On a night awkwardly dubbed the Acela primary, the Donald Trump train steamed out of the station, chugging west toward Cleveland and the Republican National Convention.
The entertainer won all five primaries on Tuesday night, tallying huge margins of victory in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Connecticut. Trump is struggling to reach the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination—or to get close enough to win it anyway—and the results put him closer but don’t determine whether he’ll be able to reach the magic number.
Trump picked up nearly 100 of the delegates up for grabs Tuesday, doing well in Northeastern states that tend more moderate. But Pennsylvania’s peculiar delegate-apportionment rules mean that the Keystone State’s results are anything but solid. Trump won 17 delegates outright, but the remaining 54 delegates are elected directly and are unbound. That’s an unfortunate turn for Trump, who would have picked up many or all of them under a different system. (Don’t be surprised to hear Pennsylvania added to Trump’s litany of complaints about the Republican delegate-selection process.)
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton built her lead over Senator Bernie Sanders, winning in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut. Sanders beat her in Rhode Island. The night’s tally adds to Clinton’s formidable and almost certainly insurmountable lead for the Democratic nomination.
In the days leading up to the vote, speculation swirled as to whether Sanders might leave the race—or at least think seriously about it—if he did poorly on Tuesday. There seems to have been a split in the Sanders camp: Campaign manager Jeff Weaver vowed that the race would go on, while top strategist Tad Devine said the campaign would “sit back and assess where we are” after the results. Some of the Vermonter’s supporters reacted furiously against the reports. Sanders spoke early in the evening from Huntington, West Virginia, where he is campaigning ahead of the May 10 primary. He gave no indication that he had any intention of dropping out, and delivered his standard stump speech, chiding the media—correctly—for underestimating him all along.
Here’s a blunt truth: If you have to deny reports that you’re considering ending your campaign, the damage is done. But there’s also little more inducement for Sanders to leave the race than there was when the polls opened Tuesday. He still has a motivated base, strong fundraising, and a chance to leave a deep imprint on the Democratic platform. In a statement late Tuesday, he more or less conceded that his goal for the rest of the race was to help remake the Democratic Party around his agenda, not to win its nomination. “This campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform,” Sanders said, arguing that “the people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be.”
Clinton, for her part, continued her attempt to pivot to the general election. “With your help, we’re going to cone back to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention with the most votes and the most pledged delegates,” she said, speaking in the city where her party will hold its convention in July. Clinton made no attempt to disguise her message and goal: “We will unify our party to win this election and build an American where we can all rise together.” In one of her strongest lines, Clinton also took a swipe at Trump, who she noted had accused her of playing “the woman card.” “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the ‘woman card,’ then deal me in,” she said.
Once again, it is the Republican race that offers the most interesting results and promises the most drama ahead. Trump’s win comes amid a week that was chaotic, even by the standards of this year’s boffo GOP contest. Trump, having demoted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and elevated Paul Manafort, has reportedly now given some power back to Lewandowski, rejecting Manafort’s attempt to run a more traditional campaign. Meanwhile, Trump’s rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich announced an alliance to try to stop the front-runner, only to see it fall apart almost as suddenly as it was revealed. It turned out to be a bad night for anyone hoping to stop Trump.
“I consider myself the presumptive nominee, absolutely,” Trump said during a freewheeling press conference at Trump Tower. The entertainer was freshly back from a Time magazine gala, and he appeared flanked by his family and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With standard bluster, he rejected any suggestion that he had moderated his tone or approach: "I’m not changing. I went to the best schools. I’m a very smart person. I’m going to represent our country very well." He mischievously suggested that Sanders had been mistreated by the Democratic Party and should run for president as an independent. He said Clinton would be nowhere in politics if she were a man, a comment bound to stir up controversy.
Trump also mocked Cruz and Kasich as well as their supposed alliance, which he called “a faulty deal that was defaulted on” and evidence of traditional politicians’ inability to close deals.
It was a race for the basement between Trump’s two rivals. Both men turned in execrable performances, though each was likely to pick up a handful of delegates in Rhode Island. Kasich delivered weak numbers even though the northeastern states should have been favorable ground for him. The Ohio governor continues to cling to the argument that he is most electable in a general election. Trump’s new nickname for him—1 for 38 Kasich—is clumsy but cutting: Kasich can’t win a primary outside of his home state. Cruz was even weaker. He spoke early in the night, accusing the media of rooting for Trump because he is likely to tear apart the Republican Party.
“The media is going to have heart palpitations this evening,” he scoffed at a rally in Knightstown, Indiana. “They’re gong to be excited, oh so excited about Trump’s victories. The media’s going to say, ‘Oh, the race is over.’ The media’s going to say, ‘Donald Trump is the Republican nominee.’”
Cruz is right about at least one thing: Any such declaration would be premature. There are still too many delegates left to allocate, and too many unknown variables: what Trump’s real clinching point is, how unbound delegates like Pennsylvania’s might lean, and what would happen at a contested convention. Trump looks more solid now than he has in some weeks, though he still needs a very strong finish.
Tuesday’s primaries offered some minor respite for those exhausted by the presidential race, in the form of several hard-fought and consequential down-ballot primaries. In Maryland, Representative Chris Van Hollen beat Representative Donna Edwards to win the Democratic nomination for Senate. Van Hollen will be a favorite to replace retiring Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski. The campaign became a battle between Van Hollen, a white longtime member of the Democratic House leadership, and Edwards, a more progressive African American politician without establishment support. To get a sense of how acrimonious it was, imagine the Clinton-Sanders showdown, but with a racial element and a likely safe seat at stake. Meanwhile, State Senator Jamie Raskin was leading in the race to run in Van Hollen’s stead. That race, for an even safer seat with a laughably short commute to Washington, attracted a large slate of candidates and the biggest self-funded House campaign ever.
In Pennsylvania, Katie McGinty beat out two opponents to win the Democratic nomination for Senate. That, too, was a hotly contested race, in part because incumbent Republican Pat Toomey is seen as one of the most vulnerable senators in November. But the race was also heated because of the presence of Joe Sestak, whom party officials detest. Sestak, a former admiral, was the Democratic nominee against Toomey six years ago, after he ran against and defeated Senator Arlen Specter, who became the party’s favored candidate after switching from the GOP. This time around, Sestak fell short against McGinty, a former environmental aide to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. John Futterman, the progressive mayor of Braddock whose compelling character and interesting ideas attracted media attention, finished third. Elsewhere in the Keystone State, longtime Representative Chaka Fattah, a Democrat who was indicted in 2015, lost his primary to state Representative Dwight Evans. On the Republican side, Representative Bill Shuster, embroiled in scandal over a relationship with a lobbyist who works with the Transportation Committee he chairs, barely survived a primary challenge from Art Halvorson.
The down-ballot primaries are a useful reminder that the presidential race won’t be the only contest come November. Many Republicans fear that a ticket topped by Trump could cost the party control of the Senate and perhaps even the House. But on Tuesday night, Trump himself seemed unconcerned. The nomination, he said, was already his: “When the boxer knocks out the other boxer, you don’t have to wait around for a decision.”
—David A. Graham