Wisconsin voters have the chance to recast the presidential election Tuesday with the national spotlight trained exclusively on the Badger State.
All five candidates have something at stake.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could derail Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s chances at securing a majority of delegates before the party’s convention in July. A Trump win in Wisconsin would demonstrate his ability to overcome the strongest, most unified #NeverTrump movement yet. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich could assert his relevance before the race heads east.
On the Democratic side, a convincing win by self-described Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, could propel his case against Hillary Clinton, while a closer race would allow Clinton to continue scooping up delegates and expand her lead toward the nomination.
“It’s possible we’ll look back and say it was Wisconsin that changed everything,” said Larry Sabato, director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It’s got the floor in a very messy show for a month and that gives it more influence than 10 states on Super Tuesday.”
Cruz leads Trump by 10 points and Kasich by nearly 20 points in the latest Marquette Law School Poll released this week.
Political observers say Cruz has the momentum to win especially after Trump had perhaps his worst two-week stretch of the campaign season.
Trump engaged in a petty Twitter battle over Cruz’s wife, faced antagonistic interviews on conservative talk radio in Wisconsin, and reversed himself on his statement that women who have an abortion should be punished. Trump’s campaign manager also was charged with simple battery after an altercation with a female reporter.
Sanders also has momentum, having rallied thousands of supporters in Madison, the Fox Valley, and elsewhere as Clinton has already turned her sights on New York. He’s pulling even with Clinton in Milwaukee County, according to the Marquette poll, where she was expected to do well, and he’s leading 49-45 statewide.
The race on both sides has highlighted divisions in the state’s political parties. Cruz is backed by conservative Republicans in control of state government, Kasich is the favorite of the more moderate Republicans and Trump has support among anti-establishment voters.
“Given that Ted Cruz is certainly not a conventional establishment candidate based on his (voting behavior and relationship with his colleagues), it’s remarkable that voters who find themselves in that wing of the party have nevertheless gravitated to him and have separated him out, presumably because they’re so solidly against Trump,” said Marquette poll director Charles Franklin.
Clinton has been endorsed by most of the state’s prominent elected Democrats — exceptions include U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison and Senate candidate Russ Feingold of Middleton, who have remained neutral — while Sanders is tapping anti-establishment liberals.
Issues divide voters
The political divisions among the supporters of each candidate were highlighted in the Marquette poll, which asked about views on free trade, immigration, taxes, wages, military intervention and the government’s role in closing income inequality.
Trump, for example, draws more support than his opponents from those who oppose free trade and want to deport immigrants living in the country illegally. Cruz is leading among those who oppose raising taxes on the wealthy and those who say they are living comfortably.
Sanders has a 55-40 lead over Clinton among those who believe it is the responsibility of government to reduce income inequality. He’s also a strong favorite among those opposed to sending ground troops to fight Islamic militants.
Three in four Republicans said this country is a place where hard work and following the rules can lead to prosperity whereas a simple majority of Democrats said hard work and playing by the rules don’t pay off. Trump and Sanders lead among those with the more pessimistic view.
“What populism means is different between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party,” Franklin said. “That’s why even though you might call Sanders and Trump populist in some sense, they are not appealing to the same set of voters.”
Republicans battle over Trump
The central issue on the Republican side has become the emergence of Trump as the party’s potential standard-bearer in November.
As establishment and conservative Republican forces have joined together to oppose the real estate mogul and reality television celebrity, Trump has dug in, even slamming Gov. Scott Walker during a campaign stop in Janesville the same day the governor endorsed Cruz.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, an early supporter of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before Rubio dropped out of the race, has been outspoken in advocating against Trump and has more recently endorsed Cruz. He highlighted Trump’s criticism of Walker’s resistance to raising taxes as something that doesn’t sit well with the grassroots Republicans in Wisconsin who have helped secure a majority in state government and advanced a range of reforms.
“Once Trump stepped foot into Wisconsin he kind of ripped off the mask and showed everybody what he would be like as a leader,” Steineke said. “It goes completely contrary to everything we believe in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin is a high-stakes battle for Trump because if Cruz comes away with all of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates, it makes the hurdle to get to the 1,237 threshold before the convention that much higher. The next primary isn’t for two weeks, so Trump’s opponents could turn a crushing defeat into a narrative that it’s the beginning of the end, Sabato said.
If Trump doesn’t win statewide, he could still salvage some delegates if he can win more votes in certain parts of the state. The statewide victor receives 18 delegates and the winner of each congressional district wins three apiece.
Kasich also could pick up three delegates in the 2nd Congressional District in the state’s south central media market, where the Marquette poll showed him leading Trump 37-33 and Cruz far behind.
In the western part of that district, former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican who is backing Kasich, said his sense is that Trump is doing well on the Republican side, but that Kasich is gaining ground.
“This is a historically very independent place and people resent being pushed in the direction of a party,” Schultz said. “What it’s coming down to is the establishment versus the non-establishment. There’s a lot of people out here who resent that the establishment has closed ranks behind Ted Cruz.”
Melissa Larson, 40, of Lake Geneva, attending last week’s Trump rally with her son and his friend who both plan to join the military, said after retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson dropped out of the race she decided to back Trump because she didn’t like how Cruz sent out misinformation about Carson dropping out of the race shortly before the Iowa caucuses.
She said Trump will strengthen the military to the point where the world will see the country as a powerhouse again.
“The world sees us as weak now,” Larson said. “People may not like the way Trump speaks and I was taken aback by his language at first, but maybe that’s what we need to hear. Maybe that’s what the world needs to hear.”
A common theme among Trump supporters is that he is a political outsider who has no allegiance to special interest groups because he is mostly self-funding his campaign.
Trump’s rival candidates and outside groups opposing him are slated to spend a combined $3.8 million in advertising in the state. That includes about $1.7 million from Our Principles and Club for Growth Action, a conservative group that has endorsed Cruz.
“We always saw this as a reset period where it would be possible to slow Trump’s momentum or reverse it,” said Tim Miller, who works for Our Principles PAC.
So far, the billionaire’s campaign is slated to spend only about $430,000 on radio and television advertising leading up to the primary, according to data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Sanders seeking big win
The Democratic primary in Wisconsin has the potential to shake up the national race if Sanders can pull off a blowout victory, but that’s a tall order given how far ahead Clinton is among so-called superdelegates, a collection of elected officials and party insiders who are free to choose whichever candidate they want.
Half of Wisconsin’s 10 superdelegates have said they will back Clinton, while the other five haven’t backed anyone yet.
UW-Stevens Point political science professor Ed Miller said there is a strong anti-establishment sentiment in the state that is fueling both Sanders and Trump, but it might not be enough to give Sanders the kind of margin he needs to go on to win the nomination.
“He needs to win by a landslide to make a great dent,” Miller said.
Democratic strategist Paul Maslin, who hasn’t backed a candidate, said the expectation is that Sanders will win the state, but even if it’s by 10 points, his share of delegates won’t be enough to alter the race.
“A narrow loss in Wisconsin (for Clinton) is kind of what everybody figured already,” Maslin said. “It’s going to be a 4- to 8-point Sanders win. Which is fine for him, but it won’t affect her very much.”
State Journal reporter Rob Schultz and the Associated Press contributed to this report.