Taking a stand.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Trump and Clinton Surge, With Rough Patches Ahead

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the winners in a big presidential primary day on Tuesday. But both showed just enough vulnerability to keep the races intensely contested for at least another month.

Trump decisively won all 99 of Florida’s delegates, eliminating that state's Senator, Marco Rubio, from the Republican contest. But he lost another winner-take-all primary in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich captured his first victory of the presidential campaign in his home state. Trump won narrow victories over Ted Cruz in North Carolina and Illinois.

Clinton won landslide victories over Bernie Sanders in Florida and North Carolina and, significantly, also defeated him in Ohio. Clinton’s strong showing widened her 2-to-1 delegate lead, keeping her in a dominant position to take the Democratic nomination at the party’s July convention in Philadelphia.

Trump remained the Republican front-runner over strong objections from many party leaders who hope to find a way to prevent him from winning enough delegates to secure the nomination. Many of those leaders had placed their hopes on Rubio, now the latest Republican to be run over by the New York billionaire's passionate supporters.

Yet the challengers on both sides sounded upbeat.

As the field narrows, Ted Cruz relishes the prospects of taking on Trump on one on one; polls suggest he'd do well.

"Trump can't get to 50 percent anywhere," said Jeff Roe, the Texas senator's campaign manager. "We're headed into places where he is weak and in primaries where only Republicans and independents can vote."

The anti-Trump movement, in peril if the reality TV star had swept yesterday's contests, is planning even bigger efforts over the next month; Republican politicians fear a general election disaster if Trump becomes the nominee. But their attacks have had minimal impact on voters and they've been unable to rally behind one alternative.

Cruz, to many of these Republicans, only looks good in comparison to Trump. That leaves Kasich after his victory in Ohio, where Trump made a big pitch in the closing days. Yet it’s hard to see Kasich’s pathway to the nomination.

The goal now of the anti-Trump forces is to keep him at least 100 votes short of the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination. That would give them a way to coalesce around another nominee at a contested convention in Cleveland starting July 18.

Although Clinton's prospects for getting a majority of delegates moved closer to reality on Tuesday, she still displays weaknesses as a candidate. Outside the South, where a heavy African-American vote has won the day for her, Sanders is outpointing her.

Sanders has no intention of throwing in the towel and his campaign believes the next few weeks will be strong ones for him. If they are right, they’ll face a showdown with Clinton in her home state of New York on April 19.

"We will be staring down the barrel of a two-week campaign in New York," said Tad Devine, the leading Sanders strategist. "Bernie will do well there."

The calendar over the next month does not work to the advantage of either party's front-runner.

On the Republican side, Trump is favored in the winner-take-all Arizona primary next Tuesday, though Cruz is making a strong run. Then Cruz will have an edge in many of the following contests because of the organizational advantage he brings to states that choose delegates at conventions or caucuses.

On April 5, expect a three-way showdown in Wisconsin, which apportions most of its delegates by congressional district. Trump has been ahead in the polls, Cruz is organizing in targeted districts and Kasich is counting on the support of the popular former Governor Tommy Thompson.

Then it'll be advantage Trump again in Connecticut, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Delaware and his home state of New York; he could roll up a sizable delegate lead in this region.

Kasich, who has no chance to get anywhere near a majority of the delegates going into Cleveland, is counting on a strong showing in all the big states outside the South. He also hopes to pick up some delegates even in unfriendly states by winning in friendly congressional districts. That, coupled with polls showing him a strong general election candidate, might give him leverage at the convention in his home state. That's at least a rationale for staying in the race.

The Cruz camp believes he can almost wipe out Trump's delegate advantage before the final contests on June 7, when 303 delegates will be chosen. Almost 60 percent of those will be in California, where the winner of each congressional district gets all the district's delegates. That puts a premium on strategic targeting, his campaign's strength. Another big June 7 contest is New Jersey's, in which the winner gets all 51 delegates. All the candidates are focusing on Governor Chris Christie: Trump riding his endorsement and Cruz and Kasich hoping to take advantage of his weak approval rating at home.

Among Democrats, the Sanders campaign understands its disadvantage when it comes to delegate math. But it hopes to overcome it with a big winning streak over the next month. Strategists are looking for victories in six caucus states, including Washington, and in a primary in Wisconsin with its big block of progressives and college students. That, they say, could set the stage for the New York showdown.

Devine argues that the Vermont socialist has strengths in Clinton's home state, which she represented in the Senate for eight years. Sanders will emphasize his Brooklyn roots, immigrant parents and upstate proximity to Burlington, Vermont, where he was mayor from 1982 to 1988. The hope is to energize liberals not enamored of Clinton. 

The Clinton camp dismisses any possibility of losing New York, and contends that their candidate’s seemingly insurmountable lead in the delegate contest will render any upcoming Sanders victories irrelevant.

She expects to start focusing less on her primary challenge from the left and more on the general election. On Tuesday night she called Trump "not strong" but "wrong."

Despite this show of optimism, there remains turmoil internally and renewed talk of bringing in some new political strategists. That talk may subside after Tuesday’s victories. Yet some Clinton supporters fear that their main problem remains: a candidate who doesn't inspire voters and is surprisingly prone to gaffes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net