Tuesday night was a very good night for Donald Trump—but was it good enough?
The entertainer consolidated his lead in the Republican Party and drove Marco Rubio to drop out of the race. Trump scored a huge win in Florida, taking the state’s 99 delegates and humiliating Rubio, a son of the Sunshine State who couldn’t win at home. But Trump’s failure to beat John Kasich in Ohio will prolong the race—and increases the odds that Trump will not win the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the GOP nomination outright over Kasich and Senator Ted Cruz. Falling short would lead the party to a contested convention with unpredictable and volatile results.
Republicans are left to choose what sort of catastrophic conclusion they’d like for the primary campaign: a Donald Trump nomination? Or a fractious, chaotic contested convention? On Tuesday, GOP voters lurched uneasily toward the latter.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton notched a signature win in Ohio, holding back a fierce, late charge from Bernie Sanders mounted after since his shocking upset win in Michigan on March 8. Clinton also triumphed in Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. While Clinton’s aides have argued that she already has a prohibitive delegate lead, Tuesday’s results should convince many outsiders they are correct.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Rubio came on stage in Miami and delivered his concession, an impassioned plea for hope and optimism—a speech to remind listeners why he was seen at one time as a Hispanic Barack Obama. Without naming Trump, Rubio harshly criticized the frontrunner’s divisive rhetoric. “From a political standpoint, the easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to ... make people angrier, to make people more frustrated,” he said. “But I chose a different route, and I’m proud of that. In a year like this, that would have been the easiest way to win. But that is not what’s best for America.” (Rubio’s plea for civility was somewhat undermined by boos as he congratulated Trump on his win.)
Rubio rose to the Senate as an insurgent outsider defying party bosses, but later became the doomed hope of those same bosses in the presidential campaign. He had harsh words for a Republican establishment that he accused of being “more interested in winning elections than solving problems or standing by principles.” It’s a strange end to Rubio’s campaign. A man heralded as a rare political talent was unable to turn that into votes, and he even saw it turn into a liability, as rivals derided him as robotic rather than polished. Rubio ultimately won only Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and D.C. His future in politics is cloudy: He’s young and charismatic, but also just got obliterated and will leave the Senate in January.
As Rubio bowed out, Trump was watching as positive results poured in at his Mar a Lago resort 70 miles north in Palm Beach. Though billed a press conference, Trump’s event was really a victory party. The candidate came on stage flanked by his family and by Corey Lewandowski, his embattled campaign manager, who is accused of assaulting a reporter. It was a more relaxed event than the charged, violent affairs his recent rallies have been.
By many standards, Trump had a great night. He blew Rubio out in Florida. He beat Ted Cruz out in North Carolina, where delegates are allocated proportionally. He won in Illinois, the site of his disastrous, aborted rally on Friday night, and in Missouri. But missing out on Ohio means it will be harder for Trump to reach the 1,237-delegate tally by the end of the primary campaign. He’ll need to win nearly 60 percent of all the outstanding delegates, or else he’ll have to defend his lead in Cleveland.
Ted Cruz was largely an afterthought. He was headed for a loss in a Missouri nailbiter, likely to lose to Trump by just a few thousand votes out of nearly a million cast. He was farther back everywhere else. Cruz gave a tough speech in Houston, rejecting Kasich as a Trump alternative. “"Only two campaigns have a plausible path to the nomination," he said. "Nobody else has any mathematical possibility whatsoever."
Kasich, meanwhile, delivered a jubilant and somewhat disjointed speech in Berea, a Cleveland suburb. He presented himself as the sunny, hard-working alternative to Trump, though at times he sounded more like a man who had just won reelection as governor than as a prospective president. Kasich still faces major obstacles. Though he delivered the impressive Ohio win with a late charge to overtake Trump—Kasich takes home all 66 delegates—it’s still the first state he’s won, and he had a huge advantage coming in. Kasich has his own political liabilities. He might be kicked off the ballot in Pennsylvania for failing to gather enough valid signatures. Kasich is in desperate need of cash, though his aides believe that establishment money will come his way with Rubio out. Even then, Kasich’s hopes depend on the nomination being decided at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. Calling that path tenuous significantly understates things, but practically no one would have predicted last fall that Kasich would be the establishment’s last, best hope.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, saw some of his last, best hopes slip away. The Sanders campaign has been a see-saw affair: from longshot gadfly to serious threat; from New Hampshire triumph to South Carolina collapse; from a tough southern swing to a stunning upset in Michigan. Things swung back downward Tuesday. Sanders’s fans had argued that the Michigan results showed Clinton couldn’t win in the Midwest, that she was a paper tiger who could only win in Southern red states. Her win in Ohio demolishes that argument. Sanders’s imprecations against fat cats and free trade didn’t work as well as in Michigan, and Clinton was able to win even in the post-industrial Mahoning Valley. Sanders also lost in North Carolina—a state he’d been expected to lose, but which he visited in recent days—and in Florida. In a pair of close races, Clinton seemed headed toward a narrow win in Illinois, and Sanders a narrow win in Missouri.
Those tight races are likely to produce a roughly equal delegate split between the two of them. That’s not really enough for Sanders, who needs to make up lots of ground on Clinton. Her aides have insisted for a week that any talk about the Democratic nomination was nothing more than talk. Whoever won a given state, they said, Clinton’s delegate lead was already practically insurmountable. Her wins on Tuesday will likely convince many doubters. Sanders has bounced back before, but the coming contests don’t seem especially promising for him.
That means the big story of the night is Trump’s triumphs and what they portend for the Republican race. Promises of impending anti-Trump cavalry have repeatedly gone unfulfilled, and the brigades that have arrived have found their efforts futile. The next few weeks will show just how serious the Republican Party’s inner circles are about a contested convention. Do they risk destroying the party by snatching the nomination away from the clear leader? Or do they risk destroying the party by allowing Trump to take the nomination? Expect to hear a great deal about the ins and outs of GOP rules, how to interpret them, and who they might help in the coming days. A week ago, Rubio told a crowd, “I believe with all my heart that the winner of the Florida primary ... will be the nominee of the Republican Party.” Rubio won’t be either of those, but to his chagrin, he might still be right.