After New York, challenges ahead for front-runners

David Shribman

The twin victories Tuesday night in New York illuminated the weaknesses as much as the strengths of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Both Trump, who bases his business empire in New York, and Clinton, who was elected to the Senate twice from the Empire State, cruised to decisive victories Tuesday — but exit polls showed deep unease among Republicans about the prospect of a Trump nomination and showed serious skepticism among young voters about a Clinton general-election campaign.

Even as Trump and Clinton surged ahead in the delegate chase — leaving their rivals with near-impossible prospects of surpassing them — the two face the likelihood of emerging from the bruising caucus and primary season with dangerously divided parties and with natural party constituencies exceedingly wary about the nominees the two parties are likely to send into the November election.

For the Republicans, the question is whether a candidate who has triumphed by breaking all the political rules can be denied the party’s nomination because of wrinkles in the party rules. Those rules require 1,237 delegates to capture the nomination. “We’re leading by a lot and can’t be caught,” Trump said Tuesday night, and hardly anyone can contest that. But the question remains whether a decisive lead short of the majority that the rules require is sufficient to win the nomination.

One recent poll showed that 3 out of 5 Republicans believe the nomination should go to the candidate with the most votes in the primary. But the issue is whether party leaders rule that rules are rules — and whether Cruz’s stealth effort at obscure state party proceedings to sway delegates to his cause prevents Trump from winning a first-ballot victory.

In the Democratic Party, Clinton brought to an abrupt end the momentum Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont built up earlier this month — and her strong victory in the state where her rival was born is raising new questions about the relevance of his candidacy. The Sanders campaign began as a quixotic crusade against climate change, big money in politics, and the wealth gap, then was transformed into a legitimate alternative to the former secretary of state, and now seems once again to be taking on the cloak of symbolism rather than realism.

In her her Manhattan victory celebration, Clinton continued her pivot toward November, saying that hers was the only candidacy this year to capture 10 million votes. That echoed Trump’s triumphal declaration that he has brought millions of new voters into Republican primary contests. The two front-runners may be campaigning against fading rivals but increasingly they are leaving those rivals behind rhetorically as well.

But the two front-runners still have major challenges ahead.

Both have astonishing negative ratings among voters, with 65 percent regarding Trump negatively and with 56 percent regarding Clinton negatively, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll. About half of voters said they would be scared if Trump were elected, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll late last month.

Even so, the campaign is moving into friendly territory for both front-runners.

Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama in Pennsylvania eight years ago, and her husband carried the state both in 1992 and in 1996. She holds a 13 percent lead over Sanders in the RealClearPolitics survey average here. For his part, Trump’s Pennsylvania lead is more than 20 points. Both front-runners are well positioned in Delaware and Maryland, which also vote next Tuesday. Kasich harbors hopes in Connecticut and Sanders has high hopes for Rhode Island, but neither state has the delegate power to change the political narrative.

Still, faint glimmers of hope remain for those left behind in New York. Trump’s team still has not mastered the organizational skills required to win a contested convention. And Sanders? National polls still show him within striking distance of Clinton. Who would have guessed?

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.