Trump wins, Sanders takes early lead in West Virginia, Nebraska

NBC: Trump wins NE Republican primary
NBC: Trump wins NE Republican primary

West Virginia and Nebraska didn't make history Tuesday, but they didn't stop it, either. Handing primary wins to real estate magnate

Donald Trump and early leads to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, voters neither rejected the presumptive GOP nominee, who is now the only active Republican in the race, nor thwarted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The results, expected by both campaigns, do not fundamentally change the trajectory of the Republican or Democratic primaries. Trump effectively sealed the nomination after a commanding win in Indiana that led the remaining GOP contenders, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, to suspend their campaigns. And Clinton, despite a startlingly aggressive challenge from Sanders, is still ahead in pledged delegates and with superdelegates; she has about 95 percent of the 2,383 needed to become the Democratic nominee. To upset Clinton, election map-watchers say, Sanders would need to score an astronomically huge victory in California June 7.

SEE ALSO: Winner quickly projected in W.Va. Dem primary

Sanders's only hope is to convince enough superdelegates – Democratic elected officials and party bigwigs who aren't bound by primary results – to switch to Sanders from Clinton, who has earned the backing of the overwhelming majority of the group. The superdelegates "really have to take another look at this race," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told MSNBC after the West Virginia win. "It's going to be a very uphill fight for her" if she faces off against Trump, he said.

That appears highly unlikely, barring some major scandal or tragedy. The contests did, however, expose some of the weaknesses Trump and Clinton face as they enter what is shaping up as a general election showdown between the billionaire businessman and the former secretary of state. Trump and Clinton, notably, have the first and third highest negatives, respectively, among any presidential candidates Gallup has polled in its history.

Clinton has often remarked that she is not a natural politician like her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and it showed in her inartful remarks at a town hall in March. Referring to the development of more clean energy sources, Clinton said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." That remark came back to haunt her in coal-country West Virginia.

Losing West Virginia isn't too worrisome for Clinton in the general, since the Mountain State is firmly in the Republican column. Kentucky, too, which holds its primary next week, is also not a gettable state for the Democrats, notes Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. Sanders' victory gives bragging rights to the insurgent candidate, Voss notes, but doesn't much buttress his argument that he is a stronger general election contender.

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"Sanders has been beating her in places Democrats lose," Voss says. Sanders has attracted many young voters, but has also done well in states with heavily white electorates. Clinton, meanwhile, has done much better among African-Americans and Latinos, both voters groups Democrats need to win battleground states this fall. "That's one reason she's on target to win the nomination," Voss says.

Her comments could linger and irk some coal-industry voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both important states for Democrats in November. "Those early statements – she tried to walk them back, but I don't think a lot of folks who are coal miners, those who are out of work, are buying it," says Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist.

The loss – which the Clinton camp had indicated it was expecting – "is a problem for Hillary Clinton, but not in getting the nomination," Hagle explains. With Sanders determined to stay in the race until the July convention, "she can't pivot to the general election, not completely," he says. "With him nipping at her heels, she's got to pay attention to him somewhat and not give up" battling him.

Sanders' win in West Virginia netted him some delegates, but it was still unclear how much support the proud democratic socialist has in the state. Exit polls indicated that 35 percent of Sanders voters said that if the November choice came down to Trump or Sanders, they'd go with Trump, suggesting that their votes were either strategic, to weaken Clinton, or just an alternate manifestation of an anti-establishment sentiment.

Among all Democratic primary voters, just a third said they would vote for the Democratic nominee in the fall, with 27 percent saying they'd cast a ballot for the reality TV star. The rest said they were unsure.

Trump, meanwhile, is collecting delegates in a steady march to the 1,237 needed for the nomination. But Trump, too, is on a rocky path.

The bombastic, presumptive nominee has failed to get the endorsements of key leaders in the party, including both former Presidents Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and several of his primary opponents. Cruz even suggested Tuesday afternoon that he might get back in the race if he accrues delegates (without campaigning) later in the primary season.

Many of the party's luminaries, including veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have said they won't even attend the convention in July. And up-and-coming freshman Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is among those who have said outright he will not vote for Trump in November.

Some Republicans have made noises about mounting a desperate, third-party effort to stop Trump or at least give Republicans a chance to rally around someone else, even if that person loses in the fall. House Speaker Paul Ryan, the party's highest-ranking member, is withholding his endorsement of the presumptive nominee, leading Trump to comment that it might not be a good idea for Ryan to co-chair the July convention in Cleveland.

Ryan shrugged off the remark, saying he'd step down if that's what Trump wanted. The two men are set to meet on Capitol Hill Thursday.

"There's no doubt that discontent with Trump is widespread," Voss says. While Trump has clearly resonated with rank-and-file voters, party leaders are not unifying behind him. "Now they have to decide if they're willing to have their brand be hijacked by a candidate who isn't one of them. It's a tough decision," Voss says.

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Originally published