Wisconsin voters head to the polls Tuesday for what could be a pivotal moment in the national presidential election.
The state’s open primary means all voters will be able to vote in either the Republican or Democratic nominating contest, regardless of party affiliation. And it’s the only primary on the calendar.
There is also a high-profile state Supreme Court race on the ballot, and the state will have its most important election since its voter ID requirement took effect.
Wisconsin voters have picked the eventual presidential nominee in every primary with two exceptions since 1968. Democratic voters picked Eugene McCarthy, not Hubert Humphrey, in 1968 and Gary Hart in 1984, though nominee Walter Mondale won the state’s Democratic Party caucus later that year.
In most of those years, Wisconsin’s primary took place late enough that the parties had already coalesced around a nominee. In 2004 and 2008, the presidential primary was moved to the February primary date, and Wisconsin played a more pivotal role in nominating Democrats John Kerry and Barack Obama.
This year is unusual because both parties still have live contests in April. All five remaining major party candidates have made multiple campaign stops throughout Wisconsin over the past two weeks.
The next primary — in New York — isn’t for two weeks, so Wisconsin’s results will be dissected and discussed for several days after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Candidates make case
On the Republican side, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz built momentum last week, particularly in the southeastern part of the state where conservative talk radio hosts have flayed national GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
A RealClearPolitics.com composite of seven polls showed Cruz with a 4.1-point lead over Trump statewide.
Trump changed his schedule to add campaign stops in Wisconsin, the Washington Post reported, and brought in tea party favorite Sarah Palin to stump with him, though she didn’t go over well in Milwaukee County.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is polling almost 15 points behind Trump statewide, the composite showed, though last week’s Marquette Law School Poll showed him leading in the south central part of the state.
Wisconsin’s GOP delegate rules award 18 for the statewide winner and three in each congressional district.
Trump has a tougher climb to the 1,237 majority needed for the nomination if he comes up empty-handed in Wisconsin, while Cruz and Kasich are scrambling for delegates to bolster their case at a contested Republican National Convention.
On the Democratic side, political observers say Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders needs a statement victory to continue building his case against front-runner Hillary Clinton.
He had three events in Wisconsin on Monday after a rally Sunday at the Kohl Center that drew about 4,400 supporters, far fewer than previous crowds he has drawn in Madison, such as about 10,000 last July and 8,000 two weeks ago.
Of the state’s 96 Democratic delegates, 86 are divided proportionally statewide and in the congressional districts and the other 10 so-called superdelegates are free to support whichever candidate they choose.
So far, six superdelegates have backed Clinton, and four are undecided.
Supreme Court race noted
Both Clinton and Sanders referenced the state Supreme Court race in speeches over the weekend.
The Marquette poll showed Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was appointed to the position last fall by Gov. Scott Walker after the death of retiring incumbent N. Patrick Crooks, leading Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg 41 percent to 36 percent, with 18 percent undecided.
The race has been awash in partisan bickering with conservatives promoting Bradley and liberals backing Kloppenburg. The winner will claim a 10-year seat on the court.
Wisconsin may have the most consequential down-ballot race of the 2016 primary so far, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In addition to the Supreme Court race, there are contests for Milwaukee mayor and county executive.
There are few contested local races in Dane County.
“Turnout in these local/statewide races will likely be higher than it otherwise would be because of the immense interest in the presidential race,” Kondik said. “These local races also give the presidential candidates (an opportunity) to localize their own races to some extent by showing interest in state and local outcomes, which might endear them to local activists and to the local candidates themselves.”
Turnout already high
The Government Accountability Board projects turnout could be about 40 percent, the highest since the 1980 spring presidential primary.
Statewide turnout is already well ahead of the April 2012 presidential primary. The GAB reported Monday that nearly 226,000 absentee ballots have been requested, and more than 209,000 have been returned, including nearly 137,000 in-person votes.
In the April 2012 presidential primary, there were 94,859 absentee ballots cast, including 27,085 in person. This year early in-person voting was not allowed on weekends.
Dane County issued 27,568 absentee ballots, and as of late Monday 25,297 of them had been returned, according to the GAB.
Milwaukee had 13,702 absentee ballots issued and returned as of Monday, including 7,948 in-person voters, Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Neil Albrecht said. Early voting was up from 1,231 in 2008 and 1,128 in 2012.
Chilly and rainy
The weather forecast for Tuesday includes possible afternoon rain across much of the state and some light snow in far northern Wisconsin, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Denny Van Cleve.
The temperatures are expected to be around 40 in most of the state, which is about 10 degrees below normal for this time of year.
Early morning temperatures when the polls open at 7 a.m. are expected to be in the upper teens in the north and lower 20s in the south.
Clouds are expected to roll across the state throughout the afternoon and rain could develop in much of the state before the polls close.