Home Opinion Five Takeaways From Wisconsin’s Presidential Primary

Five Takeaways From Wisconsin’s Presidential Primary

Ted Cruz won last night in Wisconsin, but what's that mean for the rest of the primary season? (PHOTO: Tim Townsend)

If you are a Wisconsin liberal, you must have been sitting in front of your TV on Tuesday night, mimicking Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (unless you were feeling the Bern).

Scott Walker is baaaaaack. But then again, Wisconsin might have done Hillary Clinton a favor by making an exceptionally ugly GOP convention more likely. More on that in a minute …

Ted Cruz walloped Donald Trump and John Kasich so badly that Trump didn’t even hold a Versailles-style press conference this time. Instead, he hunkered down with family in New York, whipping out written statements that accused Cruz of being a “Trojan horse” and a puppet for party elites who want to steal the nomination. Meanwhile, Cruz, the former outsider, was surrounded by aforementioned grinning Wisconsin GOP elites, from Walker on down. Cruz promised his win is the start of something pivotal. Time will tell.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders walloped Hillary Clinton in a state that shouldn’t have been so bad for her … theoretically.

Those are the results, but what did we really learn? Here are five takeaways from the Wisconsin presidential primaries:

1. Sorry in advance to those on the left, but Scott Walker is back

Walker can obviously take some credit for the Cruz victory. He’s getting some good national press of the sort he hasn’t had seen since he limped back home after being kneecapped by Trump. I had this sneaking suspicion that maybe Walker, standing on that Serb Hall stage next to Cruz Tuesday, was really thinking, “This is great! Now, maybe if I play my cards right, they’ll pick ME if it goes to brokered convention. After all, the “establishment” basically IS Wisconsin: Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, etc.” Ted Cruz meet bus wheels.

Implausible? Not really, especially when there are news reports that Walker’s kept the remnants of his national campaign apparatus active.

Of course, the Cruz victory was a Republican primary. Clearly, Walker remains popular with Republicans, but we already knew that. His approval ratings are still well below 50 percent overall (although they ticked up slightly in that recent Marquette poll). He’s lost most independents. That’s the peril when he runs statewide by himself again. However, that’s far away.

On the statewide side, the win of the once Walker appointee and the much media-maligned Rebecca Bradley also points to a Walker resurgence. Sort of. Bradley also benefitted from a likely turnout differential between GOP and Democratic voters (the Trump-Cruz effect). She benefited from a lot of big money (bye-bye John Doe 2). Weirdly, thousands of Democrats voted for Bernie or Clinton, but not JoAnne Kloppenburg. Maybe some liberals were swayed by all those ads. Maybe they are more likely to prefer conservatives in judgeships than other positions. Maybe Kloppenburg was just an awful candidate.

However, to boil it down, the Cruz and Bradley victories together show that Walker still has statewide coattails, and he can still rally his base. Plus, he’s back in the national conversation. A good night for him. Meanwhile, Wisconsin sure does feel like the epicenter of the so-called “establishment’ universe right now – at least on the right.

2. Hillary hasn’t sealed the deal

After losing a spate of primaries – seven of the last eight states – Hillary just can’t quite put it away. In fact, if you subtract the super delegates (read: party elites) from her totals, it’s even closer delegate wise. Voters are upset with the “establishment” and big money, and they’re hurting in this economy (remember Cruz was perceived as an anti-establishment guy a couple weeks ago too until the establishment picked his horse).

Bernie Sanders moves people’s hearts. Hillary plays to their minds. Still, the margin of his Wisconsin victory was pretty stunning. It appears that independents flocked to Bernie (and away from Trump?) Obviously, he dominated Millennials.

However, the delegate rules in Wisconsin mean that Bernie could get fewer than 10 more delegates, the Journal Sentinel reported. Excuse me for saying that it seems like party elites are engineering a Hillary victory. Granted, unlike the GOP side, she’s still winning in terms of votes.

For now.

Could some super delegates switch to Bernie? Depends if he keeps winning. Now all eyes move to New York.

3. Talk radio really can move votes in Wisconsin

If you look at the county-by-county returns, it’s striking. There is a fault line in Wisconsin, and it’s literally conservative talk radio’s reach (when is some genius going to set up strong conservative talk radio in northwest?)
Luckily for Cruz, the WOW counties ringing metro Milwaukee in the heart of Talk Radio Country are very populous. The Sykes-Belling-McKenna-O’Donnell-Weber contingent railing on Trump literally every single day for hours (along with Jerry Bader in the Fox Valley) mattered. Talk radio can move its listeners. It’s most powerful in GOP primaries. It creates a narrative, and it drives turnout. Talk radio is more powerful in concentrated Southeast Wisconsin than it is nationwide.

Trump also suffered from Heidi Cruz and other self-inflicted wounds last week. Marco Rubio being out of the race also hurt him; it’s a narrowing field, so the vote against him is consolidating while Cruz showed some broadening of his base, doing well with somewhat conservatives as well as very conservatives, according to the New York Times.

4. Big money matters

Trump has been trying to win a presidential election with free media (broadcast, largely). This worked in other states. However, The New York Times reported early on that big money interests, such as the Club for Growth and a Super PAC, were going to pour millions into Wisconsin in an effort to make it harder for Trump to get the nomination outright. Then the endorsements followed.

I lost count how many anti-Trump ads I saw, on social media and television. I received a multi-page, slick anti-Trump direct mail piece. I saw almost nothing like this from the Trump side. And it mattered (some of the same big money interests spent heavily for Bradley). They killed him on the air and in the mail (if not the sea).

Yes, Bernie seems to defy this statement, but he didn’t weather quite that degree of relentless assault. Ironically, while the guy railing against big money and the rich ran away with it on the Democratic side, the people backed by serious big money also ran away with it on the right and statewide. Air time matters. Paid media does. On a nationwide scale, it might be a different story. At some point, Trump may need to open up his actual pocketbook. His strategy of “drive the news cycle with outrage statements to get free media” may have reached its shelf life.

5. This is going to get uglier … if that’s possible

On the Democratic side, Bernie sees an opening so the gloves are coming off.

On the Republican side, the big Walker-talk radio victory simply ensures an ugly battle for the nomination.

Let’s be clear. A Trump loss in Wisconsin does not mean Trump can’t win the nomination outright. He still can. However, it does mean that it will be harder. A UPI story said Cruz needed 47 percent of the remaining delegates to stop Trump from winning outright before Wisconsin; now, he needs 45 percent. Still possible, but harder.

Meanwhile, Cruz would need to win more than 80 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright himself. That’s not going to happen.

Remember: Trump now moves into New York and other eastern states, where he is ahead in the polls. It’s very likely that Trump still ends up with a large delegate lead heading into the convention, if he doesn’t win the nomination outright (looking less likely but still possible).

The primary will be uglier now. Clearly Trump has lost momentum. There’s a new narrative.

A brokered convention will be uglier yet. If the GOP elites think they can hand it off to someone who has won fewer delegates, states and votes than Trump, they are, in my opinion, woefully underestimating the intensity of Trump’s support among about 30-40 percent of their electorate. He’s got true believers. Exit polling in the Wisconsin primary showed most Republicans think the nomination should go to the person who wins the most delegates, even if not a majority (although lots of people are also scared of a Trump presidency).

It boggles the mind that GOP elites think most of those people will vote for some nominee handpicked by the same insiders they are angry at. Instead of trying to get Trump in shape as their nominee, they’re trying to ensure a bloodletting. That might be a vote for ideological purity, but in a practical sense, I think that’s probably good for Hillary. The calculations that so-and-so (Kasich, Cruz, Paul Ryan, etc.) are better than Trump against Hillary always leave out the fact that so many Trump voters might be so enraged they sit home – and what does that do to Ron Johnson and the Senate and the House? Furthermore, Cruz is pretty hardline to appeal to general election moderates.

In that way, despite the Bernie victory, Wisconsin arguably ended up potentially helping the still likely Democratic nominee: Clinton. Maybe she should send Scott Walker and Sykes a fruit basket.