How Wisconsin could be a turning point in the GOP race

Donald Trump is forecast to lose Wisconsin, and while that doesn't necessarily signal a deeper shift in the race, it could be decisive nonetheless. 

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets supporters from the back of a pickup truck at a campaign stop at Altoona Family Restaurant in Altoona, Wis., last week.

Days before Super Tuesday, a potent hashtag appeared on Twitter: #NeverTrump.

It was, Republican opponents of Donald Trump said at the time, a last-ditch rallying cry to prevent the mercurial billionaire from winning the GOP presidential nomination and effectively taking over the party.

Five weeks later, #NeverTrump is still trending – and the Republican movement to derail the “Trump train” faces its moment of truth Tuesday in the Wisconsin primary. Conservative groups have spent millions of dollars on television and radio attack ads. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a onetime contender for the nomination, has rallied support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Trump’s top opponent. In Milwaukee, whose suburbs are rich with Republican voters, conservative talk radio hosts have been skewering Trump relentlessly.

The hour is late, Trump opponents warn.

“Honestly, If Donald Trump does win in Wisconsin, I don’t know how he’s possibly stoppable,” says Charlie Sykes, Wisconsin’s top conservative radio voice, speaking Monday on MSNBC.

“But I do think that people are going to look back at Wisconsin and say, ‘All right, this is exactly what it will take to stop Donald Trump from being the Republican nominee.’ ”

There are indications that Wisconsin could indeed slow Trump’s momentum. One key poll has Senator Cruz 10 points up.

For his part, Mr. Sykes says the lead-up to Wisconsin has uncovered a “formula” for stopping Trump that includes a new willingness by the media to drill down on issues with Trump – as MSNBC host Chris Matthews did last week on abortion. Trump said he believed women should be punished for having abortions, then quickly reversed himself after an uproar ensued.

But many of Wisconsin’s lessons about how to beat Trump are particular to the state. Its deeply ingrained sense of civility, as well as its relatively higher levels of education and religious adherence, all play to Trump’s weaknesses.

In the end, Wisconsin’s biggest contribution to the #NeverTrump movement could simply be in denying him the delegates he needs to win a majority by the Republican National Convention this summer. At the convention, Trump’s chances of securing the nomination will plummet if he can’t do it on the first ballot. 

Style and incivility

In Wisconsin, Trump has been his own worst enemy, with a brash style that clashes with the state’s culture of civility.

“Even when Scott Walker was battling the unions [in 2011] and 100,000 people were marching around the capitol, those were family-friendly events,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “There were massive policy disagreements, but not a lot of personal insults.”

Trump’s recent retweet of an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is just one example of his tone-deaf approach in Wisconsin, the only state voting Tuesday. Trump’s repeated attacks on Walker and on the Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have also baffled observers, as both men are popular among the state’s Republicans.

Trump is running into the buzzsaw of a state GOP that coalesced around Walker during his clashes with public unions and the subsequent recall election in 2012, which the governor survived, followed by his reelection in 2014.

“That means there’s not a rump group of the party ready to bolt to go to Trump,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll. Last week, the poll showed Cruz beating Trump, 40 to 30 percent.

On the plus side for Trump, Wisconsin does not register voters by party and allows same-day registration. So first-time or infrequent voters inspired by Trump’s message can easily turn out for him.

Ultimately, observers still expect Cruz to win, though there are important demographic reasons not to put too much stock in a Cruz victory. Nate Cohn, a specialist on voter analytics at The New York Times, points to several factors that have always spelled trouble for Trump in Wisconsin, including:

Education. The state is average or above average in every educational category, while support for Trump skews toward those with less education. Wisconsin is unusual in that “many of its most strongly Republican areas are well-educated suburbs,” Mr. Cohn notes.

Religion. Wisconsin is also a bit above average for religious adherence, and “with the exception of white Roman Catholics, Trump fares worse in areas where larger shares of the population are reported to be religious adherents,” Cohn writes.

Family. Trump also fares worse in areas with strong traditional families; Wisconsin has an above-average number of married couples.

Ancestry. Wisconsin’s population skews toward those from “predominantly Protestant countries in Northern Europe,” a demographic in which Trump has struggled, Cohn reports.

In short, Wisconsin Republicans are similar demographically to those in Iowa, Kansas, and Utah, all states where Cruz beat Trump – who then rebounded.

Road to the convention

The key for Trump will be to recover quickly if he loses Wisconsin. The calendar both helps and hurts him. The next contest isn’t until April 19, so he potentially faces two weeks of being cast as a loser. The good news for him is that the next contests are on friendlier turf – his home state of New York, followed by Pennsylvania.

But if Trump loses Wisconsin badly enough that he earns no delegates, his path to clinching the Republican nomination before the convention becomes steeper. Then, his biggest failing as a candidate – his weak organization – could come into play.  

He has a dearth of insiders both nationally and inside the state parties who can defend his interests in delegate allocation.

Trump has already reportedly been losing delegates to Cruz, whose operation is going after those who are uncommitted or won by candidates no longer in the race.

Trump has attempted to address this by bringing in veteran Republican strategist Paul Manafort to wrangle delegates at the convention, a major “get.”

The third remaining GOP candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, remains an important factor, preventing Trump and Cruz from going against each other one-on-one. Governor Kasich appears to have benefited from the departure of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio from the race March 15. He scored 21 percent in the latest Marquette poll, up from 8 percent in late February, and is the choice of older-generation GOP leaders in the state, including former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Rep. Scott Klug.

Polling shows Kasich beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the general election in November, while both Cruz and Trump lose to Mrs. Clinton.

“At least at the moment, he seems to have a better chance at preventing another Clinton presidency,” says Rich Bonomo, an engineering researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  

Kasich trails far behind Trump and Cruz in the delegate count, and the only way he can win the GOP nomination is through a contested convention. But for some Wisconsin voters, Kasich is an important option – the only candidate left with executive branch governing experience and more-moderate Republican policies.

Rebecca Forbes Wank, bookkeeper for the University of Wisconsin press, says she doesn’t like Cruz, because he’s “so far to the right.” And she can’t vote for Trump, in part because “the way he’s been running has made it OK for people to be racist.”

That leaves her with Kasich. In ultra-liberal Madison, Trump and Cruz supporters are few and far between, but in the wider state, they are the ballgame. And after Tuesday, Republicans nationally will be one step closer to knowing whether they’re headed for a contested convention.

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