It was a good night for the two men currently in second place in their respective nominating contests, but it was not good enough for either. Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Bernie Sanders both won Wisconsin, and chipped into the delegate leads amassed by Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, is it enough?
Wisconsin is a lovely state but it has a weird political history. The state sent two progressive senators to Washington, Robert LaFollette Sr. and Jr., who between them led the fight for liberal causes through much of the first half of the twentieth century. LaFollette Jr. lost in 1946 to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Talk about a weltanschauung shift! Even today, the state is represented by Sen. Ron Johnson, an arch-conservative and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, an arch-liberal. Too much hops in the beer up there!
On the Republican side, Cruz won 48 percent of the vote to Trump’s 35 percent. The result shows that when the anti-Trump forces are more or less united, they can beat the businessman. But, only Cruz himself may delude himself into thinking this was an endorsement of him. He is now the anti-Trump. In this regard, the churlish tweet from Trump’s campaign reacting to the results – “Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet - he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.” – was correct. Last night’s result in the Badger state makes it harder for Trump to enter this summer’s convention in Cleveland with a majority of the delegates on the first ballot.
To what end? Backing Cruz will not result in a convention the suddenly unites behind a candidate like Speaker Paul Ryan. Only if the GOP has concluded that they would rather lose with Cruz, than get shellacked with Trump, does this strategy make sense. And I suspect they will get shellacked either way. Last night, the exit polls of GOP voters indicated that fully one-third of Republicans would not vote for Trump and a different third would not support Cruz. Indeed, 38 percent of Republicans said the prospect of Trump being president made them “scared” and an additional 20 percent said such a prospect would make them “concerned.” Cruz’s numbers were not that bad, but they were close. All this spells trouble of monumental proportions for the GOP.
Cruz also mishandled the moment. He began his victory speech saying the result was a “turning point” in the race. Then, he took a swipe at Trump but mostly spent the first five or ten minutes discussing the delegate math. Here was his chance to speak to voters in the upcoming contests about his vision for the GOP and for the nation. Fox News cut away half way through the speech and MSNBC followed soon thereafter. Only CNN stayed until the bitter end. They never did that to Trump.
On the Democratic side, Sanders won by thirteen points over Clinton, but he really needed to win by twenty points. That might have reset the trajectory of the race. He leaves Wisconsin with forty-five delegates but Clinton garnered thirty-six. When you are more than two hundred delegates behind, you need decisive, overwhelming wins to close the gap. And, the terrain going forward is less favorable to Sanders: Wisconsin had an open primary in which Independents can vote, and he won them by a 40 percent margin. The next big primary, New York, is a closed primary. As well, Wisconsin has few minority voters compared to New York and, later, California, and Sanders has yet to connect with non-white voters. He continues to outraise Clinton. He continues to demonstrate the enthusiasm gap. And, even when he has a big win, as he did last night, the Republican contest sucks most of the oxygen out of the room.
Both parties have become more ideologically pristine, which is probably not such a good thing. 31 percent of Republicans voting yesterday described themselves as “very conservative” and another 43 percent as “somewhat conservative.” Only twenty-four percent described themselves as “moderate” and 2 percent a “liberal.” Don’t you want to go to Wisconsin and meet some of that 2 percent? What are their views on any given issue? On the Democratic side, twenty-five percent describe themselves as very liberal and forty-three percent as “somewhat liberal.” 27 percent claim to be “moderate” and five percent self-identify as “conservative.” A more ideologically pristine politics is a more ideologically driven politics, and it is harder to adjust governance for ideology than it s for interests.
This ideological bifurcation and indicates that both eventual nominees are ill-advised to “run to the center” as is usually the case in a general election. There is no center anymore to which to run! But, because “very” conservatives and liberals are still such a minority of the overall electorate, whoever wins will do so because more people do not like the opponent than endorse the candidate for whom they do vote. Again, this is not a recipe for effective governance.
Ideas about specific policies, however, create a patchwork within the ideological labels. One of the more stunning developments was that when asked if international trade creates jobs, more Democrats (38 percent) than Republicans (33 percent) said yes, while fifty-four percent of Republicans said trade takes away jobs compared to only forty-five percent of Democrats.
The final thing to note about last night is that turnout was really high. Two million Wisconsinites turned out for yesterday’s primaries, a million on each side. Only slightly more than three million Wisconsinites voted in the general election four years ago, when President Obama beat Mitt Romney fifty-three percent to forty-six percent.
The candidates now turn their attention to New York. Both contests will likely get a bit nastier in the fortnight ahead. Trump needs to win New York and win big, garnering all the states delegates, if he wants to continue his march to a first ballot victory. Clinton could use a big win in her adopted state, but a small win will keep her on a trajectory to win on the first ballot. Sanders claims the superdelegates will start to break to him if he keeps winning, because they will see he matches up better against the GOP. That’s foolishness: Once the GOP does to him what they have already done to Hillary, he could actually lose to a Cruz or a Trump. The road in both parties is a bit bumpier after last night but I still do not see anyone with the clear path to the White House than Clinton has.