Thanks to Wisconsin, a contested Republican convention just got more likely.
Donald Trump led in the Marquette University poll of Republican primary voters in January, and led bigger in February. In Tuesday’s primary, though, Ted Cruz won big. It was a broad as well as big victory for the Texas senator (who is an old friend of mine): According to the exit polls, Cruz won among men and women, among post-docs and high-school graduates, and among all age groups.
As much as Trump’s opponents hoped that his campaign manager’s arrest for grabbing a female reporter and his verbal stumbles over abortion would finally cause some of his supporters to leave him, that doesn’t appear to be what happened. Instead, the anti-Trump vote consolidated behind Cruz. If those controversies had an effect, it was to prevent on-the-fence voters from falling to Trump’s side.
Cruz also had an advantage he has lacked in most states: the support of the governor. And Scott Walker’s backing may have been more valuable than the backing of other governors would have been. Walker became a nationally controversial figure from his first weeks in office, when he successfully pushed to scale back unions’ collective-bargaining powers. He was subject to a recall election. The state’s conservatives bonded with him during those fights.
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In other states, many conservative voters view the Republicans they have elected as wimps and sellouts. Not in Wisconsin. And so a sentiment that has helped Trump elsewhere may have been weaker there.
Primary voters who consider themselves “moderate” backed Trump. A common argument for Cruz — that he is a true conservative and Trump is not one — naturally did not do much to attract them. But self-described conservatives outnumbered those moderates three to one, and they unified behind Cruz just as he had been urging them to do.
Trump could still finish the primaries with a majority of delegates. But that is less likely after his defeat in Wisconsin. Since Cruz is even further away from a majority than Trump is, that defeat also raises the probability that the delegates will have to select a nominee without a clear mandate for anyone.
For weeks, Trump and his surrogates have been preparing for this eventuality. They are engaged in a dual campaign. They would like to persuade Republicans that the candidate who wins the most votes and delegates deserves the nomination, even without a majority of either. Failing that, they want to persuade them that passing over the plurality winner will lead to an epic, and maybe even a violent, split in the party.
But nominating Trump without a majority would wound the party more deeply, at least in Wisconsin. Thirty-seven percent of primary voters said they would be concerned or scared if Cruz won the presidency, but an actual majority — 58 percent — said they would feel that way if Trump did. In national polls against Hillary Clinton, Cruz is much more competitive than Trump.
But as those numbers suggest, both Cruz and Trump have a lot of enemies among Republicans. So as the candidates continue their long slog to the Cleveland convention starting July 18, we can expect continued wishful speculation that the convention could end up nominating someone else.
If Paul Ryan is getting sick of answering questions about his interest in running for president this year, his home state’s primary on Tuesday did not do him any favors.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review.
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