How many times must it be over before it’s really over?
This time, the endless 2016 presidential primary looks truly over, so long as you’re a Republican.
The Republican Party will not name its nominee until July in Cleveland, but the last suspense went out of the contest Tuesday night in Indiana with Donald J. Trump’s latest romp over his last serious competitor.
Ted Cruz read the scoreboard, showing Trump with a majority statewide and at least 51 of 57 delegates, and promptly suspended his campaign. Indiana had once looked like a revival tent for Cruz’s campaign, but in the end it was more like a canopy for its gravesite.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted that Trump was now “the presumptive nominee” and that the party should unite around him.
Democrats were not vouchsafed such closure. Instead, the persistent upstart Bernie Sanders collected another respectable win in a midsize primary state. While not as shocking as his earlier win in Michigan or as lopsided as his blowout in Wisconsin, the Indiana result was enough to lift spirits in the Sanders camp and possibly refresh its fundraising — which had flagged in the month of April.
“Secretary Clinton thinks this campaign is over,” said Sanders, “but I have news for her.” Sanders acknowledged that his path is narrow and uphill, but said he has been fighting the odds all year.
Indeed, he has. But to say his hill is steep may be an understatement of the case. He trails by more than 800 delegates, while Clinton is within 200 delegates of a majority. There are nine states still to vote on the Democratic side, and Sanders is well-positioned to win several — perhaps most. But even if he does, he will need to win them all by overwhelming margins just to catch Clinton in pledged delegates.
For his part, Trump has declared himself the presumptive nominee, shifted his attention to November matchup polling, and trained his fire on Clinton. “She will not be a great president, she will not be a good president, she will be a poor president,” he said Tuesday night, after ticking off polls he said showed him ahead of her.
With a month of voting events remaining, and California and New Jersey still to go, Trump stands within 200 delegates of an outright majority. While John Kasich remains officially in the race and some anti-Trump activists have vowed to fight on, only the most extraordinary reversal of fortune could stop Trump from a first-ballot nomination. That means he and his operatives will soon be taking over key roles within the party apparatus, particularly as it relates to the convention.
All of that is a bitter prospect for Cruz, who was sure his long-awaited chance for a one-on-one bout with Trump would go the other way.
On Tuesday night, Cruz addressed a crowd of his core supporters in Indianapolis, orating in his usual earnest style until he reached the “I’m sorry to say” and the “path has been foreclosed” and finally “suspending my campaign.” But the speech was also rife with references to Ronald Reagan, who ran multiple times.
But if Cruz had 2020 in the back of his mind, there were plenty of Republicans ready to be shut of him in 2016. Anti-Trump forces had coalesced around the Texas maverick senator, despite the general distaste for him among establishment politicians. (Just last week, former Speaker John Boehner famously called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.”) Anti-Trump PACs spent nearly $3 million on attack ads in Indiana, while pro-Cruz PACs spent more than that. Trump responded with less than $1 million.
Cruz had begun with a solid lead in Indiana, home to many evangelicals and other social conservatives thought to be ripe for Cruz’s appeal. But Cruz’s polling in the state deteriorated through the spring as Trump won elsewhere.
Then the wheels seemed to come off the Cruz campaign in the last days of April. After his multiple losses in the East, Cruz tried an 11th-hour alliance with Ohio Gov. Kasich and an early vice presidential pick (Carly Fiorina). Both moves were seen as nakedly political and even desperate.
Trump was also skillful in connecting with Hoosiers. Not only did he line up several legendary basketball and football coaches from Indiana colleges, he also empathized with workers who saw their jobs moved to other countries. He focused on trade agreements with foreign governments that he said devastated manufacturing in Indiana and elsewhere.
Sanders, too, benefited from the economic woes the state has seen over the past decade. While unemployment has fallen in recent years, only about half the manufacturing jobs have returned that had been lost since the peak in that sector in the 1980s.
But if Indiana was another good news story for the Sanders campaign, it also illustrates the depth of his dilemma. He won statewide but because the race was close, the delegates are divided almost equally. He got at least 43, but Clinton will get at least 37. That does not do much to dent a deficit of 300 delegates.
So while there are theoretically enough delegates at stake in May and June to make up the gap, proportional division of them will mean Clinton gets enough to be nominated even if she loses rather badly from here on out.
And that does not even count the superdelegates, who now favor Clinton by a ratio of 13 to 1. Sanders has lately argued that the superdelegates should vote as their states did in the primaries and caucuses. Even if that were done for the 18 states Sanders has won, Clinton would still have a lead of more than 200 among superdelegates (and more than 500 among pledged and superdelegates combined).
Under the rules as they are for superdelegates, Clinton’s lead swells to more than 800.
So Clinton has continued to focus on Trump in her appearances and in interviews, declaring him unprepared and unfit for the demands of the presidency. Most polls show her leading him in a November hypothetical matchup. Most polls show Sanders beating him by a wider margin, a point he makes often. But efforts to persuade superdelegates to defect from Clinton on that basis have, so far, proven fruitless.