A powerful wind swept across the 2016 presidential race Tuesday night as the political pendulum came swinging back with a vengeance.
Routed in Wisconsin just two weeks ago, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stormed back to take the high-stakes primary in their home state of New York in convincing fashion. Each won about three-fifths of the vote and widened their already imposing leads among pledged delegates.
In so doing, both Trump and Clinton opened a pathway to winning their nominations outright before the conventions begin in July. In recent weeks, doubts had arisen as both front-runners seemed to lose altitude and as rivals promoted the prospect of open conventions in both Cleveland and Philadelphia.
But after New York, the pressure is back on the challengers, who will find fewer opportunities to narrow the gap in delegates with every passing week. The last best chance to stop either Trump or Clinton may well be next week, when Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware hold the next-to-last round of multistate primaries. A total of 144 delegates will be available for Republicans and 392 for Democrats. There will not be a comparable package until the season’s final day on June 7.
A sweep for either front-runner next week would make stopping Trump or Clinton not only daunting but mathematically infeasible. Even the chances of a second ballot at either convention would go from forbidding to remote.
So when the history of 2016 is finally written, the smashing results from New York may well be cast as the key inflection point. Trump was declared the winner shortly after polls closed, tallying 60 percent of the statewide vote. When counting ended, Trump was poised to claim all 14 at-large delegates and about 75 of the 81 delegates awarded by congressional district.
For her part, Clinton did almost as well as Trump in percentage terms with 58 percent, while she outpolled Trump in the raw vote by nearly half a million. She did not dominate the delegate count quite as much as Trump, but only because the Democrats divide their delegates proportionally — both statewide and district by district. She took home an estimated 135 new delegates to Sanders’ 104. She already had 39 of the state’s 44 superdelegates (who are free to change their minds).
Still, the outcomes may have been equally discouraging for challengers in both parties. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, winners in Wisconsin and in a handful of caucus states that lent them momentum in the weeks since mid-March, stumbled badly in the Empire State. Both had hoped to at least limit the damage they would suffer on Trump’s and Clinton’s turf, while looking to friendlier venues ahead.
But instead, the front-runners ran roughshod across the landscape. Cruz finished a weak third with scarcely 1 vote in 7, earning zero delegates. New York Republicans preferred Ohio governor John Kasich, who got 1 vote in 4 statewide and gained perhaps three or more delegates (his first since he won his home state a month earlier).
Bruising as the loss was for Cruz, it may have been just as bitter for Sanders on the Democratic side. Clinton only increased her delegate lead by about 30 in the crucial category of pledged delegates. But the real pain for her rival was the opportunity cost. Sanders’ team had given it their all in New York, outspending Clinton on TV and hoping visibly for an upset — or at least a narrow loss that could be spun as a moral victory.
Trump, with his delegate lead growing again, can look to another stretch of promising ground next week. Polls give him an edge in all five contests, with 144 delegates at stake. A sweep would greatly enhance his chances of reaching the majority of delegates needed for a first-ballot nomination (1,237).
There is an active “stop Trump” movement, both in social media and in the higher circles of the GOP establishment. Senators seeking re-election in swing states have been advised to stay away from Trump and even to skip the convention.
Cruz has been successful in certain states in placing sympathizers in delegate slots that are committed to Trump on the first ballot. The individuals who occupy those slots would be expected to defect from Trump on later ballots.
But all that will be moot if Trump can get close enough to the magic number that a few pre-convention deals might well put him over the top. After a win like he scored in New York, such a “last mile” strategy looks increasingly plausible. At his victory rally at Trump Tower, Trump left the stage to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you New York, New York.”
For her part, Clinton was sounding equally sanguine just blocks away, telling a throng of her supporters that the race was “in the homestretch and victory is in sight.” She did not say it, but Sanders now needs to win 60 percent of the delegates in every contest remaining — just to overtake Clinton in pledged delegates. He has no discernible path to turning around her advantage in superdelegates.
Neither candidate’s race is over, yet. Weeks and months of pre-convention politicking remain. But after next week, it is possible that — for one or both of the front-runners — it will no longer be far from over.