News & Insights

Wisconsin Waterloo? Why Donald Trump Needs To Win The Badger State

Polling indicates Donald Trump is losing altitude in the Wisconsin primary and that may be more than just a one-state problem for the current front-runner. As you watch the returns this Tuesday, pay close attention to the geographic distribution of the race. Donald Trump can barely handle losing Wisconsin – and he simply cannot afford to get wiped out.

Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates he needs to earn before the convention in Cleveland does not leave him any room for error. If he loses badly in Wisconsin on delegates, he will need to run the table and capture every remaining contest that suits him up through June 7th.

Trump currently sits on 749 delegates. He’ll be heavily favored to win 51 more in New Jersey’s winner-take-all primary on June 7 – giving him a cool 800 in the bank for counting purposes. His principle opponent, Ted Cruz, will be similarly situated to sweep the 92 delegates from the winner-take-all primaries in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana. I expect Cruz, who has run well in places adjoining his native Texas, to get most of the 24 delegates up for grabs in New Mexico as well.

That leaves Trump a pool of 549 elected delegates in toss-up states that vote after Wisconsin – with a need to win 435 or so of those delegates. That’s almost an 80% target yield rate needed for Trump, a feat nearly impossible even though few remaining states award delegates on a proportional basis. So how could he do it?

To pull off 1,237 after a Wisconsin drubbing, Trump’s most important states become New York, Connecticut, Indiana, and California.

A great deal of press attention will also be paid to Pennsylvania, but as savvy Pittsburgh Tribune-Review journalist Salena Zito has pointed out here, it’s an illusion because most of that state’s delegates are unbound, like those from USVI, Samoa, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming. If you don’t expect almost all of those unbound delegates to go for Cruz, then you’ve never worked with, or against, Cruz’s manager Jeff Roe before. That kind of knife fight is in Roe’s wheelhouse and he will deliver.

The rules in New York (April 19) and Connecticut (April 26) allow for a candidate who gets 50% of the statewide vote to get all the delegates; otherwise some will go to winners of individual congressional districts. Trump is strong in the Northeast – his best states have been Massachusetts and Vermont – and he’ll need to crack that 50% threshold and get all 123 delegates from in New York and Connecticut.

This is perhaps the most consequential role for long-shot Gov. John Kasich to play in the primaries remaining – drawing just enough moderate voters away from Trump in the New York City metropolitan region to hold the entertainer under the winner-take-all threshold of 50.

Trump will also need a decisive win in Indiana, perhaps the only pure-tossup state left on the map. All three candidates have a plausible strategy there. Cruz did well in Western Michigan and Southern Illinois, socially conservative bastions that are very similar to wide swaths of Indiana. And Kasich won in a rout in the more culturally Midwestern parts of next-door Ohio, losing only the Appalachian counties that are not Midwestern in character. To get his majority, Trump needs to plan on carrying five of Indiana’s nine congressional districts and the statewide vote.

West Virginia should provide a delegate trove for Trump – he’s been strong in every Appalachian jurisdiction and that’s the only kind they have in the Mountain State. Trump needs at least 30 of the directly-elected 34 delegates there.

Oregon and Rhode Island award delegates proportionately, and even a Trump victory will likely yield only a dozen delegates in each state.

The Republicans in Washington state choose delegates by convention and Ted Cruz has rocked that format elsewhere so Trump’s task is to hold Cruz under 50% and hope he can steal 13 of the 44 delegates.

Delaware’s GOP primary is far more rural and conservative than its general election (remember it chose I-Am-Not-A-Witch Christine O’Donnell over its respected incumbent congressman in a Senate primary a few years back), so Cruz will have a good angle to the 16 delegates there.

Maryland presents a chance for Cruz or even Kasich, perhaps, with a college-educated, suburban electorate like the one that rejected Trump in neighboring northern Virginia.

That leaves California on June 7. If Kasich and Cruz have taken advantage of their opportunities in the smaller states above, Trump will roll into the grand finale in the Golden State needing a massive victory. That race is really 53 separate races and not just one, with 159 of the 172 delegates awarded by congressional district.

Even if Trump has won Indiana handily, and swept New York and Connecticut with more than 50%, he could go to California needing to win 43 or more of the 53 districts to squeak out his 1,237-delegate earned majority.

That’s why the coming contest in Wisconsin is so important. The Badger State has an open primary, welcoming the participation of the independents and blue-collar Democrats who have buoyed Trump in so many previous states. The closed, Republican-only primaries that come later will shut them out, to the detriment of only Trump. Additionally, Wisconsin is a manufacturing state with a ton of national pride – exactly the kind of voters who theoretically should be receptive to Trump’s Make America Great Again mantra.

After working in Wisconsin campaigns for ten years, I’ll be watching the counties in the western and northwestern parts of the state — the counties hugging the Mississippi River in the 7th and 3rdcongressional districts represented by Sean Duffy and Ron Kind, respectively. Trump must win both those districts. He will also need to swipe one of the districts from the conservative Fox Valley, either the Green Bay-centered 8th represented by Reid Ribble or the Oshkosh-centered 6th, represented by Glenn Grothman.

Wisconsin is a state Trump should be able to win. I don’t think he will, but he can’t leave it with fewer than 9 delegates or else his campaign for an earned nomination, won in elections and not negotiations, devolves to just California Dreamin’.

Here’s some fun-with-numbers projecting for the delegate-counting junkies: