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GOP voters wanted an outsider who could fix the economy, and Trump fit their bill

May 4, 2016

The Republican race for president will go on through the mighty contests of early June, but it ended Tuesday. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president because of two imperatives that GOP voters clung to all through the primary season.

They were desperately concerned about the economy. And they wanted an outsider to fix it.

All the other things — Trump’s disdainful and insulting treatment of varied voter groups, his huge levels of unpopularity, his last-minute attack against Ted Cruz’s father, alleging, with no evidence, a tie to a presidential assassination — was just background noise to Republican voters unleashing a communal scream at establishment politics.

California’s June primary, which was to be the first momentous Republican presidential balloting here in a half century, may serve to get Trump officially over the line of 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination. But at this point that is not much more than a formality.

Trump’s victory in Indiana was just as sweeping as his five northeastern victories last week and his giant New York win two weeks ago, delivering a sense that GOP voters have decided that they would not brook any more delays in awarding him the nomination.

Cruz got the message and dropped out of the race Tuesday night, saying that his chance of winning the nomination “has been foreclosed.” The last official Trump opponent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is nearly out of money and lacks any substantial support.

The New York businessman’s strength rested on the two linked voter concerns, according to exit polls of Tuesday voters.

Two-thirds of Indiana GOP voters said they were “very worried” about the economy, and another quarter said they were somewhat concerned. Trump won both groups easily. (Overall, voters cited the economy as the most pressing issue.)

Asked whether the next president should be an experienced politician or an outsider, about 6 in 10 went for an outsider — and Trump won nearly 8 in 10 of those voters.

Among the 17 major Republican candidates who began the race, only Trump could plausibly fulfill both demands, and he pressed that message daily.

Every Trump speech has included a broadside against trade deals that hurt American workers — and specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush, but signed into law by President Bill Clinton and supported by Trump’s likely general election opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump also targeted American companies like Carrier, the Indiana air conditioning firm, for planning to move to Mexico. He said he would impose huge tariffs on companies that tried to leave the country during his administration.

Cruz, his last major competitor, had a much more diffused appeal in the last few weeks. He launched a big assault on Trump’s shrugging acceptance of the right of transsexuals to use the bathroom of their choice — a last grab by Cruz for the votes of evangelical voters. He cut a short-lived deal with the candidate in distant third place, Kasich, that drove Kasich out of the Indiana race. He named a vice presidential running mate, former candidate Carly Fiorina, in a bid to add some pizazz. None of it worked.

Trump, in somewhat subdued remarks from New York on Tuesday, went after Clinton almost immediately in a preview of what will be a highly contentious fight to November.

“She will not be a great president; she will not be a good president; she will be a poor president,” he said. He called NAFTA “the single worst trade deal ever done.”

“I’ve witnessed what it’s done, really firsthand, and it has been indeed carnage, and we’re gonna change it around.”

While that issue may prove potent, Trump’s downsides as the nominee were glaringly evident Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, he lauded the retiring Cruz as “one hell of a competitor; he is a tough smart guy and he has got an amazing future.”

But earlier in the day in an interview on Fox News, he had repeated unsubstantiated accusations made in the National Enquirer that Cruz’s father Rafael had been pictured with Lee Harvey Oswald at a pro-Cuba demonstration shortly before Oswald assassinated President Kennedy.

The younger Cruz responded in an epic, angry news conference in which he called Trump a “pathological liar,” a “serial philanderer” and other insults that probably will resurface in Democratic ads. Cruz, who had defended Trump until very recently in hopes of attracting Trump’s voters if he stumbled, would not say whether he would support him as the party’s nominee.

Trump used Cruz’s angry riposte to insult him further, saying that the comments proved Cruz “does not have the temperament to be president of the United States.”

The presumptive nominee’s decision to level an unsupported accusation against an opponent’s family member underscored the volatility at the core of Trump’s candidacy.

His brazen behavior hasn’t hurt him in the primary season, when it was offset by his assets and the greater shortcomings of his opponents. But even as his support among Republican primary voters has increased, his unpopularity keeps plumbing new depths in the much larger general election voter pool.

More clearly than the primary season, the general election carries with it a test of whether voters can see each candidate as president and commander in chief. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, made precisely that point in a brief statement issued Tuesday night.

“Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’s too divisive and lacks the temperament to lead our nation and the free world,” Podesta said. “With so much at stake, Donald Trump is simply too big of a risk.”

That argument has some heft even among Republican voters, exit polls showed Tuesday. More than 4 in 10 Republican voters said they would be “concerned” or “scared” if Trump was elected president. A quarter of GOP voters said they would not vote for him in the general election.

Clinton has already started to go after those voters, particularly women. Her campaign reported raising more than $2 million immediately after Trump accused her last week of playing the “woman’s card.” She has made pitches to Republican women who may be put off by Trump’s gibes at her and others, including Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and former candidate Fiorina.

That sort of early poaching into another candidate’s base is unusual in today’s polarized politics, when the fight is usually to turn out loyal party members and persuade the ever shrinking number of swing voters to take a look.

Clinton may be unpopular with a broad general election audience, but she is popular within her party, and Democratic voters by huge margins are prepared to rally around her candidacy once she officially wins the nomination.

Trump has an entirely different challenge. The general election audience is out there, and he’s making efforts, as with the trade conversation, at appealing to Democrats. But first he has to convince voters – starting with the Republicans who have been wary of him — that he has the goods to serve as president.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker

For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker

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