This race began with 17 candidates, but because of the unprecedented coverage of Donald Trump it really has been a one-man race for most of the election. There has been a false choice between whether people love Trump or hate him – just by virtue of the media coverage alone. Given the divided field and the lack of coverage, Ted Cruz lacked the ability to stand out and coalesce people behind a positive conservative, anti-establishment message.
Tonight’s sweeping victory in Wisconsin proves team Cruz’s original thesis: as long as this is a two-man race and as long as Cruz can get his message out, Trump can be defeated in almost every state. In many ways, this could be the Waterloo of the election.
Here are some observations and outcomes from this race:
- Cruz Consolidates Support: Wisconsin is the first real primary after the other non-Trump candidates (except for Kasich) exited the race. Arizona had a lot of votes already banked from early voting, and Utah is an anomaly, given the Mormon dislike for Trump. Wisconsin demonstrates the Cruz thesis that he can win in a two-man race and even won big with Kasich dragging him down, even in an open primary. He will likely come away with 48% of the total vote and 54% of the registered Republican voters.
- Winning Trump Demographics: Many pundits are saying Cruz was expected to win in the Badger State, but most polls had Trump ahead 30-19 before Cruz began campaigning there. This state is an older white demographic with a large share that is not college educated – tailor made for Trump. In fact, there are so few Republicans in the state under 30 – Cruz’s best age group – that the exit polls didn’t even register them as a data point. Yet, Cruz won across the board with every important demographic displayed in the exit polls. He won non-college educated voters and the lowest income voters. Cruz also won every age group including voters over 65 – Trump’s best demographic – by 11 points.
- No Gender Gap: For all the talk about the gender gap, Cruz’s win was perfectly uniform among men and women, winning both by 13%. Again, this proves that it’s more than just galvanizing anti-Trump demographics. When Cruz is actually able to focus on a state for a full week or two and get out his message to the voters, it’s a different race. For the first time ever, Cruz not only crushed Trump among those who voted based on “shared values” but tied Trump among those who wanted the candidate who would bring the most change to Washington.
- Cruz Combining Conservative Coalition: Some Trump supporters are suggesting that Cruz is just becoming the de facto establishment candidate and winning theircoalition. In reality, Cruz won the “very conservative” voters by a whopping 65-28 margin and increased his reach to “somewhat conservative” voters, winning them by 11 points. Trump only won self-described moderates. Also, Cruz won a resounding victory even though just 65% of voters were actually registered Republicans. Cruz tied Trump among non-Republican voters and won the conservative bastion in the Milwaukee suburbs by 40 points. He won Republican voters by 22 points. It’s clear that he would have swept all of the districts had this been a closed primary.
- Republicans Can Win Wisconsin in the Fall: Republicans have not won Wisconsin since 1984, but they have an excellent shot at it this fall. Hillary will still likely be the nominee but she lost the state to Bernie Sanders and the combined GOP turnout swamped the Democrat turnout. If Cruz is the nominee, he can place some of the Midwestern states Hillary lost (yes, including Iowa) in play.
- Kasich is an Embarrassment: Kasich came in dead last in almost every early state and barely competed on Super Tuesday so he can play in the Midwest. He parked himself in Michigan for weeks but came in behind Cruz, even though Cruz barely spent a penny in the state. Now, in another Midwest state, Kasich couldn’t crack 15%. Will the media finally ask him tough questions?
- Cruz Momentum: Trump will wind up going a full month without a victory. After winning in North Dakota, Cruz will likely sweep Colorado on Saturday and the remainder of Wyoming delegates the following Saturday – all before New York. While New York and the Northeast are presumed to be Cruz’s weakest areas, there are some promising signs for him there. All of those contests (except for Rhode Island, which is irrelevant because it’s small and proportional) are closed primaries, and with Cruz performing well in wealthier suburbs, even in open primaries, he certainly has a shot to peel off districts in New York. Trump will barely net anything out of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Cruz has an excellent chance to win Maryland and Delaware and an open shot at winning a lot of delegates in Pennsylvania. Time will tell whether Wisconsin gives him momentum to win statewide in Pennsylvania. However, with many Kasich voters realizing they are wasting their vote, enough defections can flip the state to Cruz. PPP found that Kasich voters in Wisconsin preferred Cruz over Trump 51-19.
- Path Forward: Almost everything after New York and the rest of the northeast primaries on the following week should be solid for Cruz. He should win Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington. Trump has the inside track in only one state between April 26 and the big June 7 finale: West Virginia. Then, on June 7, Cruz will easily sweep South Dakota and Montana (both winner-take-all) and New Mexico (proportional). [see spreadsheet below] With Kasich becoming weaker and weaker, Cruz should have no problem winning California as well; the question is how many districts Trump can win in the south and east and some urban areas. New Jersey is more of a Trump state, especially with an open primary, but if Cruz indeed wins all these states and Kasich becomes a non-factor, he will definitely be able to put the Garden State in play.
- Winning a Mandate: Trump will not win 1237 delegates before the convention. The question is whether Cruz can catch him in a plurality or get close to it and win a mandate. It’s quite obvious that Trump’s victories during the first half of the race were a result of unprecedented name ID and a divided field. He would have lost most states had this been a one-on-one contest, which tells you that the majority of voters don’t want him. Thus, even if Cruz comes up short of a plurality, as long as he wins the aforementioned states, the Texas Senator will have a moral mandate when he likely wins a delegate race on the second ballot. Trump will argue that it doesn’t reflect the will of the voters, but it’s clear that 60% of voters in most states don’t want him. He only won in previous states because of Rubio, and the remaining wins come as a result of Kasich staying in the race or non-Republican voters.
Pasted below is my updated spreadsheet showing Cruz’s most realistic path to winning a plurality of delegates. It will be a steep climb to win that many districts in New York, but even if he falls short, Trump can easily be kept below 1100 delegates. Between the unbound delegates and Rubio’s pile, it’s not out of the question for Cruz to overtake Trump on the first ballot, especially if he wins a solid mandate on June 7 to close out the primaries.