Nearly half the states in the nation have yet to hold their nominating contests for the Democratic presidential candidates, but as of Tuesday night it's become evident that Hillary Clinton is in an exceptionally strong position to clinch the nomination — and perform strongly in the general election.
There is no way to predict how the rest of the primary race will unfold. In an election cycle in which a former reality TV star with no political experience can mobilize legions of voters and voting behavior in a state like Michigan can defy every poll-based prediction, it's best to be cautious when contemplating future events.
But as of now, Clinton shows promise as a candidate for two main reasons. One can be found in her victories in all five states that voted Tuesday — North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. Proportional delegate rules mean that in some of those states, she didn't take home that many more delegates than Sanders. But what matters is the regional diversity of the states in which she won — she triumphed not only in the South, as expected, but also in the Midwestern states that provided an opportunity for Sanders to play to his greatest strengths, and which he ultimately needed to win to prove himself competitive in race for delegates.
The other major development of the night was something that Clinton had no role in — the suspension of Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign for president. Contrary to the predictions of countless pundits and political analysts last year, the Florida senator failed to win a single Republican nominating contest, and after losing his home state last night, he judiciously decided to end his run. But while Rubio was not a strong performer in the primaries, he was a particularly strong candidate for the general election. His withdrawal from the race bodes well for Clinton, should she win the nomination.
Clinton can win in many different ways
Most of the triumphalism that followed Clinton's strong performance on Super Tuesday on March 1 was overblown. She won most of the states that voted that day, but almost all of the states states she succeeded in were situated in the South. While they revealed a crucial weakness in Sanders' candidacy — his failure to appeal to more than a fairly small share of black voters — they're not states that Democrats rely on in the general election, and they represent a niche part of the party's electorate.
At one point, it looked like Sanders' best shot at the nomination would be by winning whiter states outside of the South. His huge upset in delegate-rich Michigan last week suggested that he might be able to chart a comeback in the race by sweeping the Rust Belt.
But last night Clinton won exactly where Sanders had the best opportunity to stage more upsets. In Ohio, Clinton won by more than 13 points, and in Illinois, she edged him out by less than two points. While Sanders received a significant amount of delegates in both states, he really needed to win both in order to shift his prospects for winning the nomination. If he can't beat Clinton in populous states with significantly smaller non-white Democratic electorates, states that have the kinds of structural challenges in their economy that naturally prime them for Sanders' economic positioning against free trade, it's not clear where else he can win that matters.
Indeed, at this point Clinton has proven herself to be a multifaceted candidate who appeals to key Democratic constituencies across the country. She's won in the South, she has won in the Southwest, she's won in New England and she's won in the Midwest. She's won in states like Ohio and Florida where Democrats need good turnout in order to win the general election. She generally fares well among women and racial minorities. There are plenty of ways in which she can improve — especially in her appeal to young voters — but her current path to the nomination is showcasing a number of electoral strengths.
Rubio's loss is Clinton's win
The one other major outcome on Tuesday night that helps Clinton, if she wins the nomination, is Rubio's departure. Vox's Ezra Klein summarized his potentially formidable general election run quite well:
Rubio's primary-season weaknesses were general election strengths. He does hopeful better than he does angry. His record includes occasional pivots toward the center, particularly on immigration. His résumé was relatively thin, and while that reminded some Republicans of criticisms they made of Obama, it also left less to attack in a general election. Rubio was acceptable to all wings of the Republican Party even if he was the first choice of few. The result is that Rubio could have unified the GOP while running to the middle.
Rubio dropping out means that Clinton will most likely face either Trump or Cruz in the general election, and at this point it looks like it will be Trump. Some political analysts believe that the billionaire showman is particularly well-equipped to exploit her weaknesses, such as the public's dim view of her trustworthiness, and capitalize on the Republican Party's long-held animosity for her. But at this point in the race, both his behavior and voter behavior are proving too unpredictable to make any long-term estimates in that realm. What's clear is that the GOP establishment's best chance at taking the White House is gone.