The battle of the five presidential campaigns arrives in Wisconsin this week with the two Democrats and three Republicans all establishing a presence two weeks ahead of what is shaping up to be a meaningful primary.
Among Republicans, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is making a concerted effort to prove he can win contests outside his home state, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seeks to whittle the race to a two-man contest against front-runner Donald Trump. Meanwhile, anti-Trump Republicans see Wisconsin as a firewall to slow down the real estate mogul’s momentum.
On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is hoping for another Rust Belt upset to maintain viability, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeks to solidify her lead.
“We’re in a remarkable situation where it’s significant for all five of the major candidates,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said.
All five campaigns are setting up offices in the state and all are expected to make visits, though so far only Kasich has announced an event — in Wauwatosa on Wednesday. UW-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim called the relatively early activity “a clear indication that the campaigns recognize the significance of Wisconsin and clearly are gearing up for a contested contest here.”
After Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Utah, the next GOP battleground is Wisconsin on April 5. Democratic caucuses are scheduled for Tuesday in Idaho and in three more western states on Saturday before the campaign has a 10-day lull – the longest stretch without a vote from March through May – in which attention will be heaped upon the Badger State.
Wisconsin is also the only state to hold its primary April 5, making it the first to have a day to itself with both parties voting since New Hampshire on Feb. 9. Early voting here began Monday and ends April 1.
State election officials predict voter turnout could be 40 percent, driven in part by a competitive Republican primary and state Supreme Court race. That would be the highest mark for spring presidential primaries since 1980.
National forces that oppose Trump have signaled plans to mount a stand against him in Wisconsin with significant advertising and other efforts. Some Wisconsin conservatives who oppose Trump have begun to coalesce behind Cruz, while Kasich has received endorsements from former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former congressmen Mark Neumann and Scott Klug.
“The opinion of Donald Trump in Wisconsin is not as high as the opinion that he has of himself,” said Brian Nemoir, a Wisconsin Republican strategist and senior adviser to the Kasich campaign.
Nemoir pointed to Marquette Law School Poll results that have shown a net negative favorability rating for Trump among Republicans. In the five polls since August, he’s had a 47 percent unfavorable rating and a 40 percent favorable rating. But those numbers are reversed outside the state’s major media markets of Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay. In the conservative stronghold of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, 25 percent have viewed him favorably compared with 64 percent who have viewed him unfavorably. Trump’s favorability ratings among Republicans are higher nationally than in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile 46 percent of state Republicans have a favorable view of Cruz, compared with 18 percent who viewed him unfavorably in the same five polls. Kasich has low favorable and unfavorable numbers, and 53 percent who say they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
“When we’re in the business of comparing candidates, almost always the candidate that has better favorability gets the vote over the candidate with low favorability,” poll director Charles Franklin said. “That’s a big deal in the Republican race where Trump has low overall favorability.”
Trump has held a double-digit lead in recent Marquette polls over his closest rivals, but the next poll due out March 30 will be the first without Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Some factors favor Trump in Wisconsin, GOP pollster Gene Ulm said. Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration and is an open primary state — meaning any registered voter may choose to vote in either party’s primary, regardless of their political affiliation.
Ulm said those factors aid Trump because his success depends in part on mobilizing voters who aren’t reliable Republicans and may not be regular voters.
“This is tailor-made for Trump to continue his march,” Ulm said.
As the GOP continues to be riven by internal discord over Trump, anti-Trump forces are eyeing Wisconsin as a place to blunt his momentum.
Club for Growth, a leading conservative group, told The New York Times it plans to spend as much as $2 million in the Wisconsin primary. The influential conservative website Right Wisconsin announced its support for Cruz on Monday, as did state Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who has been among the most outspoken GOP voices in Wisconsin opposing Trump.
Steineke previously supported Rubio. But on Monday, he said he has offered his aid to the Cruz campaign because he views the Texas senator as the only candidate who can stop Trump. Cruz’s staunch, across-the-board conservative views mean many Republicans “don’t have to sacrifice their principles” to support him, Steineke said.
Yet Steineke, R-Kaukana, acknowledges it remains to be seen if Cruz — a divisive figure even within his own party — can rally Republicans of all stripes.
“That’s the true test for him,” Steineke said. “In his current position, he hasn’t had to be a unifying figure.”
Kim Simac, a tea party activist from northern Wisconsin, said she has been a Trump supporter since Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the race in September, but her support has wavered in recent weeks.
“I get pretty dismayed by what comes out of his speeches, so I’m kind of confused,” Simac said. “Cruz would be the candidate that a person with the principles like me would be aligned with. But I know we want to beat Hillary Clinton. My thought is that Donald Trump would have the best chance.”
Walker remains noncommittal about whether he’ll endorse, spokesman Joe Fadness said Monday.
All three Republican candidates have incentive to fight hard in Wisconsin because its GOP primary is structured in such a way that all three candidates could win delegates to the July national convention in Cleveland, at which the party’s nominee will be selected. While 18 delegates go to the overall winner, the remaining 24 are divvied up among whoever wins each of the state’s eight congressional districts.
Democrats allocate their 96 delegates proportionally both statewide and in each congressional district.
Sanders is making a play for a broad swath of those, with two offices in Milwaukee, one in Madison and another in Green Bay, the campaign’s state director, Robert Dempsey, said Monday. Since last week, the campaign has already made tens of thousands of calls, and though no events have been announced, the campaign expects Sanders to make multiple stops.
“Wisconsin is a very important state to our overall national strategy,” Dempsey said.
Clinton has an office in Madison and is opening another in Milwaukee, spokesman Yianni Varonis said. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, is visiting those locations and Waukesha on Thursday.
“A broad coalition of Democrats have given Hillary Clinton a nearly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, but she remains committed to earning every vote by sharing her plans to move our country forward,” Varonis said. “That is why Hillary Clinton is committed to Wisconsin.”