NEW YORK -- Even before votes are counted in the primary here, the future of the 2016 race is clear: Big wins by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will not prevent ever more toxic levels of chaos and viciousness between now and November.
Whatever comity there was between Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her rival for the Democratic nomination, has been shredded by a crossfire of personal attacks.
Sanders’ newfound New York-style aggression -- which some supporters have been waiting impatiently for him to unfurl -- has brought him into a tie with Clinton in the national polls. And he will continue to be well-funded and far shrewder than the Clinton campaign in the use of social media.
“We’re taking this all the way,” said Sanders’s top campaign adviser, Tad Devine. There was no doubt that he meant it -- whatever the final tally of Tuesday's state primary turns out to be.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has proven a formidable foe in the ground-level delegate wars. Infuriated by this (and by Cruz’s taunting braggadocio about his evangelical minions), Trump, the truculent GOP front-runner, is all but threatening violence at the Republican convention.
“I hope it doesn't involve violence,” he said this week of July's convention. But if he is denied the nomination, he said, the scene in Cleveland would be “rough.”
And the formerly avuncular Sanders, brimming with his own resentment about The System, is using New York to amp up his rhetoric, in part to extract more online donations from loyalists.
The race in both parties is at a pivotal moment, and New York -- which rarely gets to play a role in nail-biter situations like this -- has been the perfect place for the nasty to get even nastier.
It’s the way things are here. In Minnesota, there really is such as thing as “Minnesota Nice.” Same for a state like Iowa.
But there's precious little “nice” in most of New York state. Outside the NYC environs, many people in cities like Buffalo and Rochester resent always having to play Pluto and Neptune to Manhattan's blazing sun.
And in a 2009 Travel + Leisure ranking of the 30 friendliest cities in American, New York City itself came in dead last.
When Clinton and Sanders went at it in their Brooklyn debate last week, the audience sounded like the bloodthirsty crowd at a boxing match in Madison Square Garden.
It was all too appropriate to the tenor of the 2016 campaign.
Six months from now, no matter who the finalists are, the mood of the race will be New York aggression writ large: more about voting against the person you don't like than voting for the one you do, more about candidates scaring their bases into turning out than gently wooing a vanished “middle.”
The most recent poll numbers show why.
Even as Clinton and Trump are expected to win their shared home state, they've grown less popular nationally after two weeks of campaigning in the mean streets.
In New York, Clinton has been the major loser of national stature if not convention delegates, finding herself the object of increasingly accusatory and personal attacks from Sanders.
According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, Clinton is now regarded negatively by 56 percent of the electorate, a jump of nearly 10 points from this time last year, by HuffPost Pollster figures. Clinton's campaign officials have attributed the rising unfavorables to Sanders’ recent attacks on her character.
Trump, meanwhile, is perhaps the most unpopular front-runner for a presidential nomination in modern history. Two-thirds of voters in the NBC/WSJ poll view him negatively. This would seem like a virtually insurmountable obstacle to his gaining the White House.
The traditional consultants’ rule is that a “negative rating” of more than 40-45 percent makes a candidate unelectable. If that’s the case, then Cruz can’t win the White House either, since he is viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of voters.
Sanders continues to be regarded favorably, and he is now running neck-and-neck with Clinton in several national polls. But that's come at a cost to his own image, which has grown somewhat more negative with voters in general.
Gone is starry-eyed Uncle Bernie, depicted by supporters as a friend to all living things and a humble servant of noble ideas, his odyssey set to the gentle strains of Simon & Garfunkel.
In New York, that figure has vanished, replaced by someone who's reared his head in both Vermont and Washington in the past: an acerbic and even arrogant politician, contemptuous of foes (and many putative friends) and adept at hiding his stiletto blade under a professorial cloak.
Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has maintained what might be called a truly winning profile, in that just 19 percent of the electorate reports having a negative view of him. But that may be because a great many people still have only the faintest idea who he is.
If he wants to get better known in this campaign, he had better get nastier -- certainly before Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, takes the GOP center stage next week.
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.
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