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After Wisconsin

Billboard on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Sean Collins)

Billboard on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Sean Collins)

The front-runners took it on the chin in last night's Wisconsin primaries. Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump, 48% to 35%, while Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by a similar margin, 57% to 43%.

So, what did we learn from these results?

Republicans

  • Cruz cruises: Last night’s victory was an impressive one for Cruz, and for the so-called Stop Trump movement. His 48% was the largest share of the vote he has received in any primary. To date, Cruz has relied on evangelical voters for his support, but Wisconsin showed he could win without a large evangelical population (but that said, Wisconsin does have a sizeable group of Christian two-parent families, and they plumped for him). He has benefited from the winnowing of the field, and is emerging as the main anti-Trump candidate. Indeed, there is some indication that some suburban voters – who have traditionally been repelled by Cruz – may have voted tactically in order to try to stop Trump.
  • Kasich struggles: In contrast to Cruz, Kasich had a bad night. Since his win in his home state of Ohio, his challenge was to hope for momentum and replicate that result, especially in states that are nearby and share similar features as Ohio. He didn’t deliver in Wisconsin. In fact, his 14% was below what he received in earlier primaries in Michigan (24%) and Illinois (20%). Even though he likes to cite polls that show he could beat Hillary Clinton in November, Kasich won’t get serious consideration if he performs like he did in Wisconsin.
  • Trump hits a ceiling: A loss in Wisconsin is certainly a blow to Trump. In one sense, he performed in line what should have been expected, as he gained a similar proportion of votes as he did in neighboring states like Iowa, Michigan and Illinois. But it’s interesting that he did not expand his support as the field of candidates narrowed. Trump encountered concerted opposition in Wisconsin, from Governor Scott Walker (who backed Cruz), SuperPACs spending millions on advertisements, and conservative talk show hosts. But he also caused his own problems: he faced a rough time in the media the prior week after his statement on punishing women who have abortions and an accusation of battery leveled against his campaign manager (among others – it’s hard to keep up with his controversies). Trump is a polarizing figure: while he supporters are loyal, he has turned off many other Republican voters. He is so well-known now, and with nearly everyone having formed an opinion of him, it is hard to see how he can substantially broaden his support.
  • What to look for now: Wisconsin could prove to be a turning point for Trump. After Wisconsin, it is much more likely that he will not reach the majority of delegates (1,237) before the July convention. But it is still possible for Trump (and impossible for Cruz and Kasich). Many of the upcoming primaries are in states in the Northeast and West coast, which Trump should do well in, if past performance is a guide. Cruz has yet to prove he can win in those regions. On paper, Kasich should appeal to voters in those regions given his stances, but you have to be pessimistic about that happening given that there’s no evidence that he received a post-Ohio bounce. On the other hand, the math for Trump is daunting (he needs to win 69% of bound delegates going forward), and he doesn’t appear to have momentum – if anything, Wisconsin shows his support may be ebbing. The Republican contest looks like it will go down to the last set of primaries, which includes California, on 7 June.
  • A wild convention?: Many are now looking ahead to the possibility of a contested convention in Cleveland. If Trump doesn’t reach the magic 1,237 in advance, I don’t see him getting the nomination, even if he falls short by a relatively small number of delegates. Not having secured 1,237, he would most likely fail on the first ballot, and then a number of delegates pledged to him will become free to vote as they wish (and even more delegates free up after a second ballot). There is no sign that these delegates – who are, for the most part, longstanding Republican party members in each state – are pro-Trump. If anything, many delegates see the polls that show Trump would be trounced by Hillary Clinton in a general election, and are looking for any opportunity to dump him. Trump is a one-man show with not much of an organization behind him, and the word is that Cruz (who has a real operation on the ground) is far ahead of Trump in wooing the delegates. You hear pundits say “If Trump comes just short of 1,237, there’s no way the Republican establishment will take the nomination away from him. That would be suicidal.” But the point they miss is that the party hierarchy can’t control the outcome: even if they wished for Trump to get the nomination, they can’t make that happen, as they have little means of swaying the delegates. It seems more likely to me that, in a scenario where Trump doesn’t get a majority, the delegates will either switch to Cruz in the second or third ballot, or hold out for a new name altogether in a later ballot (rumors are that it might be Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House). It would not be unprecedented for an American party to hold a contested (or “brokered”) convention (the most recent cases were in 1952, when both Republicans and Democrats had such conventions), or to give the nomination to someone who had not run for the primaries before the convention (last seen in 1968, when Democrats selected Hubert Humphrey).

Democrats

  • Still feeling the Bern: As Wisconsin shows, Bernie Sanders continues to win states (Wisconsin was his sixth in a row). He still draws big crowds at his rallies, and is still receiving lots of donations (out-raising Clinton in March, $44 million to $29 million). With all this, he can easily make a case for staying in the race. But the reality remains that he faces a huge (as he likes to say) hurdle in trying to catch Hillary Clinton, who retains a comfortable lead after Wisconsin. Indeed, Sanders saw a net gain of only 11 delegates last night, despite a 14 percentage point win, and his delegate total of 1,049 is far behind Clinton's 1,280. Given that all of the Democratic Party primaries allocate delegates on a proportional basis, it is very hard for him to catch up, since Clinton is likely to gain delegates even if she loses. Sanders needs to win the upcoming primaries by big margins (by 60% to 40%, or more), while right now he is way behind in the polls of many of these future contests.  Demographics aren’t everything, but the next primaries are in states with more diverse populations than the mainly-white Wisconsin, and to date Sanders has had trouble winning the African-American vote (the only exception being Michigan).
  • Can Hillary close the deal?: The Clinton campaign tried to play down the loss in Wisconsin, but it was not good news. At this stage in a campaign, you would expect a front-runner to start consolidating support, but that is not happening with her. She clearly faces an enthusiasm gap with Sanders – her gatherings are generally dull affairs, filled with identity-politics platitudes (read this excellent first-hand account of Clinton’s appearance yesterday in Brooklyn). Clinton would prefer to pivot towards the general election, but Sanders keeps pulling her back into a scrap with him. Hillary staggers towards the finish line.

On to New York

The next primaries are in New York state, where Trump and Clinton are currently favored to win by large margins. Both really need to win – just to save face, if not for the delegates. But given that the primaries won’t happen until nearly two weeks (on 19 April), there is plenty of time for candidates to campaign around the state, and perhaps for their rivals close the gap with them.

New York is unique, and its specifics will come into play. Already three candidates are vying for the title of the real New Yorker: Trump (who grew up in Queens and hasn’t left), Sanders (who grew up and Brooklyn and has the accent, but hasn’t lived in the state in almost 60 years) and Clinton (who moved to New York after the White House for a safe Senate seat, and still has a home in Westchester… few locals think of her as a real New Yorker).  Expect to see Cruz have his earlier jibe at “New York values” thrown back at him.

Just today Sanders was the first candidate to experience how New York news media can be tougher than others. The Daily News greeted him with the headline “Bernie’s Sandy Hook Shame,” criticizing him for supporting immunity for gun manufacturers. And in an interview with the newspaper’s editorial board, Sanders couldn’t explain how he would break up the Wall Street banks – which was embarrassing, given that this is his number one issue – nor could he say much of substance about foreign affairs. The more Sanders comes under scrutiny, the more he comes across as a policy lightweight.

With New York City being the media capital of the country, expect to see this crazy election become even more circus-like.

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