Wisconsin’s state motto is “Forward.” On Tuesday night, the Badger State’s voters uttered it as a command to both parties’ nominating contests. Instead of voting to bring the nominating season closer to a conclusion by backing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the two current leaders, Wisconsin strongly supported Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, voting to elongate both contests. Neither competition seems close to a formal conclusion. So “forward” it is.
While it is true that Wisconsin has a long history of voting for the eventual nomination winner — it has supported the eventual nominee in every contest on both sides since the start of the modern nominating era in 1972* — Wisconsin also has generally voted late in the process, which naturally gives a state a better record because many nominees wrap up the primary season early. It’s not at all clear that Wisconsin will have backed the winner this time. Sanders remains a huge underdog against Clinton, and while Cruz is rising, he still lags considerably behind Trump in the delegate count and almost certainly needs a contested convention in order to beat the real estate mogul.
There was little that was surprising about the results: Cruz and Sanders led most polling in advance of the primary. On paper, Wisconsin was a good state for Sanders, with its smaller-than-average nonwhite population, its flocks of college towns and students, as well as its strong liberal tradition. Cruz benefited from becoming the leading alternative to Trump in Wisconsin: We’re not sure that the vote was for him so much as it was against Trump, who rarely polled much above the 35% of the vote he received. Trump’s results validated a model we constructed last week to predict his share of the vote: The model also showed Trump getting 35%.
It will be tempting for many to declare Wisconsin the beginning of the end for Trump, particularly after his string of bad headlines last week. But as we just noted, Trump did about as well in Wisconsin as one might have deduced from the previous results, and while he has dipped a little bit in some recent national polls, he’s still the leader by far in both those surveys and in the delegate count.
Trump’s loss in Wisconsin clearly raises the odds that no candidate will be able to reach a majority of the national convention delegates by the time the GOP primaries end on June 7. Based on our previous rough estimations, Trump was borderline in his ability to achieve the 1,237 delegate mark. But that estimate originally included the assumption that Trump would win statewide in Wisconsin. Now he has more delegates to make up to have any chance at getting to a majority. There are ways he can accomplish this feat. If he can win more than 50% statewide in New York and a majority in most of the Empire State’s districts, he can win most of its 95 delegates. He may need to win most or all of the delegates in states that are difficult to project at this point, such as Indiana on May 3 and Montana on June 7. And he will probably need to win close to two-thirds of the congressional districts in California, if not more. But now he has to win about 57% of the remaining pledged and unpledged delegates to get to 1,237. It will be far from easy to do this.
One other thing about the Republicans: There’s been a lot of chatter this week about a white knight riding in to the convention to save the party elites from a Trump or Cruz nomination. That person could be House Speaker Paul Ryan, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, or John Kasich, a current competitor who has performed poorly in most caucuses and primaries. However, there are two big reasons why we’re very skeptical of this scenario.
The first is that it assumes that a party whose leadership is loathed and distrusted by a substantial portion of its rank-and-file voters could successfully pass over both the top vote-getter (almost assuredly Trump) and the second-place finisher (almost certainly Cruz) to install someone who finished a distant third (Kasich, who actually still lags behind the departed Marco Rubio in votes and delegates won) or someone who didn’t even participate in the primaries, like Ryan. Yes, there’s plenty of historical precedent for something like this happening, but not in the modern era of nominations. The voters have far more say than they used to — by design, thanks to reforms in the 1970s — and there’s no recent precedent for the will of the primary voters to be overturned in such a manner. Additionally, a defining feature of this nominating season on the Republican side has been the utter failure of the party establishment in almost all of its endeavors. Yet it will somehow deliver at the most crucial moment? We’re skeptical.
The second is that this scenario requires that a majority of the delegates at the convention will be establishment insiders, which is not a safe assumption. While there will be a lot of party insiders as delegates, there will be many others who will be Tea Party-style activists who will recoil at the idea of backing someone with the establishment’s blessing. News reporting is making clear that Cruz is building a significant advantage behind the scenes in terms of delegate selections. These delegates might not like Trump, but they might not end up liking Ryan or some other Trump alternative who isn’t Cruz. If Trump can’t win on the first ballot, it may be that Cruz is likelier to win on a subsequent ballot. Another defining feature of this nominating season has been the power of insurgent candidates like Trump and Cruz over more establishment-oriented candidates. Just because the convention would be a collection of the party faithful does not mean it will do the bidding of the DC establishment.
Speaking of the conventions, there does seem to be an increasing although still-small chance that the Democratic convention could be a little bit less than a kumbaya moment for the party. Sanders won’t be the nominee — Clinton’s delegate lead is all but insurmountable, as we explained last week in some detail — but he’s doing well enough that Democrats must also now worry about party unity. Will the Sanders voters accept Clinton as the nominee, and if so, how quickly? At the convention, will the Sanders delegates have a nonnegotiable list of demands for platform planks that Clinton may find unacceptable? Will Sanders’ backers insist he be added to the ticket, which Clinton will certainly not want to do? Guaranteed dissension, unpleasant compromises, and possibly an image of weakness are the real price Clinton may have to pay for her inability to put away a 74-year old socialist during the nominating season. The positive thing for Democrats is that, generally speaking, both Clinton and Sanders are liked by the Democratic electorate, and the voters view the party leadership in a much more positive light than Republican rank-and-file voters view their leadership.
There’s now a two-week break until the next major contest, New York on April 19. While Clinton and Trump get something of a pass for not doing well in Wisconsin, they will have no excuse if they falter in their home state. Trump’s narrowing path to 1,237 is very reliant on winning the vast majority of delegates in New York. Clinton needs no such sweep to stay on track for the nomination, but a solid win could help her better make the argument that it’s time for Democrats to turn the page on this year’s nominating season — an argument that certainly was not bolstered by her weak (if unsurprising) showing in Wisconsin. So it’s onward, and forward, to the Empire State.
*Technically, Wisconsin voted for Gary Hart over eventual Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984, but the primary vote was a beauty contest. Mondale won a caucus that selected the delegates, which is why we say that Wisconsin has voted for the winner in every nominating contest since 1972.