Now, all eyes in the GOP nomination circus are turning to the great state of Wisconsin, a state unaccustomed to this sort of attention.
It has rarely been the case that the Wisconsin primary is pivotal — for either party. Yet it is unquestionably viewed as a must-win for the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns.
Wisconsin is deep purple: nearly every state-wide election is decided on a knife’s edge of less than 5 percentage points. It is also deeply polarized: 45% of the population will vote for an Airedale if the Airedale runs as a Democrat, no matter how reasonable or accomplished the Republican candidate may be.
And the nationally televised antics which accompanied the passage of Scott Walker’s budget-balancing Act 10 legislation and the subsequent recall election provided the paradigm for the unhinged, Leftist fury which has been chasing the Donald Trump road show in recent weeks.
Politifact: “Mostly False,” probably.
If one draws an imaginary line from the state capital, Madison, to the Lake Michigan shoreline, and extends another southward to the Illinois state line, the resulting rectangle will be seen to contain the majority of the state’s population. If we extend the lines slightly northward and westward to encompass all of Dane County, where Madison is located, we also have the principal political battle zone in the state delineated quite neatly.
The three most Democratic counties in the state of Wisconsin are Dane, Milwaukee, and Menominee; as the latter is almost entirely an Indian reservation and rather sparsely populated, it can be left out of the mix. At the same time that Milwaukee County (also the most populous in the state and home to the state’s only congressional district wholly contained within one county) is a Democratic stronghold, it routinely delivers up in excess of 300,000 reliable Republican voters in statewide elections, more than the total population of most other counties outside the rectangle.
Immediately surrounding Milwaukee is a belt of solid Republican counties: Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Racine. They are by far the most conservative areas in the state.
Outside of this belt, most of the state’s politics is largely determined by the nature of the population in the counties: university towns, such as Eau Claire and La Crosse in the western part of the state, tend to be minor Democratic centers, as do the Northwoods counties in the northwestern part of the state, which contain several Indian reservations. Most of the rest of the state tends to be mildly Republican — Tommy Thompson country — with the Fox River Valley of northeastern Wisconsin somewhat redder than the rest.
The apparent paradox that the two most deeply Democratic counties in the state are contained within the area which also hosts the most Republican part is explainable by the mutual irritation provided by both sides for the other. The deeply conservative nature of the Republicanism found within the area has more complex causes, and those are likely to have an impact on this year’s hotly contested primary.
Milwaukee is the home to two powerful (in terms of wattage, as well as influence) and popular talk radio stations, WISN and WTMJ. Both stations run local as well as national network programming, and the local personalities — particularly WISN’s Jay Weber, Vicki McKenna, and Mark Belling, and WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner — have all been very vocal in sounding the alarm over the Trumpling of the GOP. Not all have been strong supporters of Ted Cruz — while Marco Rubio was still in the race he had support among them, and Scott Walker was certainly a local favorite at the beginning of the process — but since Rubio suspended his campaign, Cruz is their man.
Belling recently noted a correlation between the range of these two stations’ listening areas and preferences in the presidential race: Generally speaking, the closer one is to Milwaukee County, the less favorable the opinion of Donald Trump, and the more favorable that of Ted Cruz. As one fans out further, Trump’s figures begin to rise.
There are probably a number of factors contributing to this correlation. Perhaps the relatively higher level of education in the suburban communities of still heavily industrialized southeastern Wisconsin, as opposed to the more rural areas out-state, is a factor. Trump, after all, prides himself on doing well with, in his own words, “poorly educated” voters. But the influence of the talk stations cannot be gainsaid. Though the wonders of digital technology now let them reach anyone (and the hard-working Vicki McKenna also has a separate daily program on a Madison radio station besides her Milwaukee gig), the core area of their influence is Milwaukee County and environs.
The influence of local talk radio had a great deal to do with the rise of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. As the result of a dramatic pension scandal which threatened to bankrupt the county, the radio hosts’ revelations drove former County Executive Tom Ament from office and stoked a recall election of the County Board. Walker won a startling victory to succeed Ament — startling because he won as a Republican — and did such an outstanding job that he was subsequently elected to two successive terms with ever-increasing shares of the vote (57% and 59%, respectively) in deeply blue Milwaukee. Talk radio cheered him on the entire way, as they did for his later campaigns for the governorship.
Their influence is likely to affect the primary. At stake are 42 delegates to the national convention, who will be selected through a hybrid system in which three delegates are awarded proportionately according to who wins in each of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts, and the rest are awarded to the overall winner.
The most recent polling, in the form of the Marquette University Law School Poll which has acquired an enviable reputation for accuracy, shows Cruz pulling ahead of Trump by a 10-point lead, well outside the margin of error. This has been confirmed even more recently by the Fox News poll, which shows the same 10-point lead. In addition, the Marquette poll indicates that Trump’s lead in the western counties of the state, where he is strongest, is paper-thin: only one or two percentage points.
Also, far more than a pro forma endorsement, Governor Walker has been working flat-out for the Cruz campaign in the last week, holding conference calls with the party faithful which stress the similarities with his Wisconsin Revolution and the reforms Ted Cruz seeks to bring about at the federal level. They include abolition or thorough reform of extraneous government departments such as Education, Energy, Commerce, Housing, and Urban Development; the complete reform of the tax system which will eliminate the IRS and its abuses; paring back the environmental excesses of the EPA; and general review and revamping of the vast sea of federal regulations. It remains to be seen how much of this can be accomplished, even if the Republicans do retain control of both houses (the filibuster rule will still be in effect, for one thing), but there is no question that the vision is there, and it’s a compelling one for many Wisconsinites.
I expect that Cruz will likely win all but a handful of delegates, with perhaps three to six going to Kasich (he is popular with the “Old Guard” of the Wisconsin GOP, and has secured endorsements from such stalwarts as Tommy Thompson and Mark Neumann) and another 3-9 going to Trump. I expect it to be Cruz’s big night.
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