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Australia hopes favourite Clinton gets up, but Trump looms in wildly unpredictable US presidential race

Donald Trump is now the de-facto Republican candidate after John Kasich and Ted Cruz ended their campaigns. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Australia hopes favourite Clinton gets up, but Trump looms in wildly unpredictable US presidential race

Donald Trump is now the de-facto Republican candidate after John Kasich and Ted Cruz ended their campaigns. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

The US presidential primary race wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Even a week ago there was talk of a contested Republican convention and a triumphant Democratic nomination for Hillary Clinton.

Now primary voters in Indiana – America’s 16th-most-populous state, with a smaller proportion of African Americans and Latinos than the country as a whole – have reversed those predictions.

After Indiana – what now?

The announcements by Ted Cruz and John Kasich that they are ceasing their campaigns following Donald Trump’s win in Indiana means Trump is now the de-facto Republican candidate.

Though relatively small, Bernie Sanders’ victory in that state – and his determination to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention in July – means Clinton’s energy and resources will be tied up for another month in primary campaigns. The focus will mostly be on California, which votes on June 7.

All polls suggest Clinton will win convincingly in California. Only a massive stumble would lose her the nomination.

The idea that somehow the majority of Democratic officials will magically switch to Sanders ignores two key points. Until last year Sanders maintained his independent status, although taking part in the Democrats’ caucus in the Senate. And, to date, Clinton has polled more than 2 million more votes in party contests than Sanders and is well ahead in the delegate count.

A recent poll of Washington insiders predicted that Clinton would win overwhelmingly in a showdown with Trump. But, last year, conventional wisdom scorned Trump as a brash outsider who entered the race to promote his hotel chain. Nothing is certain in politics.

Voting in the US is not compulsory. In many states, Republican-controlled legislatures have created obstacles to enrolment as a way of discouraging young, poor and black voters from casting a ballot.

Turnout is crucial, and in general favours Republicans. How many Sanders supporters who now threaten to sit out the election if he is not the Democrats’ candidate will actually do so is unknowable. So too is how successful Clinton will be in persuading the high number of young and African-American voters who supported Obama to vote in November.

If Trump’s support was confined to less-well-educated angry white men, which is the stereotype, it is hard to see him winning more than a handful of states, mainly in the Deep South and sparsely populated Rockies.

If, however, Trump is tapping into a more fundamental disconnect from the Washington establishment, he might attract many voters who have previously abstained or even voted Democrat.

My hunch is that more moderate Republicans, especially educated women, will desert their party than there are white working-class Democrats who will defect to support Trump. But such is the visceral dislike of Clinton that many voters will just stay home.

The campaign will be nasty, personal and enormously expensive. External events, such as a new wave of terrorist attacks or a poor performance by either candidate in the debates, could change opinion in unpredictable ways.

What does it mean for Australia?

Both of Australia’s major parties are likely to welcome a Clinton presidency.

As first lady, senator and then secretary of state, Clinton already knows all five of our past prime ministers. She is probably more inclined to seek military solutions than Barack Obama, which will delight the hard-heads who dominate foreign policy discussion in Australia.

The Australian government will be considerably more concerned by her shifting stance on free trade, where the demands of campaigning have pushed her to adopt a more protectionist stance. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, already a source of deep suspicion among many Democrats, may well collapse irrespective of who wins the presidency.

Were Trump to become president, the foreign policy outcomes are literally unpredictable. A recent Lowy Institute poll found almost half of those polled agreed that:

Australia should distance itself from the US if it elects a president like Donald Trump.

Some have depicted Trump’s “America first” rhetoric as a challenge to the excesses of Republican interventionism. Many have welcomed his criticism of interventions in countries like Iraq and Libya.

But, so far, these seem no more than thought bubbles, lacking any coherent understanding of genuine global challenges and conflicts.

Pity the unfortunate bureaucrat who is preparing contingency plans for Australia’s reactions to a Trump presidency. But, even under Clinton, the US is likely to become less willing to extend itself militarily and far more sceptical of free-trade agreements.

Clinton is the first woman with a real chance of becoming president. But in a year of major disenchantment with conventional politics she is also the consummate insider. If she can overcome that perception she might yet win a victory greater than Obama’s.