The big victories for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the New York primaries may not have been much of a surprise, but they have moved us one very large step toward a resolution of both parties' primary campaigns. As Republicans and Democrats consider the transition to a general election, both parties will now start worrying about unity. Will all the disappointments and hurt feelings of the primaries be put aside? Will the supporters of the candidates who lost rally around the one who won? Will the party be able to present a united, coherent front to the rest of the country?
Nothing is settled yet; we don't even know for sure who the nominees are going to be. But as Hillary Clinton said in her victory speech on Tuesday, "To all the people who supported Senator Sanders: I believe there is much more that unites us than divides us." She's right — but you can't say that about the Republicans.
It's been that way from the beginning. The Democratic race has had an angry moment here or there, but on the whole it's been civil, substantive, and sometimes even friendly. The people from whom Democratic voters take their cues, like politicians and media figures, have reflected that general mood. The ones supporting one candidate haven't spent a lot of time trashing the other candidate and saying that if he or she were to win the nomination, they'd desert the party. There's no meaningful #NeverClinton or #NeverSanders movement. Once the nomination is decided, you're going to have a hard time finding an elected Democrat or a liberal talk show host who'll tell people to sit this one out because the candidate they didn't support is such a disaster. And while Bernie Sanders may represent a revolt against the establishment, if and when Clinton becomes the nominee, it will represent Democratic voters validating the choice of Democratic elites.
A Donald Trump nomination, on the other hand, will represent Republican voters rejecting the choice (or rather, the choices) of Republican elites. Though few could have predicted that Donald Trump would be the vehicle of that rejection, it isn't surprising to see the Republican grassroots horrifying Republican leaders.
That story started even before this campaign; in fact it goes back to the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency, when a powerful movement within the GOP told Republicans that their own party was as much the enemy as the Democrats were. That message about "the establishment" was communicated incessantly over the ensuing years, culminating in this primary campaign. In some circles, to be a "real" conservative means to value ideological purity above party loyalty, even to profess not to care about the fate of the GOP at all.
At the same time, the greatest beneficiary of that anti-establishment fervor and the likely nominee of the party is positively despised by a significant portion of the party. While I've argued that Republicans will grudgingly rally around Trump if he's the nominee, that process will be neither smooth nor easy. And there will still be conservative media figures — who are much more important to the GOP than liberal media figures are to the Democratic Party — who have spent months or years sowing intra-party discord, and will transition uneasily at best to promoting the Trump candidacy. An entire legion of conservative radio hosts, newspaper columnists, magazine writers, and TV pundits has been telling their faithful that a Trump nomination would represent a betrayal of everything conservatism and the Republican Party are supposed to stand for.
What will they say if he's the nominee? They'll probably say that Hillary Clinton is really and truly awful. Which their audiences will agree with, and that will be an important motivation in getting people out to vote. But will it be enough?
That doesn't mean it will be impossible for Republicans to unify, just that it will be a lot harder. Consider this result from exit polls in New York. When Democrats were asked what would happen if each candidate were the nominee, 85 percent said they'd definitely or probably vote for Clinton, and 80 percent said the same of Sanders. On the Republican side — where, keep in mind, most of them voted for Trump — 70 percent said they'd definitely or probably vote for Trump, but only 56 percent said the same of Ted Cruz.
That's just one state, and those opinions will change. But it does show that Republicans have more distance to travel in order to unify. According to the 2012 exit polls, 92 percent of Democrats voted for Barack Obama and 93 percent of Republicans voted for Mitt Romney. I suppose it's possible that 93 percent of Republicans will vote for Trump in the end. But how likely does that look at the moment?
Everything about the primaries has driven Republicans apart from each other, and it's not going to get better any time soon. You may have noticed that issues have almost entirely disappeared from the Republican race — the candidates are spending much of their time talking (and complaining) about the process. But issues are what unites a party by reinforcing the differences it has with the other side.
And then there's the matter of the party conventions, which are usually all about building unity. They're highly choreographed and planned, meant to deliver a very specific message that bonds party members together, reminds them of their shared goals and values, and then sells their candidate to the rest of the country. The Democratic convention will do that. But if Trump can't get to 1,237 delegates by the end of the primaries, the Republican convention won't, because there will be much more urgent business to attend to, namely figuring out who their nominee will be. Even if Trump has the nomination in hand, the convention will no doubt feature no small amount of strife and disgruntlement.
When we get to the general election, Republicans may find the unity they seek in antipathy for Hillary Clinton, something they certainly all share. But will that be enough to overcome the demolition derby they've been through — and which is still going on? If you're a Republican, do you have any confidence in that?