Donald Trump took a big hit in the Wisconsin primary this week after a series of missteps that cast doubts on his qualifications. He is still ahead in the race for the Republican nomination, but the increasing likelihood of a contested convention because no one will have a majority of delegates leaves the ultimate GOP winner in doubt.
For the Democrats, however, it’s a different story: Hillary Clinton lost to Sen. Bernie Sanders — his sixth straight victory in the nominating contests and the latest in a series of setbacks for her. Yet she is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. How can that be?
The takeaways from the results in Wisconsin go a long way toward exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in both major parties — and what’s on the minds of voters.
Delegate numbers matter. Sen. Sanders undeniably has momentum, but he’s so far behind in that he would have to win 67 percent of all the remaining delegates and uncommitted super-delegates to win the nomination. That’s a big hill to climb (see Jim Morin’s cartoon). Ms. Clinton holds a huge advantage among pledged super-delegates. Lesson: Parties make the rules, and candidates have to compete on the basis of those rules.
The details matter, too. In an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board this week, Sen. Sanders revealed an astonishing lack of knowledge about how he would go about implementing the policies he advocates so ardently. This deepens skepticism among voters who feel he is long on emotion and short on the nitty-gritty of governing.
So does enthusiasm. Sen. Sanders is clearly winning the enthusiasm primary. He’s rocking the boat, responding to widespread discontent with government and the political system. Ms. Clinton, on the other hand, has an enthusiasm deficit. She’s winning on the basis of numbers, but she must find a way to connect with the voters and fire up with the electorate.
Message discipline. Sen. Sanders has been criticized for being a one-issue candidate on the issue of inequality and wrongdoing on Wall Street, but he’s likely to stick with it because it’s won him a devoted following. Ms. Clinton has proven that she is far better versed on foreign and domestic policies, but she lacks an inspiring single message that can woo uncommitted voters as Sen. Sanders has done so successfully. She’s going to need it if she becomes the party’s standard-bearer in the fall.
We’re a polarized nation. As the Republican Party has moved to the right, so are many Democrats moving left. One exit poll in Wisconsin showed that Sen. Sanders won 78 percent of those who favor more liberal policies than President Obama’s, which contributed to his victory. Ms. Clinton won those who want to continue the president’s policies, but by less of a margin.
“Trust me.” This issue goes to one of Ms. Clinton’s big weaknesses. The same exit poll in Wisconsin found that nine out of 10 voters identified Sen. Sanders as honest and trustworthy. Only 57 percent felt the same way about her. Sometimes, she is altogether evasive, as when she made a post-Wisconsin appearance on Morning Joe and repeatedly failed to answer the question of whether she deemed Sen. Sanders qualified to be president.
Ms. Clinton needs less wonk, more spark; Sen. Sanders needs less fire and more know-how. They still have to make the case to the American people that they’re better than whomever the other guys nominate.