it’s set. Fewer than one in 10 didn’t already have an opinion about them. In the survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide, just seven people hadn’t heard of Clinton; five people hadn’t heard of Trump. (Question for another day: Who are the likely voters who have never heard of Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump?)
The bruising primary campaigns aren’t helping their image problems. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz mocks Trump as unprincipled and unmoored. Sanders questions Clinton’s honesty and her coziness with Wall Street.
In the USA TODAY poll, nearly one in four voters had a negative view of both Clinton and Trump. For them, the election would be a choice between the lesser of two evils. The political reality of the negative views voters hold is likely to prompt a flood of attack ads portraying the other candidate in the worst possible light.
3. Message: We’re mad, too
From the opening Iowa caucuses three months ago, voters have made it clear they are unhappy about the direction of the country and the state of American politics. There’s angst about the economy: In Pennsylvania, 84% of Democrats said they were very or somewhat worried about the economy. There’s dismay about the way Washington works: In Maryland, 89% of Republican voters said they were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government.
Those attitudes have fueled the rise of political outsiders, among them Trump and Sanders.
Voter unrest has pushed Clinton, a pragmatist grounded in the political establishment, to adopt a more populist message than she had embraced at the start. Under pressure from the Sanders campaign, Clinton announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and to the Pacific trade deal she once extolled as “the gold standard.” Lately, she’s spoken more favorably about a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
For Trump, his populism is less about policy and more about attitude. He blasts the establishment in both parties, which fits with the GOP voters’ mood. In Pennsylvania, six in 10 Republican voters said they felt “betrayed” by GOP politicians.
4. Why can’t we be friends?
To be clear, the front-runners’ rivals aren’t ready to concede the nominations.
Cruz and Kasich vow to stay in the race until the national convention in Cleveland, where they hope to prevent Trump from winning the 1,237-delegate majority for the first ballot. Sanders insists he’ll stay in the race until the end, through the final state primaries in California and elsewhere June 7. That’s what Clinton did in 2008, when she lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
If and when Clinton and Trump win their nominations, though, they could use the help of their former rivals in unifying their parties.
“There’s much more than unites us than divides us,” Clinton said in a victory speech that struck a conciliatory tone toward Sanders. She has some work to do in winning over his supporters. In exit polls Tuesday, two-thirds of Pennsylvania Democratic voters said they would be “excited” or “optimistic” if Clinton became president, but nearly a third said they would be “concerned” or “scared.”
Trump is making progress in winning over Republican voters, carrying more than 60% in some of Tuesday’s contests. Even so, among Cruz voters, four in 10 say they wouldn’t vote for Trump if he was the nominee. Among Kasich voters, 63% say they wouldn’t.
The moment for party unity doesn’t seem to have arrived quite yet.
“Donald and Hillary, they are flip sides of the same coin,” Cruz told supporters in Knightstown, Ind. “Hillary Clinton has made millions of dollars selling power and influence in Washington, and Donald Trump has made billions of dollars buying politicians like Hillary Clinton.”
Sanders didn’t sound ready to quit either. “As of today, we have now won 16 primaries and caucuses all over this country,” he told his supporters in Huntington, W.Va., in a speech that ignored the results in Tuesday’s contests. “And with your help, we’re going to win here in West Virginia.”