Wisconsin voters will decide Tuesday whether Donald Trump’s latest self-inflicted wounds are deep enough to deny him a win in the state’s Republican primary, and, in turn, to diminish his hopes of winning the presidential nomination.
In the unusual position as an underdog, the billionaire faces a referendum in Wisconsin that follows the roughest two-week stretch of his campaign, following criticism for mocking his chief rival’s wife, calling for the punishment of women who have illegal abortions and failing to discipline his campaign manager following police charges of battery after he allegedly grabbed a reporter.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has led in Wisconsin polling, has been assisted by a growing Republican establishment effort to block the real estate mogul from winning the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination.
If Trump is only able to win a few of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates, it could seriously damage his prospects for surpassing the threshold required to secure the nomination outright, while also diminishing his argument that he’s become the party’s consensus candidate.
The groups that aligned to try to stop Trump have targeted Wisconsin as a proving ground because it’s the only GOP primary on the calendar before the billionaire’s home state of New York votes on April 19. Tripping him up now could change the direction of a series of contests in the Northeast, including in Pennsylvania and New York, where Trump is favored.
Whether the anti-Trump effort, which included attacks from outside groups and local conservative radio hosts, has found a formula for success remains to be seen.
Arguably the nation’s most politically polarized state, Wisconsin has been a unique hotbed of Republican activism since the 2010 election of Gov. Scott Walker and the local and statewide recall elections that followed, divisive events that acted to help organize and unify Republicans.
“The establishment has been lined up against Donald Trump for months, and he’s repeatedly beat them,” said Rick Wiley, a former executive director of the state’s Republican Party who managed Walker’s failed presidential bid. “But the establishment in Wisconsin is different. They’ve fought battles together since 2010 and banded together to get behind Ted Cruz.”
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is hoping strong turnout among college students and union workers might propel him to a win that will change the narrative that it’s only a matter of time before Hillary Clinton secures the nomination.
At his final rally before Tuesday’s vote, Sanders told an enthusiastic crowd of about 2,400 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee that the Democratic race will be close and that he will win if there is a record-breaking voter turnout.
“If we win here tomorrow, it will be a major step forward in this campaign,” he said.
Among likely Democratic primary voters, Sanders held a 49 percent to 45 percent edge over Clinton, with 6 percent undecided, according to a Marquette Law School poll released last week.
A Sanders loss in Wisconsin, a state with a deep populist tradition where Clinton was badly beaten in the 2008 primary, would be a major blow to his underdog bid. A win, like his surprise victory in Michigan’s March 8 primary, would give him much needed momentum heading into New York’s primary.
After the polls close at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, the results will say much about just how long the nomination fights for both parties may drag on. On the Republican side, the outcome will also offer insight into the chances of a rare contested national convention when delegates descend on Cleveland, Ohio, in July.
The state’s electorate-heavily white and blue-collar-seems favorable, in some ways, for Trump. But he’s acknowledged having a difficult week leading up to the voting and boosted his schedule in the state during the closing days, including making three campaign stops Monday.
“If we do well here, folks, it’s over,” he said at a rally in La Crosse on Monday. “If we don’t win here, it’s not over, but wouldn’t you like to take the credit in Wisconsin?”
The businessman also called Ohio Gov. John Kasich a spoiler in the race and called on him to drop out. “He ought to get the hell out,” Trump said. “He hurts me much more than he hurts Cruz.”
Kasich has conceded he won’t win in Wisconsin and campaigned on Monday in New York. He hopes to do well enough in some congressional districts to earn delegates as part of his strategy to have enough momentum entering the convention to win the nomination as the most electable and qualified candidate.
Heading into Tuesday’s voting, Trump led with 736 delegates, according to Associated Press estimates. He was followed by Cruz with 463 and Kasich at 143.
In Wisconsin’s Republican primary, the state awards three delegates to the winner of each of its eight congressional districts, while the statewide winner gets an additional 18 delegates.
There are 86 delegates at stake in the state’s Democratic primary, which are awarded proportionally. Ahead of Tuesday’s results, Clinton had 1,712 of the 2,383 delegates and super delegates needed to win, while Sanders had 1,011.
Sanders has claimed he has momentum heading into Wisconsin’s voting, after winning five of the six primaries and caucuses since March 15, when he lost all five contests. He has campaigned aggressively in the state, holding 15 events there since March 26, including three on Monday.
During a Monday rally in Janesville, Sanders said a Wisconsin win is the bump he needs ahead of New York, as he called Clinton “nervous” and “already under a lot of pressure” to win.
Clinton’s aides, while acknowledging trailing Sanders in recent polls, think that delegate math makes it all but impossible for him to win and expect that the results of April’s primaries will leave no doubt that she’ll be the nominee.
“The Sanders campaign’s path forward relies on overturning the will of the voters,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in a Monday statement, while the candidate herself spent the day campaigning in New York.
Cruz, speaking to reporters Monday in Kenosha, suggested that Trump is “afraid to debate” because he lacks the policy details that voters want.
“The momentum we’re seeing is a result of the fact that the people of this state and the people of the country are looking for real, positive solutions, not simply someone to yell and scream and curse at them,” he said.
Walker, who enjoys an 80 percent approval rating among the state’s likely Republican primary voters, endorsed Cruz last week and appeared at his side as the campaign drew to a close. Even on that seemingly straight-forward political calculus, Trump managed to go out of his way to criticize Walker.
Besides Walker, Cruz benefited in Wisconsin from the support of other party leaders, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. But given Cruz’s reputation in Washington for showmanship, inflexibility and a lack of collegiality, supporting the senator has been a bitter pill for some Republicans here.
“They just swallowed hard and said, ‘We just can’t have Trump, and we have to go for Cruz,'” said Brandon Scholz, a veteran Republican strategist in Madison who isn’t aligned with any of the candidates.
A few Wisconsin political observers have billed the primary as the most consequential since 1960, when John F. Kennedy won the state’s Democratic race. Heavy media coverage and high-profile local and state races are expected to boost turnout.
The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has projected overall turnout to be around 40 percent, which would be the highest in a state presidential primary since 1980.
“We expect Donald Trump to bring new voters to the polls-for and against,” Kevin J. Kennedy, Wisconsin’s chief elections official, said in a statement. “We also expect the battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to continue to generate interest.”
Contributors: Jennifer Epstein, Arit John and Kevin Cirilli.