For the first time since 1984, the Wisconsin presidential primary has dealt a blow to the aspirations of a national front-runner. And just for good measure, this time the Badger State did it to the national front-runner in both major parties.
As a consequence, we can now expect both the Republican and Democratic nomination battles to continue through the final primaries. And, in the GOP at least, the issue seems certain to remain unresolved until the national convention in Cleveland in July.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took a back seat on this day as Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders carried the state, each in convincing fashion. Cruz, the hard-line conservative senator from Texas, garnered nearly half of the statewide vote against Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
"Tonight is a turning point, it is a rallying cry," crowed Cruz. "We have a choice. A real choice."
Trump won more counties than Cruz, sweeping the sparsely populated northern tier of the state and most the western counties as well. Overall, he had about 35 percent statewide. That was about where polls had consistently showed him for weeks. But as other candidates had dropped out, Trump had not benefited — at least in Wisconsin — while Cruz clearly had. Kasich had roughly 14 percent of the vote but won no counties.
"Lyin' Ted Cruz had the governor of Wisconsin, many conservative talk radio show hosts and the entire party apparatus behind him," said Trump in a written statement released by his campaign. "Not only was he propelled by the anti-Trump SuperPACs spending countless millions of dollars on false advertising ... but he was coordinating with his own SuperPACs who totally control him."
Cruz, who was indeed supported by Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, won statewide by running up more than 60 percent of the vote in the three suburban counties outside Milwaukee that are the wellspring of Wisconsin Republicanism: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. He also carried Milwaukee County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, and all the lakeside counties stretching to its north to Brown County, home of the state's most legendary sports franchise, the Green Bay Packers.
Sanders and Cruz both won by about 13 percentage points, but Republicans received about 70,000 more votes than the Democrats, a less pronounced instance of the pattern seen in many states this year.
Cruz's victory was potentially more consequential, too, because he seemed to stall Trump's vaunted momentum and made Trump's path to a first-ballot nomination exceedingly steep. Trump can no longer reach the 1,237 delegate threshold for a first-ballot nomination before the final day of primaries on June 7. And even with a solid string of victories from now on through that day, he will need to dominate the remaining events completely to collect the nearly 500 delegates he still needs.
It is far more likely now that the GOP convention will begin in Cleveland on July 18 with no candidate in control. That is largely because of the results from Wisconsin, where 18 delegates went to Cruz as the statewide winner and another 18 were awarded to him for winning in six different congressional districts. Trump got six delegates for winning the 3rd and 7th Congressional Districts. That would raise his national tally to 743, according to The Associated Press.
Despite collecting the lion's share of the delegates in Wisconsin and raising his national tally to 517, Cruz has no chance whatever of reaching 1,237 before the convention. But he hopes to slow Trump down enough to sow doubts about the New Yorker's electability and keep the convention open for multiple ballots. In that event, as the runner-up in delegate strength, he hopes to consolidate a coalition that could win him the nomination.
Kasich, who once again finished with no delegate dividend at all, may continue to the convention in hopes of delivering his Ohio delegation and putting someone else over the top. In a more remote scenario, a deadlocked convention might turn to him as an option. He will be the host governor in Cleveland.
Sanders, the longtime liberal senator from Vermont, was arguably the vote-getting star of the night. He carried all but three of the state's 72 counties and ran up more than 56 percent of the statewide vote. That was expected to give him about 50 of the state's 86 pledged delegates. It also signaled that his recent wins in a slew of caucus states were not a fluke of the process but evidence of a movement finding its moment.
Clinton won by less than four points in Milwaukee County, the state's most populous venue and home to most of its minority voters. She also won two sparsely populated western counties on the Minnesota line.
Sanders' commanding lead in Wisconsin would appear to reduce Clinton's national advantage in pledged delegates by at least 11 and probably several more. That would leave her with a lead of more than 250 in that category, and more than 680 in delegates overall — counting the superdelegates (party officers and elected public officials) who continue to prefer Clinton by a wide margin.
Sanders gave a long victory speech in Laramie, Wyo., where the party will hold caucuses on Saturday. He proclaimed himself on the brink of a breakthrough in the contest, saying he could win New York on April 19 and Pennsylvania on April 26. But he will need to do so by margins similar to what he achieved in Wisconsin, in order to reduce Clinton's lead among pledged delegates and, potentially, turn the loyalties of the superdelegates prior to the convention in Philadelphia.
(Clinton, like Trump, did not hold a public event Tuesday night, although she did hold a fundraiser in the Bronx.)
Sanders once again won by huge margins among voters under 30, while Clinton won those over 45 and those who were African-American or Hispanic. The two split the votes of those who told exit pollsters they were Democrats, but Sanders won by more than 2-1 among independents.
Although the state has always had nonpartisan registration and allowed voters to take either party's ballot in this primary, some two-thirds of those voting on the GOP side declared themselves as Republicans in exit polls. That left one-third of the vote to be cast by independents, who also cast about one-fourth of all the ballots on the Democratic side.
On the Republican side, one-third called themselves "very conservative" and another 43 percent "somewhat conservative." On the Democratic side, 25 percent said they were "very liberal" and another 43 percent "somewhat liberal." Overall, that was good news for Cruz and Sanders.
The electorate was overwhelmingly Anglo on the Republican side and about 84 percent Anglo on the Democratic side. In both parties, a plurality of those polled said they thought trade deals cost the country more jobs than they created. Nearly 40 percent of the Republican votes were cast by those who said they considered themselves either "born again or evangelical Christians."