MILWAUKEE – The front-runners fell on both sides in Wisconsin’s presidential primary Tuesday, injecting new intrigue, chaos and drama into an epic campaign. For the GOP, Donald Trump’s loss to Ted Cruz elevates all the uncertainties and schisms that have dogged the party for months, and increases the odds of a history-making “open” convention.
For Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Bernie Sanders leaves her daunting delegate lead largely intact. But it does little to dampen doubts about her ability to energize young voters and win over independents.
Cruz, who inherited a late surge of support here from anti-Trump Republicans, won a victory that should assure him most of Wisconsin’s 42 GOP delegates, making it that much harder for Trump to win an outright delegate majority before the party’s July convention in Cleveland.
“Tonight is a turning point. It is a rallying cry,” said Cruz, speaking from American Serb Memorial Hall on Milwaukee’s southwest side. “Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward.”
One of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, Cruz dominated among the party’s most conservative voters Tuesday. But he also broadened his reach, redefining himself as a go-to-candidate for establishment Republicans, winning men and women, young and old, urban and suburban voters.
Cruz replicated the classic map of past GOP primary winners, piling up big margins in the high-turnout, ultra-red counties outside Milwaukee.
Strikingly, Cruz beat Trump among blue-collar whites, a group that accounted for roughly half the GOP vote here. Trump had carried “non-college” whites in the vast majority of primaries this year, winning them by large margins in neighboring Michigan and Illinois last month.
Wisconsin represents a sharp and significant break from that pattern.
In its 104th year, this year’s edition of the Wisconsin primary was the most hotly contested, colorful and consequential in decades. After years of backing party front-runners, this state gave life Tuesday to their closest rivals. Instead of all-but-ending the nominating process – Wisconsin’s more traditional role – it has now prolonged it.
The question going forward on both sides is whether Wisconsin will be a turning point in a marathon nominating process or a “one-off,” the by-product of the state’s distinctive culture, politics, population mix and political rules.
The candidates now head to a very different political landscape on April 19 – New York – where Clinton served as U.S. senator and Trump and Sanders grew up. Trump has enjoyed a big lead in the polls there. Clinton has also led, but Sanders has been gaining.
Of the two contests, the uncertainties surrounding the Republican race appear much greater, thanks to Trump’s unpredictability, the rifts within his party, and the mathematical chances of a contested convention.
On the Democratic side, Clinton has now lost six of the past seven contests.
“Momentum is when you look at national polls, when you look at statewide polls, we are defeating Donald Trump by very significant numbers,” Sanders told a crowd in Laramie, Wyo., Tuesday night. “And in almost every instance – in national polls and in state polls – our margin over Trump is wider than is Secretary Clinton’s.”
Sanders benefited in Wisconsin from the state’s open primary, which ensured a big independent vote. Independents made up more than a quarter of the Democratic vote, and Sanders won them by roughly 40 points, according to exit polls.
He also was helped by a very liberal group of primary voters. In 2008, when Clinton lost to Barack Obama here by 17 points, less than half the voters in that contest described themselves as liberal. This time, two-thirds of the voters in the Democratic primary were liberal, exit polls said.
There were big gender and age gaps in the race. Sanders won under-30 voters by roughly 5 to 1. Clinton won voters 65 and older by more than 20 points. Clinton dominated among black voters, but they only made up about one-tenth of the electorate in this overwhelmingly white state.
But Sanders’ victory in the popular vote was tempered by the delegate math.
Democratic rules for allocating delegates in proportion to the popular vote ensured that with anything short of a massive Wisconsin victory, Sanders’ delegate gains would be very modest – a net gain of probably under 10 delegates.
By contrast, the GOP awards its delegates using a winner-take-all system, with Cruz winning all of the state’s 18 “statewide” delegates, and slated to win three delegates for each of the 8 congressional districts he carries. Trump’s best hope Tuesday was to win two districts in the north and west, his best regions.
Trump met a stiff wall of resistance when he arrived in Wisconsin last week – from Republican politicians, conservative activists and conservative media. “Stop Trump” groups saw favorable turf and spent heavily. Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Cruz, and Trump fanned the fire with a series of controversial statements.
But Trump’s problems here ran much deeper than all that. His polling numbers were chronically weak for months. Surveys dating back to last fall showed a massive regional divide within the state. Trump enjoyed a positive image in northern Wisconsin but was hugely unpopular in the reddest counties in metro Milwaukee, with their higher levels of income and education.
More than one-third of GOP voters said they’d be “scared” by a Trump presidency; an additional one-fifth said they’d be concerned.