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Momentum May Matter (Just This Once) In Wisconsin

For this week’s politics Slack chat, we unpack what’s riding on today’s Republican and Democratic primaries in Wisconsin. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Check out our live coverage of the Wisconsin primary elections.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): After a slow couple of weeks, it’s election day again! Wisconsin, home of cheese and badgers, holds both a Democratic and Republican primary today. So let’s preview both races, starting with the GOP: Harry, what do we expect to happen tonight on the Republican side?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Now I have images in my head of badgers just rolling around in cheese curds.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Well, if the polls are right (minus that weird American Research Group survey), Ted Cruz should roll into Wisconsin and eat most of if not all the cheese. Cruz either has an 80 percent (polls-only) or 89 percent (polls-plus) chance of winning, depending on which FiveThirtyEight model you look at. The real question, though, is how many congressional districts he wins. If Cruz sweeps statewide and all the congressional districts, he takes all of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates. Donald Trump, however, has a shot in at least two districts (the 3rd and the 7th) in the north and west part of the state. That means we could be looking at a delegate split along the lines of Cruz 36/Trump 6/John Kasich 0, or Cruz 33/Trump 3/Kasich 3 (if Kasich wins around Madison in the 2nd District).

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Indeed, Cruz could poke holes in Trump’s quest for 1,237 delegates like he’s a slice of Swiss cheese.

micah: Clare, why isn’t Trump doing better in Wisconsin? Did we always expect this to be a tough state for The Donald?

clare.malone: Well, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are all up in Wisconsin and very much not Trumpian Republicans. They’re very likely operating behind the scenes, getting the local party apparatus working against Trump.

micah: And the GOP apparatus in Wisconsin is strong, no?

clare.malone: Right, Wisconsin typically sees higher turnout than most states in most elections — Wisconsinites are very politically engaged!

natesilver: I suppose I find the Wisconsin-is-just-a-bad-state-for-Trump a little bit circular.

harry: Please tell us more, Nathaniel.

natesilver: When our expert panel convened to game out the rest of the states a few weeks ago, we had Trump winning the majority of delegates in Wisconsin. And I’d guess that was pretty in line with the conventional wisdom at the time. Trump won Michigan fairly easily, which is a relatively similar state to Wisconsin. He won Illinois. He lost Iowa, but it was a caucus — Wisconsin holds a primary, and those have tended to favor Trump.

micah: So you don’t buy this article from friend-of-the-site Nate Cohn at The New York Times, which argued that Trump’s “problem in Wisconsin is mainly about the state’s demographics, not self-inflicted wounds. Even a 10-percentage-point loss there wouldn’t necessarily indicate any shift against him.”

natesilver: I’d buy a diet version of that argument. I think it’s a bit overstated. The fact is that the Republican primary is pretty hard to model demographically.

clare.malone: I love that there’s a theory out there that Wisconsinites are more “Yankee” than other Midwestern states, somehow. Elections really bring out our trafficking in stereotypes, don’t they?

natesilver: As we talked about on the podcast Monday, Wisconsinites (and other people in the upper Midwest) have high levels of social connectivity, which seems to be a correlate of the #NeverTrump vote. Trump voters are fairly socially isolated, by contrast.

clare.malone: I actually really am intrigued by that theory. It also ties in with the feeling of certain Trump voters in states with higher black populations feeling like persecuted whites in an era of increased attention to racial sensitivities and inequities.

Wisconsin’s pretty white, so those Yankee/Scandinavian descendants probably aren’t feeling as embattled.

micah: But there are dozens and dozens of demographic variables we could look at to explain Trump’s support, including social connectivity, so some are bound to correlate pretty well with how he’s done. Should we really be putting that much stock in these demographic-based findings on the GOP side (including our own)?

natesilver: Yeah, I definitely think there’s a lot of overfitting going on in people’s mental (and mathematical) models of Trump. Which is why, on some level, a loss would be a loss tonight and shouldn’t be totally explained away. Also, Wisconsin is one of the first examples we’ll have gotten of what happens to the vote now that Rubio’s dropped out. In Arizona, we didn’t get a clean test because so much of the vote was cast early with Rubio still running. And Utah — now there’s a place where you can excuse Trump’s performance based on demographics because they’re so homogeneously Mormon. So Wisconsin is the best test we have so far of what a three-way race looks like.

harry: Key point there from the man from Michigan — I think the margin and Trump’s percentage of the vote are as important as whether Cruz wins.

If Trump hits, say, only 33 percent, it’ll show that he picked up pretty much no ground after Rubio dropped out. I base that off of Marquette polls taken before and after Rubio exited. If however, Trump is in the high 30s, it’ll signal to me that he did indeed pick up some of that Rubio support.


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micah: So this gets to another question: I’ve heard a lot of talk that a Cruz win in Wisconsin could “reset the race” — do we buy that?

natesilver: It’s important to remember that “momentum,” as the press talks about it, is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. There’s a perception that Trump’s had a bad couple of weeks — he’s now below 50 percent to win the nomination at prediction markets, which seems awfully cheap — and a loss in Wisconsin would confirm that perception.

clare.malone: I don’t think I buy the wholesale “reset” thing anymore, because I think we’re basically just headed into a period of extended litigation on the ground with party meetings and electing delegates and obscure rules and all that. I tend to think that’s the direction of the race now. I think the way a Wisconsin win might help things for the Cruz team and hurt Trump is that it helps in the Cruz campaign’s delegate-courting process, their convincing people that he’s viable.

natesilver: Yeah, so that’s one way that momentum (real or perceived) could matter. While there aren’t a lot of states voting over the next couple of weeks, there are a lot of them picking delegates. And although Cruz is doing well in that delegate-selection process already, it’s an easier sell when he can say the wheels are coming off Trump’s campaign. By contrast, if Trump wins Wisconsin — unlikely, but stranger things have happened several times this year already — the Cruz campaign’s delegate-related machinations could look more like a naked power grab. And the conventional wisdom, which could matter to the GOP delegates, could shift back to “how can we NOT give Trump the nomination given that he clearly has the most popular support?” instead of “how can we possibly nominate this guy?”

clare.malone: “Naked Power Grab” is the sequel to my romance novel “Delegates Unbound.” The Trump having a bad delegate-hunting-machine line is actually going to be really interesting, I think. And how litigious things might get — he’s certainly rubbed a lot of state GOP’s the wrong way over the last week to 10 days.

harry: Well, let’s put it this way: If Cruz can win Wisconsin by a wide margin, sweep the delegate count and then something happens to keep Trump under 50 percent in New York, then things will get very interesting. If, however, Trump merely sets a Wisconsin loss aside and then wins in New York and the rest of the states voting this month, I’m not sure winning Wisconsin by 5 percentage points versus 10 points versus 15 matters in the grand scheme. Of course, a large Wisconsin win for Cruz probably means he’ll go on to win the winner-take-all states of Nebraska and South Dakota.

natesilver: It’s true that other things held equal, Trump is likely to be underrated after Wisconsin (assuming he loses) and overrated after New York (assuming he wins big). That’s not the same thing as saying momentum doesn’t matter, however. Perception could matter quite a lot to the delegates, and they’re the ones who might end up deciding the nomination.

harry: I guess I don’t know what the perception would actually be in the scenario above.

clare.malone: Well, in Harry’s scenario, the perception playing field would be more even, right?

natesilver: Yeah. If Trump wins out every time he has a big confrontation with Cruz (and Kasich), it’ll look more like he has a mandate from GOP voters. And that will make it harder for delegates to deny him the nomination. Cruz needs Wisconsin precisely because he’s going to take some losses later in the month. Not just for the delegates — we’re already “pricing in” Trump doing very well in New York, Connecticut, etc. — but also for the morale of the #NeverTrump forces and for the argument Cruz will make to the delegates in Cleveland.

harry: I’m left wondering more about how big these wins are for each of them.

natesilver: But as much as we might say “it’s all about the math,” Harry, the fact is that the delegates might have to make this very subjective decision about whether nominating Trump or denying him the nomination is the least-worst outcome for the GOP. It’s all about the math if Trump gets 1,237 delegates — well, unless the delegates want to pull a fast one and unbind themselves — but in the zone where he’s somewhere around 1,150 or 1,200 delegates, the narrative the delegates tell themselves about the race matters a lot.

harry: Right, and I guess I’m saying I don’t know how the delegates will react. And I’d think the margins may matter in that case. Or maybe, they won’t. I have no clue.

natesilver: How the media covers the race matters a lot too. They’ve finally gotten away from the Trump-is-invincible storyline. If he pulls it out in Wisconsin, however, they’ll go right back to it.

clare.malone: We’ve reached a very sticky wicket wherein we’re now dabbling in individual’s reactions to the state of the country rather than demographics. If Trump’s bad couple weeks continue, and stories about, say, campaign “disarray” and personnel problems keep up, there might be some on-the-fence delegates who won’t swing toward Trump after all.

natesilver: Yeah, this just seems like a poorly chosen time for the “momentum doesn’t matter” line. I agree with that line 90 percent of the time. This case might be in the 10 percent for the GOP.

clare.malone: That’s a pretty atypical Nate Silver statement! But it’s an atypical time.

micah: Yeah, mark down this moment “Nate Silver Endorses The Big Mo’!”

harry: Nate has gone mainstream media. Sad day for journalism.

natesilver: Just for the Republicans, though! I don’t think momentum matters that much for the Democrats.

clare.malone: Democrats … what of them, eh? I feel like we’re about to give our standard lines about the race, which is that math don’t lie and that while Sanders will likely win Wisconsin, it might not mean all that much. Go.

harry: The Democratic side is fairly simple. Sanders has led in most of the polls of Wisconsin, and the state’s demographics suggest a mid-single-digit win for him. Given Clinton’s 224 pledged delegate lead, Sanders probably needs to win by about 16 percentage points or more to be on track to come all the way back and win the nomination.

micah: So let’s say Sanders wins Wisconsin by 15-plus percentage points — what would that mean for the race overall?

harry: It would mean that maybe something has changed. Maybe Sanders has a real shot at winning this thing. Of course, it doesn’t mean anything if Clinton goes on to win New York by double-digits.

natesilver: I’m a bit surprised that the Wisconsin polls have it so close. Then again, we’ve been conditioned to think in terms of caucuses when we’re back to primaries now.

clare.malone: How much do we trust Wisconsin polls?

natesilver: The polls have been pretty crappy overall on the Democratic side, but they’ve missed in different directions in different states.

clare.malone: So, with Sanders up 3 percentage points in our weighted average of Wisconsin polls, is a win of 15-plus points unrealistic?

natesilver: The average poll in the Democratic race has been something like 10 points off. Polling averages do a fair bit better

harry: Within 21 days of the caucus or primary, the average poll has been off 11 percentage points so far this campaign. But as Nate said, it’s been a mixed bag. In Ohio, which everyone thought could be a Sanders state after he won Michigan, the polls were dead-on.

micah: And the polling error hasn’t consistently been in either Clinton or Sanders’s direction?

natesilver: Bernie winning by 15 would be a big deal, but not a huge, epic surprise. Like a magnitude 6.0 earthquake, not an 8.0.

harry: Right, it’d put me into a more of a wait-and-see mode.

natesilver: The polls have tended to underrate Clinton in the South and underrate Bernie in the North. Which would be a good sign for Sanders in Wisconsin. I suspect the polls are having a lot of trouble picking up enough black voters and young voters, which are the two most decisive groups in the Democratic primary.

With all that said, the contrarian devil on my shoulder is saying that since it seems obvious to everyone that Sanders will beat his polls in Wisconsin, maybe we’re heading for a Clinton upset instead.

micah: So let’s end on that: If Clinton does win in Wisconsin, is this race over? I mean, it’s close to over now, according to the delegate math, but would a Bernie loss in Wisconsin lead to an “R.I.P.” narrative too?

clare.malone: The race won’t be over until the very last state — technically speaking — and because no matter what happens (Clinton winning in Wisconsin), Sanders probably won’t drop out.

natesilver: As Harry said, New York is the linchpin state on the Democratic side. Both because it has a lot more delegates than Wisconsin and because it might give us an indication of how the April 26 states — and to a lesser extent, California on June 7 — will vote.

micah: So even if Clinton wins Wisconsin, we have to wait until New York? Or, to Clare’s point, June 7? Sanders supporters seem unlikely to concede no matter what the results.

clare.malone: It’s gonna be a subway series.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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