Hubert H. Humphrey was a voluble people-person, Richard Nixon a brooding introvert. George W. Bush was breezy and personable, Albert Gore Jr. intellectual and awkward. Barack Obama was black and young, John McCain was white and old.
But seldom have Americans faced an autumn decision between two candidates so different in background, outlook, personality, instinct and character as Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It is more than that one is male and the other female, that one is unfiltered and the other scripted, that one is undisciplined and the other the very model of political discipline, that one is instinctive and the other controlled, that one is gaudy and the other restrained. It is almost as if the two presumptive nominees have nothing in common except that they are members of the human race, share home addresses in New York State and seek the same glittering prize.
And yet, perhaps never have the two parties been on the verge of nominating candidates who both face electoral challenges so great — and in political circumstances that are such mirror images of one another.
The results in Indiana’s primary reinforce both those elements, even as they create a stark contrast for the two parties.
Ms. Clinton, who suffered a setback Tuesday night but still is poised to win the Democratic nomination, is an establishment candidate needing the support of outsiders resentful of the system and suspicious of her. Mr. Trump, whose decisive victory in Indiana removed all credible obstacles to his nomination, is an outsider candidate needing the support of a Republican establishment protective of the customary ways of politics and deeply suspicious of him.
At the same time, the contentious fight in Indiana, a Midwestern state that rarely has been the staging ground for important primary battles, underlined the challenges both front-runners face, particularly as they look to November, when their party struggles shift to a broader public battle.
There are grave danger signs for both candidates. Ms. Clinton lost the votes of Indiana independents, who are critical in a general election, to Sen. Bernie Sanders by a margin of almost three-to-one, according to exit polls. She lost those between the ages of 17 and 24 by a margin of four-to-one. As for Mr. Trump, he captured less than a majority of women, young people, white college graduates — and conservatives, who are vital for any modern GOP candidate.
The campaigns now move to West Virginia, where Ms. Clinton is on the defensive for her suggestion that coal is doomed as a source of energy and where Mr. Trump already has begun to pillory her for those remarks, later disavowed. “We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Mr. Trump said in his victory remarks, repeating basically what he said about steelworkers in Pennsylvania.
The two likely nominees face one similar challenge, acknowledged by Mr. Trump on his side of the equation Tuesday night when he said, “We have to bring unity to the Republican Party.”
Perhaps not since the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 — this is likely the only time this year Mr. Trump has been compared to the 16th president — has the party nominated so polarizing a figure. Lincoln prevailed in a bruising four-way race amid bitter sectional tensions and credible threats of the nation breaking apart. Assuming there is no third-party candidate —the influential Wall Street Journal editorial board, appalled at Mr. Trump’s comportment and contemptuous of his lack of conservative bona fides, discouraged such a notion this week — Mr. Trump faces enormous challenges in winning support from Republican elites and the party mainstream.
Indeed, for a man within striking distance of the 1,237 delegates required for nomination, Mr. Trump has attracted support from astonishingly few GOP elected officials, and many of those who have moved into his circle, especially Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, look more like opportunists than adherents. Just hours before the Republican National Committee acknowledged Mr. Trump’s likely nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, regarded as the last obstacle in Mr. Trump’s way, described him as a “serial adulterer” who was “utterly immoral” and who “lies [with] practically every word that comes out of his mouth.”
Mr. Trump did sign on Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP consultant, but Republican regulars will remember that Mr. Rollins once worked for Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign against the re-election of George H.W. Bush. Endorsements from figures such as Bobby Knight and Lou Holtz, coaches who won success in Indiana sports, won’t help much; both have legions of detractors outside the Hoosier State. Mr. Cruz won laughs and attention by mocking the endorsement Mr. Trump won from controversial boxer Mike Tyson.
The Manhattan businessman this week won a less than enthusiastic endorsement from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who sided with Mr. Trump mostly because he will be facing Ms. Clinton. And onetime presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted the party will “get destroyed” in November and, moreover, he Tweeted, “we will deserve it.” Ten hours later, his Tweet won 10,547 “likes.”
Most Republican strategists are at a loss to guess who, besides Mr. Christie or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — he won only the 38th state legislative district in Alaska — would consider joining the Trump ticket.
Ms. Clinton’s task is slightly less daunting, in part because virtually no Democrats believe that her nomination — congruous with a string of party choices beginning with Walter Mondale and moving through Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama — will endanger the party.
Still, Mr. Sanders commands enormous affection and considerable respect for his campaign, which has emphasized the wealth gap, campaign finance reform and student debt, and his vow to continue running prevents the former secretary of state from devoting her energies entirely to the general election and to the task of vetting and selecting a running mate. That, like so much else in this remarkable political year, lies in the future.