The general election match-up is set: Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States, and the fight between them will dominate the political landscape for the next five months.
After a long battle against left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, Clinton closed out the campaign in emphatic fashion on Tuesday, winning the two biggest states of the day, New Jersey and California. Sanders, whose slim hopes had rested on a big Golden State upset, has nowhere to go once the District of Columbia votes next Tuesday.
As Tuesday’s results sink in, here are five key questions for both parties.
Can Donald Trump adapt to a general election campaign?
The Donald Trump who spoke at a golf club in Westchester County, N.Y., on Tuesday evening was a very different figure from the one who has captivated the political world — for good or ill — in the year since he began his political campaign.
Battered by the storm over his racially charged comments about the judge overseeing a case against Trump University, the businessman delivered a muted address, read from a tele-prompter.
“I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle, and I will never, ever let you down,” Trump said to Republicans, adding, “I will make you proud of your party and your movement.”
Trump also appealed to Sanders supporters to back him.
But does the speech presage a different tone for the general election campaign or was it a one-off?
The businessman and some of his top aides believe that his combative and flamboyant personality won him the GOP nomination. They see no reason for him to dilute it now.
Amid Tuesday’s more restrained speech, Trump promised a news conference next week at which he would reveal “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” He also told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that his internal critics should “get over it.”
It could soon be back to business as usual at Trump Tower.
Can President Obama unite the Democratic Party?
President Obama and Sanders are scheduled to meet at the White House on Thursday, at the senator’s request. They spoke on the phone on Sunday, and some observers say the Vermont senator’s rhetoric has become more conciliatory toward Clinton since then.
Obama can exert serious pressure on Sanders to bring his challenge for the nomination to a close.
But the president’s role could be larger than that. He retains enormous popularity with the Democratic grassroots. An endorsement of Clinton — thought to be coming soon — and some mixture of praise and commiserations toward Sanders could help bring the party together after a long and bitter primary.
How tightly will Hillary Clinton embrace gender?
Clinton’s victory speech on Tuesday night and the artfully produced video that previewed it both played up her status as the first female nominee for president of a major party.
That focus, in turn, was reflected in media coverage of her achievement. The New York Post’s front page on Wednesday morning featured the headline “The First Lady” while the rival Daily News had a large photo of Clinton beneath the exclamation “Her!”
Clinton’s embrace of the history-making element of her candidacy is a marked difference from her 2008 campaign. Her most memorable reference to gender eight years ago came as her quest ended in defeat.
Clinton is also seeking to use her gender as an emblem of inclusivity — and thus as a weapon against Trump, whom Democrats will try to paint as racist and backward.
“There are still ceilings to break for women, men, for all of us, but don’t let anyone tell you that great things can’t happen in America,” Clinton said on Tuesday. “This campaign is about making sure there are no ceilings, no limits on any of us, and this is our moment to come together.”
One complication for Clinton: Her standing with men is very low. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month put Clinton up 14 percentage points over Trump among female registered voters — but down by 23 points among their male counterparts.
A continued concentration on her gender could backfire if it fails to narrow that deficit among men.
Where do Bernie Sanders’s supporters go?
Sanders’s quest is drawing to a close — but do his supporters accept that?
The refusal of his hardcore backers to yield to the realization that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee has been one of the most striking characteristics of the late stages of the primary.
Trump’s appeal for them to join him seems unlikely to succeed.
Aside from both being outsiders to their respective party establishments, the two men have little in common. But whether Sanders’s people will eventually fall in behind Clinton is a much different question — polls have shown around 1 in 4 saying that they will not do so.
Then again, back in 2008, hardline Clinton supporters said much the same about their willingness to back then-Sen. Obama in the fall — and he went on to win the biggest Democratic victory since 1964.
Still, Clinton will also want to unite the party before the Democratic National Convention in late July, where disruptions from pro-Sanders dead-enders could be politically embarrassing
What does the next wave of polls say?
Late last month, Democratic nerves were jangled — and Republicans reassured — by several polls that showed Trump in a statistical dead-heat with Clinton. He led in some of those polls. But, at that time, he had just wrapped up the GOP nomination and the Republican Party was coalescing behind him, even as Clinton was still struggling to put away Sanders.
Now, however, Trump is suffering one of the worst weeks of his campaign, as Republican leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), rebel over the judge controversy.
Meanwhile, Clinton has delivered two of her best speeches in the past seven days: Tuesday night’s victory speech and a verbal onslaught against Trump’s foreign policy last Thursday. She can reasonably expect a bump in the polls now she is the presumptive nominee.
Does the next wave of polls put Clinton in a commanding position? Do Republicans panic if that is the case? And do Democrats start fretting all over again if no such gap opens?