Skip links

The presidential primary season: Watching Wisconsin

The battle between Donald Trump and his opponents within the GOP has moved to Wisconsin, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher: Based on our gaming out of delegate math last week, Trump may need a statewide win in the Badger State to stay on course for potentially winning a delegate majority. Should anti-Trump forces manage to block him in Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, the odds of a contested convention would probably rise. And as things stand, the Cheesehead primary appears to be moving to Ted Cruz.

The latest Marquette Law School Poll, considered by many to be the state’s gold standard survey, showed Cruz up 40%-30% in Wisconsin, with John Kasich at 21%.

For Trump, open primaries like the one in Wisconsin have been relatively fertile ground for him, including victories in open contests in neighboring Illinois and Michigan. However, the Midwest may not be fervent Trump territory: He won between 36% and 39% in the Land of Lincoln and the Wolverine State, and he also failed to win the Ohio primary as well as caucuses in Iowa and Minnesota.

If support in Wisconsin for Cruz has indeed consolidated at or around 40%, that might be enough for him to not just win the Badger State overall but also to capture many of its congressional districts (24 of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates will be decided by the vote in its eight districts). 0ptimus Consulting, the data firm that worked for Marco Rubio, also surveyed Wisconsin and found a slightly different story, with Trump leading at 29%, Kasich in second with 27%, and Cruz in third at 25%. Helpfully, the firm broke out the results by congressional district, finding Trump ahead in three, Cruz two, and Kasich one, with the other two well within the poll’s margin of error. Given Trump’s narrow path to a delegate majority, every delegate matters.

Many factors in Wisconsin are breaking Cruz’s way. Gov. Scott Walker (R), once a presidential candidate himself, endorsed Cruz on Tuesday in an effort to stop Trump. Although Walker’s backing doesn’t make Wisconsin a sure thing for the Texan — high-profile endorsements have not proven to be all that useful in this year’s Republican contest — it could provide enough of a bump to help Cruz get to 40%. Kasich does not appear to be playing for a statewide win, although he is targeting some congressional district delegates. That too is helpful to Cruz, as is a flood of anti-Trump advertising in Wisconsin, a state that never seemed all that keen on Trump to begin with.

The Crystal Ball recently put together a linear regression model looking at Trump’s county-by-county primary and caucus vote based on different demographic characteristics that, as RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende and David Byler have shown, tend to correlate with support for the real estate magnate. We also have exit poll and other survey data that suggest connections between these factors and Trump’s success or failure. The variables in the model include the percentages of a county’s population that is black, non-Hispanic white, lacks at least an associate’s degree, and makes below $50,000, as well as the percentage that was born in-state, the number of candidates still actively in the race, and the election type (primary or caucus). Trump’s vote has been somewhat difficult to model, and this one only explains a little more than half of the variance in Trump’s county-level vote so far in 2016. So interpret its results cautiously. Still, we took the model, applied it to Wisconsin’s county data, and estimated Trump’s percentage of the vote in Wisconsin based on the vote share from each Wisconsin county in the 2012 GOP primary. The outcome was 35% of the statewide vote for Trump, fairly similar to his vote in the Illinois and Michigan primaries. Thus, this could be further evidence that Cruz needs to aim for about 40% to win statewide.

If Cruz does indeed win Wisconsin, it will be tempting for the GOP’s anti-Trump forces to declare that Trump cannot get to a delegate majority and that a contested convention is all but certain. That’s not obvious to us, though. After the Badger State, the primary contest moves east to New York and other states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Trump should still do very well in many if not all of these states. But well enough? That’s the question.

The Democrats: Sanders’ continuing math problem

Bernie Sanders just had an outstanding weekend, running up the score in three caucuses: Alaska, Hawaii, and delegate-rich Washington state. But Hillary Clinton is still up by about 230 delegates in the pledged count, and that doesn’t include her towering lead among superdelegates, the party leaders and officials who represent about 15% of the total delegates.

After March 15’s contests, when Clinton swept all five big states (though two of them, Illinois and Missouri, were very close), we noted that even if Sanders won 65% of the delegates in all the remaining caucus states and 55% in all the remaining primaries, he would still trail Clinton in pledged delegates. Since then, there have been six contests: Arizona’s primary and caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, and Washington. Sanders beat the 65% mark in each of the caucuses, but he fell far short of 55% in Arizona: Clinton actually won the state by about 15 points and captured 44 of 75 (59%) of the delegates allocated by the primary. Based on our calculations, even if Sanders did a little better than our initial, wildly unrealistic pro-Sanders projection, winning 70% of delegates in the remaining caucuses and 55% in all primaries, he’d still finish the primary season 37 pledged delegates behind Clinton: The tally would be 2,044 for Clinton and 2,007 for Sanders. Both would be short of the needed 2,383 overall delegates, but her 471-31 lead in the superdelegate count would put Clinton over the top. (We used The GreenPapers for current delegate totals.)

Yes, those superdelegates can change their minds. But they wouldn’t defect from Clinton to Sanders without overwhelming evidence that Clinton has turned radioactive to a general electorate. While Clinton is unpopular nationally, the core of the party has stuck with her. While that could change if Sanders starts winning big victories in states where he is currently an underdog, he hasn’t really been posting big, unexpected victories. Although Sanders’ margins in the caucuses over the weekend were a bit larger than we expected, that he won them comfortably was no surprise.

Whether Sanders can keep the momentum going is another matter and, again, small wins are not enough for him to make up substantial ground.

Wisconsin will hold its Democratic primary next Tuesday along with the Republicans. Given its smaller-than-average nonwhite population and long progressive history, the Badger State would seem to be ideal territory for Sanders. While we do see him as a small favorite, it’s not a slam dunk that Sanders will win Wisconsin, let alone secure a big victory that would allow him to net a significant number of delegates. The Marquette poll shows Sanders up four points on Clinton, 49%-45%. We suspect that the Clinton camp would be happy with a small loss like that given how favorable Wisconsin potentially could be to Sanders. After Wisconsin, the next major contest is on April 19 in New York, which Clinton represented in the Senate for eight years. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn and his campaign has vowed to campaign hard there. It’s not impossible to imagine Sanders keeping it close in New York but, remember, Sanders needs to do more than just keep it close: He needs to dominate, that is, to win by more than just a few points, so he can net a lot of delegates from the state. At this point, Sanders winning statewide in New York by a single vote would be a considerable surprise, and it would still be insufficient to put him on track to overtake Clinton in the pledged delegate count because of the Democrats’ proportional delegate allocation rules.

In other words, Sanders’ big victories over the weekend did nothing to alter our longstanding belief that Clinton is a monumental favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Sanders’ supporters often insist that his strong polling leads against Trump and Cruz in November — bigger than Clinton’s — will earn him more superdelegate backing eventually. No question, the public has reacted well to the Sanders persona; he’s forthright, issue-oriented, apparently incorruptible, and exceptionally principled.

The problem, as most Democratic leaders know, is that he’s a 74-year old socialist who has benefited from the lack of negative advertising aimed at him. In the primaries, Sanders has become Larry David, the candidate’s lovable Saturday Night Live doppelgänger. That won’t last in a general election; Republicans are hoping that somehow Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee so they can deconstruct him as being outside the nation’s mainstream — and the GOP would have a lot of Sanders’ history to work with.

The Democratic Party, or at least the younger age cohort, may be where Sanders is ideologically, but the nation as a whole is not. Maybe Sanders could win a contest against Trump or Cruz, or maybe he would crumble as his ideas get the scrutiny that has been absent so far. It’s a chance that the Democratic high command doesn’t want to take. More practically, it’s the reason Sanders will never get the slew of superdelegate converts he imagines.