Donald Trump swept contests in five Eastern states on Tuesday night, a significant triumph that carries him closer to clinching the GOP presidential nomination. But despite the convincing victories, the result was less a reflection of Trump’s strength than the shortcomings of the movement set up to stop him.
Two months after Mitt Romney called for the remaining Republican candidates to form a tactical alliance designed to thwart Trump — and just days after aides to Ted Cruz and John Kasich cut a deal to clear paths for one another in upcoming primaries — the so-called #NeverTrump movement stumbled once again, tripped up by spotty coordination and the limited appeal of Trump’s rivals. The result was a clean sweep that will earn Trump the lion’s share of the 172 delegates up for grabs Tuesday, as he edges nearer to the 1,237 delegates required to secure the nomination and stave off a contested convention in Cleveland.
The outcome was never in doubt. In each of the five Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that went to the polls — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — Trump entered Tuesday with wide polling leads. He coasted to victory: within a half hour after polls closed at 8 p.m., networks had moved all five states into his column.
On the Democratic side, front runner Hillary Clinton looked to pad her virtually insurmountable delegate advantage. Clinton was quickly declared the winner in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In a gesture laden with symbolism, she gave her victory speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the city that will host the Democratic convention in July. Clinton’s message on Tuesday to Sanders: the primary is over, and it’s time for the Democrats to turn to the fall campaign. “We will unify our party to win this election,” she declared shortly after 9 p.m., just as Sanders was wrapping up a victory in Rhode Island.
But as with Republicans, reconciliation won’t come easy. Sanders says he will campaign on. And as his path to the nomination narrows to a vanishing point, he has ratcheted up his criticism of Clinton. On Tuesday he sent out a fundraising solicitation with a picture of Clinton beaming alongside Trump at the billionaire’s wedding.
Trump’s blowout wins belied the fact that his mix of populist economics and hard-edged immigration policy were an awkward fit for a politically moderate and relatively prosperous region. Republicans in Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states tend to favor center-right technocrats: Governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland are among the most popular chief executives in the country. Nor was Trump’s triumph a function of tactical savvy. In recent days, a schism has emerged between campaign advisers counseling a pivot toward the general election and those urging him to stick with the freewheeling formula that’s brought him to this point.
For all his shortcomings, Trump has forged a bond with Republican primary voters that transcends geographic region, religious predilection and economic class. The #NeverTrump movement can’t say the same of its candidates. It has the infrastructure in place for success, with deep-pocketed donors, seasoned operatives and a clear message: that Trump’s dismal image will destroy the party’s chances not just of taking the White House, but also its down-ballot prospects.
The problem is the limited appeal of Trump’s rivals. And Kasich is the primary culprit.
Cruz has had consistent success with a specific segment of the GOP electorate: evangelical and very conservative voters. The Texas Senator has delivered critical wins in states like Wisconsin when the #NeverTrump forces have arrayed behind him. The same can’t be said for Kasich, who has repeatedly failed to perform in the more moderate Midwestern and Northeastern states where he was supposed to be a more viable alternative to Trump.
Again and again, Kasich’s allies have trumpeted the next stretch of the nominating contest as the moment when the Ohio governor would finally find himself on favorable terrain. While Cruz was battling Trump in the South ahead of the March 1 SEC Primary, Kasich planted his flag in more moderate Michigan — only to finish third. On March 15 he slipped to third again in Illinois, another Midwestern state where his allies had promised success.
Even a week ago, Kasich’s advisers were touting his prospects for success on Tuesday. “Ted Cruz’s brand of politics simply won’t play with most voters in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland,” Kasich strategist John Weaver said last week. NeverTrump PAC, one of the groups exhorting GOP voters to throw their support behind the candidate likeliest to topple Trump in each state, urged Republicans to support Kasich in three of the night’s five states. (In a fourth, Rhode Island, Trump’s lead was so wide that the group didn’t bother issuing a suggestion.) In early returns, Trump was doubling Kasich’s vote share in each of those states.
And while Kasich looked set to outperform Cruz, he siphoned off so few of Trump’s delegates that he may finish the night still trailing Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the nominating contest six weeks ago. Kasich’s anemic performance in the voting booth isn’t the only way he’s dealt a setback to the #NeverTrump movement this week. As Cruz was trumpeting the two candidates’ public pact as a “big deal,” Kasich threw cold water on the alliance, refusing to tell his supporters to vote instead for Cruz in next week’s winner-take-all primary in Indiana. (Cruz has pulled out of Oregon and New Mexico to clear a path for Kasich.) Meanwhile, a pro-Cruz super PAC was left to run TV ads attacking the Ohio Governor in Indiana, where he’s locked in a tight contest with Trump.
Despite his big win on Tuesday, Trump still faces significant obstacles in his quest to secure a delegate majority. “Moving West, his ability to keep pace becomes more difficult,” NeverTrump PAC adviser Rory Cooper said in a statement. “The #NeverTrump movement will now move into Indiana, where Ted Cruz has a real opportunity to deny Trump a sizable number of delegates and change the narrative of this race.”
With both Cruz and Kasich mathematically eliminated from winning the GOP nomination on the first ballot, a tactical alliance to thwart Trump makes sense. But their haphazard coordination and Kasich’s inability to deliver has undermined the accord’s promise.
— With reporting by Sam Frizell/Philadelphia