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Resounding victories by Trump, Clinton temporarily mask troubling negatives

It was an unusual day in New York, and for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the state’s voters mattered, and not just in one presidential primary, but in both. Stranger still, the winning candidates, who prevailed by large margins, are also two of the most distrusted figures in American politics today.

It’s that kind of year.

For supporters of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, though, it was a triumphant day. It was for the candidates, too, not only moving each one closer to the party’s nomination, but racking up convincing wins in their home state.

For Clinton, the outcome puts her even more firmly in the driver’s seat. It will be difficult, at this point, for her opponent, Bernie Sanders, to win the Democratic nomination. With her New York victory, Clinton padded her delegate lead by at least 139, while Sanders picked up 106. In pledged delegates overall, he has 246 fewer delegates than Clinton, who has 1,446, excluding the superdelegates who are expected to support her. The winner will need the support of at least 2,383 delegates at the convention in Philadelphia.

For Trump, the ultimate effect of the win is less clear. While he will win the vast majority of the 95 delegates that were at stake in the Republican primary – bringing him to around 844 of the 1,237 needed – it remains uncertain if he can enter into the party convention in Cleveland with enough delegates to win on the first ballot. If it becomes a contested convention, Ted Cruz – Tuesday’s big loser in New York – is working to lure Trump’s delegates on subsequent ballots.

It could happen, so roundly disliked is Trump. According to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, Trump was viewed unfavorably by 57 percent of respondents compared with 24 percent who approved of him. That gives him a net negative score of minus 33. It’s hard to win general elections with numbers like those.

But Clinton has her own troubles. The same poll showed her as viewed unfavorably by 52 percent of respondents, compared with 31 percent who saw her in a good light. Her net negative was minus 21 – a third less damaging than Trump’s but still not at all good.

It’s a lesson on how unreliable primary vote totals and big rallies can be when it comes to predicting who can win in a general election. But either way, this will be a November unlike any other if Trump and Clinton are their party’s nominee and they remain so intensely disliked.

Their negative ratings are historically high – the worst since this poll began in 1984. Who wins between them will move into the White House under the dead weight of overwhelming public doubt. They both need to take a lesson from the past.

The American presidents who are highest regarded contended with a crisis of some description – George Washington in inaugurating the nation, Abraham Lincoln in preserving the nation and Franklin Roosevelt in leading the country through the two potentially mortal crises of the Great Depression and World War II.

No one wants either candidate to face that kind of trial, but what those presidents also had in common – along with others, including Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy – is that they were, in one way or another, inspirational figures.

They dealt with problems, sometimes more effectively than others, but they also pointed the way toward the goal of achieving a more perfect nation. They created a sense that better things were possible.

Clinton is better at that than Trump, who thus far is little more than a chronic complainer, but neither has shown the stuff that infuses the voting public with confidence. If these two are to be their party’s nominee, it would be good for them to take a lesson from the presidents who mattered.

It’s not helpful to win the country’s leadership by being considered the lesser of evils.