Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Tuesday with a landslide win in Indiana that drove his principal opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz, from the race and cleared the way for the polarizing, populist outsider to take control of the party.
After months of sneering dismissals and expensive but impotent attacks from Republicans fearful of his candidacy, Trump is now positioned to clinch the required number of delegates for the nomination by the last day of voting on June 7. Facing only a feeble challenge from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Trump is all but certain to roll into the Republican convention in July with the party establishment’s official but uneasy embrace.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont rebounded from a string of defeats to win Indiana. The outcome is unlikely to narrow Sanders’ delegate gap with Hillary Clinton, but it does provide a lift for him during a difficult period.
Clinton holds a large enough lead in delegates that she is all but certain to claim the Democratic nomination. Indiana offered a test of whether she could win over some of the white, working-class voters who have been drawn to Sanders.
Trump’s victory was an extraordinary moment in American political history: He is now on course to be the first standard-bearer of a party who has not served in elected office since Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general and the commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.
Trump, a real estate tycoon turned reality television celebrity, was not a registered Republican until April 2012. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, including his likely general election opponent, Clinton. And, at various points in his life, he has held positions antithetical to Republican orthodoxy on almost every major issue in the conservative canon, including abortion, taxes and gun control.
But none of this stopped him from driving nearly every other Republican from the race for the nomination. With his ability to speak to the anxieties of voters, and his shrewd use of celebrity and memorable put-downs, he systematically undercut veteran politicians in a field of candidates that many in the party had hailed as the strongest in at least three decades. And he did so while spending far less money than most of his rivals and employing only a skeletal campaign staff.
“It is extremely extraordinary that Trump will be the nominee for the GOP this year – who saw this coming?” said Dewey M. Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville. “He has tapped into the mood of many disaffected voters who like his business success and straight talk. He is unapologetic, and many voters like this.”
As remarkable as Trump’s achievement is, his expected nomination also poses undeniable peril to the party he is poised to lead. Republican leaders, few of whom have fully embraced his candidacy, are watching him with great trepidation, for good reason. On Tuesday night they seemed to be absorbing the implications of Trump’s emergence as the new face of their party.
No candidate since the dawn of modern polling has entered the general election with the sort of toxic image Trump has in the eyes of large groups of voters. Facing a race against the country’s first female major-party nominee, Trump is burdened with disapproval ratings as high as 70 percent among women, who make up a majority of voters in presidential elections.
Even before the Indiana results were finalized, some conservative leaders were planning a Wednesday meeting to assess the viability of launching a third party candidacy to compete with him in the fall, the Associated Press reported.
Trump starts the general election campaign with a still-unfurling roll of incendiary proposals and provocations that are the stuff of dreams for opposition researchers. He made his name in the last presidential campaign as the country’s most prominent birther, fueling debunked conspiracy theories that President Barack Obama was not born in America; he has used hostile and hard-edged language about Hispanics, suggesting that Mexican migrants are rapists and murderers; and he has not backed off his proposal to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States, effectively creating a religious test for immigrants.
No one is more eager to talk about those positions than Clinton, who made clear on Tuesday that she wanted to sharpen her focus on Trump.
“I’m really focused on moving into the general election,” Clinton said during an interview on MSNBC. “And I think that’s where we have to be, because we’re going to have a tough campaign against a candidate who will literally say or do anything.”
Yet the Indiana results were an embarrassing reminder of her vulnerabilities: Only slightly more than half of Democrats voting Tuesday called Clinton honest and trustworthy, according to early exit polls, a remarkably shaky assessment for the party’s likely nominee. After closing the gap with blue-collar white voters in parts of the Northeast last week, Clinton lost them by 30 points in Indiana. She also again suffered with self-identified independents casting ballots in the Democratic contest: 73 percent backed Sanders.
While Sanders devoted three days to campaigning in Indiana and spent more than $1 million on television advertisements, Clinton did not run any ads and spent only a day campaigning in the state, visiting the Indianapolis area.
Tad Devine, a senior adviser on the Sanders campaign, said that the Indiana results would not reshape the Democratic race markedly, given Clinton’s sizable delegate lead. Rather, after his recent defeats in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other states, Sanders was looking to prove that his campaign message remained strong.
“We think if the campaign is about policy and message, we will win and keep on winning,” Devine said. “But no matter what, Bernie wants to compete in the rest of the primaries and take his message to the Democratic convention.”
For Trump, Indiana was a turning point: Cruz had staked his campaign on winning a state that was widely regarded as up for grabs, but Trump rode momentum from five huge victories in the Northeast last week to deal a devastating setback to his rival.
Underscoring the ferocity and bitterness between the two men after months of campaigning, Trump on Tuesday morning suggested – with no evidence – that Cruz’s father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald’s, and Cruz responded with his harshest assault to date.
Appearing on Fox News in the morning, Trump echoed a tabloid story claiming that Cruz’s Cuban exile father, Rafael, had been pictured with Oswald, passing out pro-Fidel Castro pamphlets in New Orleans, shortly before Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being – you know, shot,” Trump said. “What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?”
Cruz, unburdening himself after a campaign in which Trump also mocked his wife’s appearance, responded with a flourish. “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign,” he told reporters in Evansville, Indiana. “I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump.” In addition to blasting Trump as a “pathological liar,” Cruz delved into his rival’s personal life.
“Listen, Donald Trump is a serial philanderer and he boasts about it,” Cruz said, directly raising Trump’s marital history for the first time. “I want everyone to think about your teenage kids. The president of the United States talks about how great it is to commit adultery. How proud he is. Describes his battles with venereal disease as his own personal Vietnam.”
But the appeal did not work. Indiana Republicans proved willing to embrace Trump, the once unlikely but now almost certain nominee, regardless of the personal flaws and political shortcomings that would have once derailed would-be presidents.