If Donald Trump isn’t the Republican Party’s presidential nominee come November, his loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday may be remembered as his Waterloo. That is, of course, a reference to Napoleon’s final battle, and not to the tiny town in Jefferson County—though Trump was headed for a loss there as well.
Across the Badger State, Senator Ted Cruz beat Trump handily. Cruz still badly trails Trump in the delegate count, but by taking the lion’s share of Wisconsin’s delegates, the Texan makes it harder for Trump to reach the magic threshold of 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. That, in turn, means the GOP is more likely to go its convention in Cleveland with its nominee undecided.
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders notched another win over Hillary Clinton. The result is a moral boost for Sanders’s campaign, but thanks to Democrats’ proportional representation rules, he splits the state’s delegates with Clinton. That leaves him still trailing her by around 200 pledged delegates. (With superdelegates included, her lead is much larger.)
The results were in line with polling ahead of the primaries, which had mostly shown Sanders and Cruz ahead. Wisconsin proved fertile territory for the challengers in both parties. On the Republican side, the result may have been as much about dislike of Trump as it was about affection for Cruz. (Exit polls showed that more than a quarter of Republican voters would vote for either Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate if Trump were the nominee.) Trump’s angry, aggrieved message seemed to turn off many voters in the state, and Wisconsin is full of voters with whom Trump has struggled all along, especially college-educated and religious voters. The entertainer has also tangled with Scott Walker, the governor and former GOP presidential candidate, who remains popular with Republicans in his home state. Trump was also hurt by staunch opposition of a pack of conservative talk-radio hosts, led by Charlie Sykes, who were determined to stop him.
Cruz spoke in Milwaukee shortly after the race was called for him, not long after polls closed. “As a result of tonight, as a result of the people of Wisconsin defying the media, defying the pundits, I am more convinced that our campaign is going to win the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination,” he said. “Either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland, together we will win a majority of the delegates and together we will beat Hillary Clinton in November.”
It’s not the most inspiring message, but it is a realistic depiction of the dry, grinding state of the campaign. However, Cruz would still need a stunning surge down the home stretch to make it to 1,237 ahead of the convention. As it became clear that Cruz was likely to win, the conversation among Republicans has shifted in recent days, with many observers now saying a contested convention is the most likely outcome of the race. That’s a bittersweet prospect for the GOP: It might be the best chance to prevent a Trump nomination, but a chaotic circus in Cleveland could hurt the party.
Trump had limped into Wisconsin, with his standing sinking nationally from a brutal few weeks. His campaign has faced backlashes after he sniped at Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz’s wife, and from the arrest of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for assaulting a reporter in Florida. He’s projected to need around 60 percent of the remaining delegates—a challenging though not impossible task. One bright spot for Trump: He led among Wisconsin Republicans who wanted a candidate who would bring change. Perhaps anticipating the sour results, Trump did not speak publicly on Tuesday.
Trump’s campaign did issue a blistering statement, accusing him of illegally coordinating with super PACs and calling Cruz a “worse than a puppet” of the establishment. “Mr. Trump is the only candidate who can secure the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination and ultimately defeat Hillary Clinton,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks said.
John Kasich, the third Republican remaining in the race, delivered yet another disappointing finish. By some appearances, Wisconsin might have been a good state for an affable, establishment Midwesterner like him. But Kasich seemed to have realized it was not to be more than a week ago, focusing his energies on New York. The result will increase the pressure on Kasich to leave the race, but he’s rejected the pleas of Republicans for him to depart and give Cruz an easier shot at beating Trump.
With his win in Wisconsin, Sanders has now won an impressive six of the last seven contests, including a sweep of the Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska caucuses on March 26. The Badger State was also favorable ground for Sanders, thanks to a high proportion of white voters. Despite Walker’s recent successes in the state, it’s highly polarized, and boasts a long history of support for the crusading progressive tradition from which Sanders hails. Clinton, who lost in Wisconsin to Barack Obama in 2008, once again couldn’t pull off a win.
A hoarse Sanders celebrated his win while campaigning in Laramie, Wyoming. (That state holds it caucuses on Saturday.) He claimed to have momentum on his side.
“Momentum is starting this campaign 11 months ago and the media determining that we were a fringe candidacy. Momentum is starting the campaign 60 to 70 points behind Secretary Clinton .... Momentum is that when you look at national polls or you look at statewide polls, we are defeating Donald Trump by very significant numbers,” Sanders said. “Let me take this opportunity to thank the people of Wisconsin for their strong support.”
All five campaigns now have two weeks left before the next major primary, which is April 19 in New York. The Empire State should offer a chance for both front-runners to regain their footing. It’s Trump’s home state, and it’s Clinton’s adopted home state (or one of them), which she represented in the Senate. But Sanders, who retains the thick accent of Brooklyn, where he grew up, is vowing to give Clinton a run for her money. The two Democrats have agreed (after some snippy comments from both sides) to a debate on April 14, their first meeting in more than a month. Recent polls show Clinton up by more than 10 points. Trump’s margin is even greater—more than 30 points in some polls. Kasich is hoping to bounce back there, and Cruz has also promised to fight hard for a win, though his January swipe at Trump’s “New York values” won’t help. In two weeks, New Yorkers will have a chance to show what their values really are.
—David A. Graham