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Donald Trump Pivots To General Election After Indiana Victory


John Kasich has now ended his presidential campaign, leaving Donald Trump as the only remaining GOP candidate. For more on the state of the race, let's bring in NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. And, Mara, you heard Jeff Flake there earlier. Is this going to be an ongoing dynamic - the establishment and other Republicans being basically unwilling to commit their support to Donald Trump.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think so. Republicans are trying to digest this. They're trying to wrap their minds around a candidate who was once considered unimaginable is now the apparent nominee. He's the original big birther, a reality TV star, insulter of multitudes, and this takes some getting used to.

But over time, many Republicans tell me that they believe more and more Republicans will rally around Trump, mostly because they want to defeat Clinton. The party has been primed to be anti-Clinton for 25 year. It's in Republicans' DNA to oppose the Clintons. Now, for others, this is a moral and ethical line they just can't cross. They will not support Trump no matter what. But the negative campaigning hasn't even begun yet, and there are going to be hundreds of millions of dollars spent ripping Hillary Clinton to shreds, and the Democrats are going to do the same to Donald Trump. Democrats who are affiliated was super PACs tell me that to say Donald Trump is a target-rich environment is an understatement.

CORNISH: Right, so I guess we can expect this tone to continue, right? I mean, based on what we've seen so far from Donald Trump, this promises to be a general election unlike anything we've seen before.

LIASSON: Yes. Donald Trump has talked about becoming more presidential. And on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes he gives a relatively subdued speech. Then, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, he's waving around the National Enquirer, as you just heard Robert talking about with Sen. Flake.

Even on the day of his greatest triumph yesterday, when he had all but cinched the nomination, he was linking Ted Cruz's father to the JFK assassination. That's the oldest chestnut in the modern conspiracy theory locker - who killed JFK? So from Donald Trump's point of view, why should he change his tone? It's working. He's winning.

CORNISH: But what are you hearing from Hillary Clinton's campaign? I mean, how have they responded to Trump's rhetoric?

LIASSON: They're thinking a lot about how they're going to respond. Her campaign says she won't just take it. They're trying to figure out a way for her to hit back when necessary without sinking to his level. You know, when you have two candidates with negatives this high - Trump's negatives are in the 60s, hers are in the 50s - it's usually a recipe for an ugly, negative campaign because it's very hard to turn around negatives. You're only option, usually, is to make the other guy work look worse. And usually, a negative campaign depresses turnout. And in the past, depressed turnout helps Republicans, but maybe not this year.

CORNISH: All right, but so far, what do the polls tell us about the general election?

LIASSON: So far, the polls tell us that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump by anywhere from a couple points to a lot of points. But when you look at the Electoral College map, and we - that's how we elect presidents - by the Electoral College, not by the popular vote.

It is true that even before Donald Trump, Democrats have won states equaling 242 electoral votes in each of the last six elections. And Republicans have only won states in each of the last six elections equaling 102 electoral votes. You only need 270 to win, so Democrats have a big edge there. And in terms of key demographic groups, Donald Trump is polling 85 to 15 percent negative with Hispanics. That's much worse than Mitt Romney. We know that this year's electorate will be less white and more Hispanic than the 2012 electorate. Democrats think Donald Trump will be a motivator not just for his own white, non-college-educated base, but for their base, with minorities and women, particularly college-educated women.

CORNISH: But let's dig into that a little more. What about the demographics in terms of the general election?

LIASSON: Well, demographic trends favor Democrats, although historical patterns favor Republicans because, generally, after eight years, voters want a change. It's very hard to get third term in office for your own party. Only George H. W. Bush was able to do that when he followed Ronald Reagan's two terms. But historically, Democrats have had an edge in presidential elections because of demographics.

The presidential-year electorate is generally younger, browner, more female and more Democratic, and Donald Trump has an answer to that. And he says, I have brought so many new people into the process. Republican turnout in the primaries is way up. I can bring in millions of new blue-collar, white voters, so I will be able to flip blue states red in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio or Iowa.

But one Republican pollster I talked to today said he's not so sure about that theory yet, until he has a chance to examine the voter lists and to see if Trump truly did bring in new people to the process, or did he just bring in voters who have been voting Republican in general elections but didn't participate in the primaries? In other words, did he expand the overall electorate the way Barack Obama did when he brought in young people and minorities, or did Trump merely expand the Republican primary electorate? But anecdotally, we all know from going to Trump rallies, there are a lot of people that you will meet in their 40s and 50s who say, I have never voted ever in my life, and I'm here voting for Trump.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.