Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New York: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Donald Trump won the New York primary in a landslide, receiving about 60 percent of the popular vote and about 90 of the state's 95 Republican delegates. Trump undoubtedly benefited from a home-state advantage, but his performance bodes well for his chances in the five other northeastern states voting next Tuesday. Trump remains on track to flirt with an overall delegate majority by the end of the primary season in June.

2. Beyond the topline results, two additional developments represent good news for Trump. The first is Ted Cruz's poor performance. Cruz's brand of politics is not a natural fit for the Northeast, even among Republican voters, and he probably suffered from making a derogatory remark about "New York values" earlier in the race (perhaps not thinking ahead at the time). But the outcome in New York suggests that Cruz has not emerged as the main rival to Trump everywhere in the nation, and the fact that most of the remaining states on the calendar are located on the East and West coasts suggests that his campaign will face a serious challenge in consolidating the non-Trump vote and demonstrating positive "momentum" that might potentially impress Republican delegates weighing whether to throw the nomination to him over Trump.

3. Perhaps more importantly, Trump's victory speech departed from his signature cutting and bombastic style, lacking his usual tossed-off remarks belittling his Republican opponents. Some analysts have suggested that this new approach reflects a recent campaign shakeup in which nominal campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was unofficially supplanted by the more experienced Republican operative Paul Manafort. Trump's path to the nomination, still numerically unassured and perhaps hinging on the behavior of a pivotal bloc of unpledged delegates, will be smoothed considerably if he reduces the cloud of controversy surrounding his candidacy and signals a willingness to take advice from experienced campaign professionals.

In the past, the apparent emergence of a "kinder, gentler" Trump has been quickly reversed by a new eruption of slash-and-burn politics, so it is too soon to conclude that his speech marks a new strategic direction. Yet it is worth keeping an eye on his behavior in the coming weeks. At the very least, a more conciliatory Trump will dampen the energy within the party to organize a stop-Trump effort after the end of the primary season, which may allow him to claim the nomination even if he falls just short of a majority in pledged delegates. If a new, nicer style makes Trump's nomination more likely, however, it may not be in the interest of the Republican Party as a whole.

4. The Democratic race remains where it was before, with future nominee Hillary Clinton fending off a spirited but unsuccessful challenge from Bernie Sanders in New York, as she has done in the contest at large. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver attracted some attention last night by suggesting on MSNBC that Sanders will remain as an active candidate all the way to the July convention, pressuring superdelegates along the way to deliver him the nomination even though he will fail to receive a majority of pledged delegates. I wouldn't make too much of this, though. All political campaigns insist that a path to victory remains in sight, no matter how long the odds, right up until the moment of concession. Ultimately, the decision about what to do after the primaries are over will rest with Sanders himself, and there is no reason to believe that he will necessarily continue to contest the race once the voting ends. Some Democrats are worried about lasting divisions in the party if Sanders does not immediately rally around Clinton, but experience demonstrates that wounds incurred during the nomination season will be a distant memory by the time that the November election occurs.