Yes, the big Wisconsin story is Ted Cruz’s crushing 13-point victory. And yes, it greatly improves his chances of denying Donald Trump a first-ballot convention victory, which may be Trump’s only path to the nomination.
Nonetheless, the most stunning result of Wisconsin is the solidity of Trump’s core constituency. He managed to get a full 35 percent in a state in which:
▪ He was opposed by a very popular GOP governor with a powerful state organization honed by winning three campaigns within four years (two gubernatorial, one recall).
▪ He was opposed by popular, local, well-informed radio talk show hosts whose tough interviews left him in shambles.
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▪ Tons of money was dumped into negative ads.
Trump was coming off two weeks of grievous self-inflicted wounds – and still got more than a third of the vote. Which vindicated Trump’s boast that if he ever went out in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone, he wouldn’t lose any voters.
His problem is that those who reject him are equally immovable. In Wisconsin, 58 percent of Republican voters said that the prospect of a Trump presidency left them concerned or even scared.
Cruz scares a lot of people, too. But his fear number was 21 points lower. Moreover, 36 percent of Wisconsin Republicans, facing a general-election choice between Hillary Clinton and Trump, would either vote Clinton, go third party or stay home.
Trump did not exactly advance his needed outreach with his reaction to the Wisconsin result.
Not needed, say the Trumpites. If we come to Cleveland with a mere plurality of delegates, fairness demands that our man be nominated.
This is nonsense. If you cannot command or cobble together a majority, you haven’t earned the party leadership.
John Kasich makes the opposite case. He’s hanging on in case a deadlocked convention eventually turns to him, possessor of the best polling numbers against Clinton.
In the modern era, to reach down to the No. 3 candidate – a distant third who loses 55 of 56 contests – or to parachute in a party unicorn who never entered the race in the first place would be a radical affront to the democratic spirit of the contemporary nominating process.
It might be legal, but it would be perceived as illegitimate and, coming amid the most intense anti-establishment sentiment in memory, imprudent to the point of suicide.
Yet even without this eventuality, party suicide is a very real possibility. The nominee will be either Trump or Cruz. How do they reconcile in the end?
Cruz has essentially declared that he couldn’t support someone who did what Trump did to Heidi Cruz. He might try to patch relations with some Trump supporters, but how many could he peel away? Remember: Wisconsin has just demonstrated Trump’s unbreakable core.
And if Trump loses out, a split is guaranteed. In Trump’s mind, he is a winner. Always. He is certain to declare any convention process that leaves him without the nomination irredeemably unfair. No need to go third party. A simple walkout with perhaps a thousand followers behind will doom the party in November.
In a country where only 25 percent feel we’re on the right track and where the leading Democrat cannot shake the challenge of a once-obscure dairy-state socialist, you’d think the Republicans cannot lose.
You’d be underestimating how hard they are trying.