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Wisconsin Could Be Trouble For Trump

Donald Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the Republican presidential nomination may be about to hit a major speed bump in Wisconsin. Two polls out in the past week, from Basswood Research and Marquette University, show Ted Cruz with a lead of 5 percentage points and 10 percentage points, respectively. If Cruz wins Wisconsin by that much, Trump could get few of the state’s delegates, setting him further off pace and increasing the chances of a contested convention.

Wisconsin has 42 delegates — 18 go to the statewide winner and three go to the winner of each of the state’s eight congressional districts. So if Cruz wins Wisconsin by even one vote, the most Trump can hope to take home is 24 delegates, which is fewer than the 25 delegates our expert panel predicted. Our panel had Trump falling just short of 1,237 even with 25 delegates in Wisconsin, and chances are — if Cruz wins statewide — Trump won’t win most of those remaining 24.1 You can see why in the regional breakdown of support from the Marquette poll.

Milwaukee City and Milwaukee County 53% 22% 15%
Rest of Milwaukee media market 43 21 27
Madison media market 19 37 33
Green Bay media market 41 15 32
Northern and western Wisconsin 40 17 41
Overall 40 21 30
Candidate support among GOP primary voters

Source: Marquette University Law School Poll

Trump has generally benefited from running against multiple candidates; it has enabled him to win states with a plurality of support. But in Wisconsin, Cruz and John Kasich are drawing the anti-Trump vote on separate fronts.

Cruz holds comfortable leads in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee suburbs and Green Bay. Those roughly align with the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th congressional districts. If Cruz wins all these districts, he’ll take an additional 15 delegates. If the Marquette poll proves accurate, Trump will be competitive only in the Madison television market and the northern and western parts of the state, roughly the 2nd, 3rd and 7th congressional districts.

As the table indicates, Cruz isn’t competitive in the Madison media market, the 2nd congressional district, but Kasich is. Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin, and Kasich has done well in liberal college areas such as around Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan.

If Trump were to lose the 2nd congressional district to Kasich, in addition to the five districts to Cruz, that would leave only the six delegates up for grabs in the 3rd and 7th districts — and the trends there, in the state’s north and west, aren’t good for Trump. Cruz is clearly consolidating the anti-Trump vote there. Trump was ahead of Cruz 38 percent to 8 percent in those areas in the previous Marquette survey, conducted in February; his lead is now just a single percentage point, 41 percent to 40 percent.

Overall, if the Marquette poll is dead accurate, the delegate count from Wisconsin will likely break down something like Cruz 33 to 39, Trump 0 to 6 and Kasich 3. If the rest of the states after Wisconsin went as our expert panel predicted,2 Trump would end up with, at best, 1,185 delegates after the last primaries on June 7. He could still get to 1,237 on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention by securing 52 additional delegates among the more than 100 currently unbound or uncommitted delegates, but it would be a steeper hill to climb than we originally thought.

But let’s spin this forward even further: If Trump loses Wisconsin, is that merely a bump in the road or a sign of things to come? It’s easy to make too much of one contest. For instance, Wisconsin is unique in that local talk radio has been united against Trump. National talk show hosts, in contrast, are split on Trump.

Another big difference: Republicans in Wisconsin have a lot to be happy about, while Trump has drawn much of his support from voters disaffected with the GOP. Republicans run state government and have enacted conservative legislation (which led to the unsuccessful attempt to recall Gov. Scott Walker). Walker and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is from Wisconsin, both have favorable ratings above 75 percent among the state’s Republicans. Walker, whom Trump has gone after recently, has an 80 percent job approval rating among likely Republican primary voters.

So maybe Wisconsin just isn’t a good state for Trump (meaning that if Trump were to prevail, it would be a very good omen for his campaign).

But Trump’s problems in Wisconsin might be a sign of more serious issues for his campaign. It’s the first primary in which the vast majority of the votes will have been cast after Marco Rubio’s departure from the race,3 and Trump has picked up 0 percentage points since the February Marquette poll. Cruz picked up 21 percentage points, and Kasich rose by 13 percentage points. While earning 30 percent to 40 percent of the vote was enough for Trump to win a number of states in a candidate field of more than three, the coalescing of anti-Trump support for Cruz and Kasich means it may not be enough in other states down the line. Even the low-40s performances that won Trump the Missouri and North Carolina primaries likely wouldn’t be enough if those elections were held again today, without Rubio competing.

The other troubling result for Trump is that Kasich really does seem to have an appeal with a certain type of self-described moderate Republican that Cruz doesn’t. Kasich holds a statistically insignificant 35 percent to 34 percent to 23 percent lead over Trump and Cruz with moderates in the Marquette poll. He has a slightly larger 37 percent to 31 percent edge over Trump with that group in the Basswood Research survey. That’s why Kasich is winning in the Madison media market.

This type of well-educated moderate voter can be found by the barrel in the northern mid-Atlantic and southern New England states that vote in late April. Cruz will likely be uncompetitive in many congressional districts in states like Connecticut and New York, but the results coming out of Wisconsin suggest that Kasich may do well there. That wouldn’t help Cruz get any closer to 1,237, but it could keep Trump further away.

Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.



  1. Strictly speaking, if Cruz wins statewide, then he will also have won a higher share of the vote than Trump in at least one congressional district, so there would really be 21 or fewer delegates available.

  2. The panel was conducted before American Samoa, Arizona and Utah voted, so I updated the panel’s projections with the actual results from those states.

  3. In Arizona, for instance, Rubio won 13 percent of the vote after he dropped out because of early voting.

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